South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

The 1956 Women's March

Summary

Although African men had been required to carry passes for many decades, only in the 1950s did the government impose pass laws on African women. African women were not allowed to live in towns unless they had permission to be employed there, and extending pass laws to them made it more difficult for women without jobs to take their children and join their husbands in town. Across the country, dozens of protests against pass laws for African women took place before the Federation of South African Women (formed in 1955) and the African National Congress Women’s League organized a massive protest march in Pretoria.

On August 9, 1956, 20,000 women, representing all racial backgrounds, came from all over South Africa to march on the Union Buildings, where they stood in silent protest for 30 minutes while petitions with 100,000 signatures were delivered to the Prime Minister’s office. Many men in the anti-apartheid movement were surprised by the women’s militancy, and the protest contributed to women playing a bigger role in the struggle for freedom and democracy. August 9th now is celebrated as National Women’s Day in South Africa.

Web Images

Photograph: "August 9 Women's Day"
From: Southern Africa Freedom Struggles, 1950-1994. Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA).
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Web Documents

Historical Document: The Demand of the Women of South Africa for the Withdrawal of Passes for Women and the Repeal of the Pass Laws

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Resource: Women's struggle, 1900-1994
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Historical Document: "Repeal the Pass Laws... A Great Demonstration to Parliament"
By Federation of South African Women and the ANC Women's League (Cape Western)
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Report: Now You Have Touched the Women: African Women's Resistance to the Pass Laws in South Africa, 1950-60
By Elizabeth Schmidt
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Suggested Reading

Side by Side: The Autobiography of Helen Joseph
By Helen Joseph
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AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH