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Address Delivered by the Minister of Basic Education, Mrs Angie Motshekga, MP, at the commemorative service of the Women’s Month 2017 held at the Constitutional Hill, Braamfontein, 25 August 2017

Programme Directors

MEC for Education, the Honourable Mr Panyaza Lesufi in absentia

CEO of the Constitutional Hill, Ms Dawn Robertson

Families of our struggle heroines - the Mannya- Maxeke and Tambo families, some present here with us, and some in absentia

Senior managers of the Department at all levels

Learners, educators, and our esteemed guests


Please allow me to extent my very warm and sincere greetings to you all as we begin to commemorate the life and times of our stalwarts, more in specifically heroines of our protracted anti-apartheid struggle.

Today, I am honoured to speak at this event where we celebrate two of the colossal women of the 20th century, Mme Adelaide Tambo and Mrs Charlotte Maxeke. To them and their generation, we owe a debt of gratitude for their selfless contribution to the liberation of our country from the yoke of apartheid pariah regime. These two women emptied themselves for the liberation of our country. With their passing, a century of struggle went with them. It is our duty to keep their memory alive. It is our moral responsibility to ensure that their legacy lives on. It is often emphasised that Comrade Tambo and Maxeke cannot be allowed to die while we are alive. 

Let's looks at our recent documented history of women's struggle after 1910. Clearly from historical annals we can glean into the past and appreciate that women have been in the struggle against patriarchy since time immemorial.  

Chairperson, it is therefore no historical revisionism to state that history itself is littered with struggles of women. These women of yesteryear are not featured in history as victims or survivors but as leaders in their own right.  We can list a lot of heroines, priestesses, healers, inventors and leaders. Today we pay a special tribute to Mme Tambo and Maxeke.



History of Women Struggles

What history does at least in the political space is to tell us about women's revolutions, success stories and lessons to be learnt. Let's start with the 1913 Bloemfontein protest. The first protest of women against the carrying of passes by women took place in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (now Free State), where there was a large concentration of women working mainly as domestic workers. The women involved were an urbanised group living in the Waaihoek Location under the control of the town council of Bloemfontein. The protest was led by Charlotte Maxeke, co-founder of the Bantu Women's League, the organisation that had organised the protest. Two hundred angry women marched into town to see the mayor who maintained that his hands were tied. The women then burnt their passes or tore them up, while they shouted remarks at the policemen and provoked the authorities into arresting them. Eighty women were arrested.

Women demonstrated against having to carry passes in three major campaigns. The first, as I have said took place in 1913. The 1913 Bloemfontein protests stand out not only because it was such an early outbreak of women's resistance, but also because it demonstrates the ‘strength and militancy' and because it was so ‘costly to the personal lives of participants' (Wells 1993:3). It also set the tone for later anti-pass action by militant African women.

The second episode, which will be mentioned later (because the material is presented chronologically), was in 1930 in Potchefstroom, a small white-dominated town where officials tried to bully the women to comply with the particular labour needs of the town. In this case the grievance of the women was against lodgers' permits. The third campaign was masterminded in Johannesburg from 1954-1956, culminating in the march in 1956 of nearly 20 000 women to Pretoria.

In each of these episodes women reacted not because of major political issues or broad developmental policies, but because the stability of their homes and families were in jeopardy. As Julia Wells puts it: ‘When it was women who resisted, it was because the crisis reached into the inner sanctum of home and family life. Each of the three [episodes of resistance]”¦ reflects a time when women themselves were directly and negatively affected by shifts in the application of the pass laws'. Those were the doek struggles of their times.

Comrade Chairperson what is the significance of this? My message to you today is that women must identify a genuine legitimate cause, after which they must organise and mobilize. During the process of mobilisation, there must be heighted levels of discipline.  A case in point is the recent #Fees Must Movement. It was indeed a genuine call for free higher education but towards the end, the leaders were compromised because of lack of discipline.

The Bantu Women's League (BWL)

One of the direct consequences of the Bloemfontein anti-pass campaign was the formation of early women's political movements. Women had proved their ability to take their fate in their own hands. An organisation called the Native and Coloured Women's Association was formed in 1912 to lay plans for the Free State anti-pass petitions and the deputation to the governor-general. Soon afterwards it was followed, and eventually superseded by a new, very significant women's movement, the Bantu Women's league (BWL). In the light of these events, the Bantu Women's League (BWL) was formed in 1918, as a branch of the ANC. It became involved in passive resistance and fought against pass laws and land dispossession.

At the time women were not accepted as full members of the ANC, but at least the BWL made the men realize that African women were becoming assertive and politicised. The BWL became involved in passive resistance and fought against passes for black women, but it also undertook the more traditional roles of catering and entertainment for the male-dominated ANC deliberations. During this time the BWL was under the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke, South Africa's first women graduate, who had been educated in the USA. In 1918 Maxeke headed a deputation of women who went to see Prime Minister Louis Botha to plead the women’s case. Following this, the Free State regulations on resident permits for women were relaxed.

The importance of leadership

Chairperson, and Comrades, I want to move forward and fast forward to the 1956 & skip the entire period after this which had its own uniqueness characterized by non-racialism, worker leadership which laid a solid ground for the 1950's struggles. There were food boycotts responding to food price inflation around 1920, potato strikes, beer hall strikes et cetera but I don't want to stay too much into history but events in between led to the successes of the 1950 women's struggles.

In the 1950s the government's increasingly repressive policies began to pose a direct threat to all people of colour, and there was a surge of mass political action by blacks in defiant response. The 1950s certainly proved to be a turbulent decade. We shall see that women were prominent in virtually all these avenues of protest, but to none were they more committed than the anti-pass campaign.

Women and the anti-pass campaign 1950-1953

The apartheid regime's influx control measures and pass laws were what women feared the most and reacted to most vehemently. Their fears were not unfounded. In 1952 the Native Laws Amendment Act tightened influx control, making it an offence for any African (including women) to be in any urban area for more than 72 hours unless in possession of the necessary documentation. The only women who could live legally in the townships were the wives and unmarried daughters of the African men who were eligible for permanent residence.

In the same year the Natives Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was passed. In terms of this act the many different documents African men had been required to carry were replaced by a single one - the reference book - which gave details of the holder's identity, employment, place of legal residence, payment of taxes, and, if applicable, permission to be in the urban areas. The act further stipulated that African women, at an unspecified date in the near future, would for the first time be required to carry reference books. Women were enraged by this direct threat to their freedom of movement and their anti-pass campaign.

Protests started as early as 1950 when rumours of the new legislation were leaked in the press. Meetings and demonstrations were held in a number of centres including Langa, Uitenhage, East London, Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. In the Durban protests in March 1950, Bertha Mkhize of the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) was a leading figure, while in Port Elizabeth Florence Matomela (the provincial president of the ANCWL) led a demonstration in which passes were burnt. By 1953 there were still sporadic demonstrations taking place and these accelerated when local officials began to enforce the new pass regulations. Reaction was swift and hostile.

On 4 January 1953, hundreds of African men and women assembled in the Langa Township outside Cape Town to protest against the new laws. Delivering a fiery speech to the crowd Dora Tamana, a member of the ANC Women's League and later a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), declared:

“We, women, will never carry these passes. This is something that touches my heart. I appeal to you young Africans to come forward and fight. These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have seen unemployment, lack of accommodation and families broken because of passes. We have seen it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for a small technical offence -- not having a pass?”

In June 1952 the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Indian Congress (SAIC) initiated a cooperative initiative known as the Defiance Campaign. Radical tactics of defiance were to be employed to exert pressure on the government. This was in line with the ANC's declared ‘Programme of Action' of 1949. Volunteers from the ANC and SAIC (the Communist Party of South Africa [CPSA] had disbanded in 1950) began to publicly defy discriminatory laws and invite arrest, filling the jails and over-extending the judicial system.

Women were prominent in many of these defiant incidents. Florence Matomela was among 35 activists arrested in Port Elizabeth and Bibi Dawood recruited 800 volunteers in Worcester. Fatima Meer, an Indian woman, was arrested for her role in the unrest and was subsequently banned. Another woman to come to the fore during the Defiance Campaign was Lilian Ngoyi, who later became president of both the ANCWL and FSAW. She had previously kept a very low profile and been involved in church-related organisations,


The Federation of South African Women (FSAW or FEDSAW)

Three important female activists were in Port Elizabeth in April 1953 at the time when the Defiance Campaign was underway and there was widespread political unrest in the region. Influx control measures had just been implemented in the region a few months before and had created a storm of protest from the people. The three women were Florence Matomela (eastern Cape president of the ANCWL), Frances Baard, who was a leading local figure in the Food and Canning Worker's Union (FCWU) and Ray Alexander, the general secretary of the FCWU, who was in Port Elizabeth to attend a trade union conference.

The three decided among themselves that the time was right to call women to a meeting to discuss the formation of a national women's organisation. No record was kept of the informal meeting held that same evening, but Ray Alexander later said that it had been attended by about 40 women. Other than Alexander, a Mrs Pillay, a Miss Damons and Gus Coe, most of the women were Africans. Although from various different organisations all the women were committed to the Congress Alliance and the Defiance Campaign that had been initiated the previous year. Ray Alexander pointed out the advantages of an umbrella body that would devise a national strategy to fight against the issues of importance to women: every-day matters such as rising food and transport costs, passes and influx control.

Ray Alexander was based in Cape Town. Hilda Watts (Bernstein), also a communist and an experienced political campaigner. Other notable women involved were Ida Mtwana (ANC Women's League), Josie Palmer (ex-CPSA and Transvaal All-Women's Union), Helen Joseph (COD), Amina Cachalia and Mrs M Naidoo (SAIC) and three trade unionists: Bettie du Toit, Lucy Mvubelo and Hetty du Preez. Ray Alexander also went to Durban to coordinate plans with women in Natal, where Dr K Goonam, Fatima Meer and Fatima Seedat of the SAIC and Bertha Mkhize and Henrietta Ostrich of the ANC, were consulted for their views. Invitations to the inaugural conference of the FSAW were sent out in March 1954, signed by 63 women who supported the aims of the Congress Alliance.

The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW or FSAW) was launched on 17 April 1954 in the Trades Hall in Johannesburg, and was the first attempt to establish a national, broad-based women's organisation.

A draft Women's Charter was presented by Hilda Bernstein, and in complete identification with the national liberation movement as represented by the Congress Alliance, the Women's Charter called for the enfranchisement of men and women of all races; for equality of opportunity in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property, marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied women such equality. It further demanded paid maternity leave, childcare for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all South African children. These demands were later incorporated into the Freedom Charter that was adopted by the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown near Johannesburg, from 25-26 June 1955.

The administrative groundwork of the newly-established FSAW evolved over the months that followed, but a national executive committee was formed at the inaugural conference in April 1954. Ida Mtwana was elected as national president (she was also the presiding ANCWL president), which indicated the key role the ANC (the senior partner of the Democratic Alliance) was destined to play in the new organisation. Ray Alexander became the national secretary and the vice presidents were Gladys Smith, Lilian Ngoyi, Bertha Mkhize and Florence Matomela.

The women were unanimous in their opinion that the inaugural conference had been an unqualified success. On Hilda Watts' suggestion men volunteers had been assigned the catering responsibilities for the conference. This was symbolic. As Ida Mtwana put it: ‘Gone are the days when the place of women was in the kitchen and looking after the children. Today they are marching side by side with men in the road to freedom' (Walker 1991:154).

Women's role in the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

By the time the FSAW had been established in 1954 the Defiance Campaign had fizzled out. This is not to say that it had failed, despite its shortcomings. However, the government had weathered the defiance and was introducing yet more of its apartheid measures with more vigour. It became clear that the national liberation movement needed to adopt a new initiative. The Congress Alliance began to organise the Congress of the People; once again women were destined to play an important role. This despite the fact that many of the leading women activists in the ANCWL and FSAW including Ray Alexander were banned and had to cut their ties with the organisation.

In August 1954 the Congress Alliance asked the FSAW to assist in organising the Congress of the People and the women agreed with enthusiasm. They were to help organise local bodies and recruit new grassroots support for the Alliance by holding house meetings and local conferences. This they did with great success in the opening months of 1955. In addition they took on the huge task of arranging accommodation for the more than 2 000 expected delegates. Their input gave the women an opportunity to lobby for the incorporation of some of their demands into the Freedom Charter adopted at the mass meeting.

Walker (1991:183) shows that although the FSAW was closely involved in the planning of the Congress of the People, women only played a limited role in the actual meeting.

On 25-26 June 1955 nearly 3 000 delegates gathered at Kliptown. There were 721 women delegates in the official tally of 2 848 – in other words only about a quarter of the delegates at the Congress of the People were women. There were a few women, including Sonia Bunting, who spoke from the floor, but Helen Joseph, who was the FSAW's Transvaal secretary, was the only female platform speaker. The clause that she proposed on behalf of women, that of the need for ‘houses, security and comfort', including free medical treatment for mothers and young children, was in fact subsequently included in the Freedom Charter. Frances Baard, a prominent trade unionist and member of the executive committee of the FSAW, was involved in the compilation of the Freedom Charter.

In September 1955 the protest against the imposition of passes for women became the primary concern for the ANCWL and the FSAW but for black women across the board. This anti-pass campaign peaked with a massive demonstration of ‘women's power' in August 1956. After the Pretoria march the campaign continued until the end of the 1950s, within Zeerust in 1957, Johannesburg in 1958 and Natal in 1959. In 1960, as will be seen, FSAW's plans were abruptly halted in the wake of the Sharpeville unrest when the government banned the ANC. FSAW had been dealt a severe blow.

In December 1956 several female activists were involved in another high profile incident. In a determined effort to try to curtail the national liberation movement, the government rounded up and arrested 156 leaders of the Congress Alliance. Among those detained were leading women such as Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Annie Silinga and Francis Baard. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and were tried in the infamous Treason Trial that lasted for four and a half years. During this protracted period women of the FSAW and ANCWL helped to organise support for the treason trialists and their families.

The women's 1955 anti-pass campaign

In September 1955 the issue of passes burst into the public eye again when the government announced that it would start issuing reference books to black women from January 1956. Women, now politicised and well-organised into a powerful resistance movement, immediately rose to the challenge. No longer were they merely regarded as mothers, bound to the home; they were independent and assertive adult South Africans. Passes threatened their basic rights of freedom and family life and they were going to resist them with everything they had. They were unequivocal in their message to the government: We shall not rest until ALL pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedoms have been abolished. We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security.

As Walker puts it, the anti-pass protests by women in the 1950s were a good indication that they had thrown off the shackles of the past. The demonstrations that the women launched were, in her view, ‘probably the most successful and militant of any resistance campaign mounted at that time'. She sees them as the ‘political highpoint of 1956, not only for the women who took part but for the entire Congress Alliance' (Walker 1991).

The Federation of South African Women (FSAW) that had been formed the previous year was beginning to assert itself by 1955. It was by now an accepted organisation within the ambit of the Congress Alliance; regional branches had been set up and mass membership was growing throughout the country. Furthermore, it had links with other major women's organisations including the powerful ANC Women's League (ANCWL). A march to Pretoria to present women's grievances had been mooted in August 1955, and when the pass issue came to the fore in September the scale and urgency of the demonstration increased dramatically.

The demonstration took place on 27 October 1955, and was a great success. This was despite organisational difficulties – including police intimidation, and the banning of Josie Palmer, one of the main organisers, a week before the date of the gathering.

Furthermore, in addition to police action, the government had been as obstructionist as it could. The then Minister of Native Affairs, HF Verwoerd, under whose jurisdiction the pass laws fell, pointedly refused to receive any multiracial delegation.

While Pretoria City Council refused the women permission to hold the meeting and saw to it that public transport was stalled to make it difficult for the women to get to the Pretoria venue. Private transport had to be arranged and evasive tactics adopted for a multitude of other obstructionist measures launched by the authorities.

In the circumstances it was surprising, and very gratifying to the organisers that a crowd of between 1 000 and 2 000 women gathered in the grounds of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Although the majority were African women, White, Coloured and Indian women also attended. The crowd, most of whom came from the Rand towns, was orderly and dignified throughout the proceedings. They handed their bundles of signed petitions to Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams, the main organisers, who deposited them at the ministers' office doors. In the aftermath of the demonstration the government tried to downplay its influence by alleging (erroneously) that the meeting had only been successful because the organisation had been in the hands of white women. That black women of the FSAW and ANCWL had in fact played a central role was evident when a few months later Lilian Ngoyi became the first woman to be elected to the national executive of the ANC (Walker 1991).

Preparations for the 1956 Women's March

The success of the October 1955 gathering was highly motivating and buoyed up the women to capitalise on their success. From 1955 onwards, the pass issue became the single, most important focus of their militancy. The ANC, as the major anti-establishment organisation identified itself closely with the campaign reiterating that the pass struggle ‘was not one for women alone, but for all African people'.

However, at its annual conference in 1955, it did not appear to have a specific strategy in mind. In marked contrast the FSAW immediately set about working on a plan of meetings, demonstrations, and local initiatives. The women, carried along by a mass-following of females countrywide, recognised the authority of the ANC but were not prepared to delay their own preparations.

Meetings held across the country on the anti-pass ticket proved to be remarkably successful, and were attended by huge crowds. Meetings in Free State towns in late 1955 and in Port Elizabeth in January 1956, Johannesburg in March 1956 and those in Durban, East London Cape Town and Germiston all went off well. The mood was militant, with Annie Silinga declaring: ‘we women are prepared to fight these passes until victory is ours' (Walker 1991:191).

Chairperson. I am recounting this history to demonstrate again that women and leadership go a long way back. We have been gallant fighters for a free, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. Therefore anybody who says only in 2017 that we are ready for a Woman President is a political novice. We must refuse to be used as voting fodders for causes that do not advance our cause.

Today, the struggle is organised around the doek revolution. The political content of the doek revolution is found directly in the struggles of yesteryear. But, what must be done?

  1. Understand your issues and identify a common platform to mobilize around and grow from.
  2. What we want is Gender Equality which refers to a social end state in which there was no unfair discrimination and exclusion on.
  3. How are we going to achieve gender equality? We must fight for Gender mainstreaming which is the process which entails weaving into the consciousness and actions of individuals and organizations an impulse to promote equality between sexes.
  4. What we must do? We must demand Gender-responsive Programmes – these are programmes and projects that are non-discriminatory, equally beneficial to all sexes and which aim at correcting gender imbalances.
  5. Gender and Development (GAD) attempts to institutionalise gender awareness in all developmental initiatives, including policy. It focuses on interventions to address unequal gender relations which prevent equitable development and which often lock women out of full participation. GAD seeks to have both women and men participate, make decisions and share benefits on an equal basis and it often entails the implementation of affirmative action to level the playing field between sexes.
  6. Women in Development (WID) aims to integrate women into the existing development processes, often through women-specific activities.
  7. Practical gender needs arise from the conditions and difficulties women experience and are often related to their roles as mothers, homemakers and providers of basic needs. A practical gender need would be for example to provide child care facilities at the work place for working parents.
  8. Strategic Gender needs are needs that need to be met to overcome the subordinate position of women to men in society, e.g. improving educational opportunities. These needs relate to women’s empowerment and vary according to the economic, social, political and cultural context.

Now what is clear is that the historical context is important. History has placed you at a given historical context which has its own challenges and meaning. Don't fight non-battles with non-enemies. History is also littered with many mistakes of misidentification of issues, partners, enemies and strategies and the doek revolutionaries must avoid such mistakes.

You issues are out there. You are lucky that you live during a period of information revolution, lots of engagements and interaction through a variety of media platforms. Spare a thought for the heroines of yesteryear who had meagre resources and limited forms of modern communication – situations compounded by organising under very hostile conditions. You are a lucky generation in that at your figure tips can ignite a revolution.


You don't have to allow the opportunity to pass you and fight non- issues and fight proxy battles. In the economic front, in whatever name, white monopoly capital or monopoly capital dominated by whites the main issue is unemployment, poverty and non-inclusive economy. For women as majority breadwinners the struggle out there is real. We know that the South African crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality are all gender based. Meaning it affects women more than men.

Chairperson, let me turn my attention to the matter close to my heart: Women's health. For some time now the issue of women’s health has been reduced to menstruation. We are told a white lie that girl children miss up to five school days every month due to the menstruation cycle. This assertion is not supported by empirical evidence. People have even forgotten that menstruation in itself is a sign of good health. As Government, our response to women’s health challenges cannot be reduced to providing free sanitary pads. Many South Africans who are campaigning on this issue are doing very well, and must be supported, but they are not involved in women’s health.  Assistance with sanitary pads is very helpful and we should take full advantage if the fact that the matter is on the table and should focus the nation to the real issues about women's wellbeing.

1.      Their reproductive health, access to safe contraception

2.      Mental health

3.      Non-violence against women and protection about rape including men's socialization around women's bodies

Just last week, we witnessed women lawyers protesting against what they call favouritism in the awarding of legal work. So the next big struggle for women is access to economic opportunities.

But the more prominent matter is the issue of political power. As we know political power in any society is scarce hence highly contested. Some among us once accused me of decampaigning for a woman president. I know I was once accused of having said women were not ready to lead. That is simply untrue. What happened was that as the ANCWL we had a press conference where we were outlining our 2014 elections campaign. A journalist wanted to know if we would campaign for a woman President, my answer was no, we were going to campaign for the ANC & by implication the ANC Presidential candidate because at that stage the choice had already been made. If the ANC was to have a woman president this was to have been done first in the ANC first.

My point here, to master power we have to master processes and ensure that we know and understand the rules of the game, otherwise we will fight around non-issues and miss on the big picture.  The ANCWL is engaged in the spirited campaign for a woman's President at the right time. Lessons, they should not expect sympathy but must put forward a compelling case and be ready for a fight. We should always be ready for a fight because power is a very serious matter. It is about country and people’s lives

Some key points to take home

  • Don't make a mistake and allow yourself not to succeed in your education.
  • Empowering women against violence against women. Constant fear of being attacked. Socialization of our young people.
  • Forming a women's forum and starting with basic women needs. A problem spoken about is half solved. Empowerment is a journey and not a destination.

I thank you.

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Written By: Administrator Account
Date Posted: 8/25/2017
Number of Views: 856

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