The ANC was founded in January 1912. Today Ndifuna Ukwazi pays tribute to Black women who created a mass movement that came to build the best traditions of the ANC. It is also a tribute to women struggling globally for freedom on International Women’s Day (08 March 2012). Women in their 1913 anti-pass law campaign said: “we have done with pleading”. The ANC men (SANNC) were still pleading with the British Crown while the women understood the need for mass mobilisation linked to exhausting all the legal means. Sol Plaatje describes their heroic resistance including civil disobedience in Native Life in South Africa. Published in 1916, Plaatje’s classic book devotes a chapter to their struggle. He writes:
After exhausting all these constitutional means on behalf of their women, and witnessing the spread of the trouble to the women and children of the country districts under the Natives’ Land Act, the male natives of the municipalities of the Province of the Orange ‘Free’ State saw their women-folk throwing off their shawls and taking the ‘law’ into their own hands. A crowd of six hundred women, in July 1913, marched to the municipal offices at Bloemfontein and asked to see the Mayor. He was not in, so they called for the Town Clerk. The Deputy-Mayor came out, and they deposited before him a bag containing their passes of the previous month and politely signified their intention not to buy any more passes. Then there occurred what John Bull would call ‘with the lid off’.
When this happened, Winburg, the old capital of the ‘Free’ State, also had a similar trouble. Eight hundred women marched from the native location to the town hall, singing hymns, and addressed the authorities. They were tired of making friendly appeals which bore no fruit from year’s end to year’s end, so they had resolved, they said, to carry no more passes, much less to pay a shilling each per month, per capita, for passes. A procession of so many women would attract attention even in Piccadilly, but in a ‘Free’ State dorp it was a stupendous event, and it made a striking impression. The result was that many of the women were arrested and sent to prison, but they all resolutely refused to pay their fines, and there was a rumour that the Central Government had been appealed to for funds and for material to fit out a new jail to cope with the difficulty.
This movement served to exasperate the authorities, who rigorously enforced the law and sent them to jail. The first batch of prisoners from Bloemfontein were conveyed south to Edenburg; and as further batches came down from Bloemfontein they had to be retransferred north to Kroonstad. In the course of our tour in connection with the Natives’ Land Act in August 1913, we spent a weekend with the Reverend A. Pitso, of the last-named town. Thirty-four of the women passive-resisters were still incarcerated there, doing hard labour. Mrs Pitso and Mrs Michael Petrus went with us on the Sunday morning to visit the prisoners at the jail.
Today, we republish for fair-use the chapter 7 of Native Life in South Africa, “Persecution of Coloured Women in the Free State” and the entire text of Julia Wells’s classic book, We have Done with Pleading: The women’s 1913 anti-pass campaign. Wells’ great book is out of print; however, Plaatje’s chapter contains additional detail, especially the names of women leaders. One of his vital insights is that pass laws continued to subject African women to polygamy because they could not escape rural bondage. The ANC’s centenary celebrates a milestone in South African history but the invisibility of women – illustrated by choosing lectures to honour all the male Presidents – is regrettable.
Furthermore, the virtual absence of references to women in the ANC’s January 2012 centenary celebrations highlight the continuing marginalisation of women’s role in South Africa’s liberation history and the continued need for awareness about, and appreciation of, women’s roles in society. At the ANC’s second Centenary Memorial Lecture in February, President Jacob Zuma made his first reference to women’s role in South Africa’s resistance history in the centenary celebrations. His acknowledgement that “the ANC waged campaigns against the pass laws taking its cue from the Women’s League which had started earlier” presented a welcome change to what was otherwise a celebration of great men, and men alone. Having served, fought and died alongside men at every level of the liberation movement, although notably not yet at the level of president, South African women have earned the right to a central place in South African history, and not only on occasion. The failure to recognise and celebrate women’s contributions to liberation history threatens to undermine current gains in gender equality by presenting male-centred knowledges and history that cannot reflect the realities of the nation as a whole when catering to less than half of its population.
Describing women’s organising against pass laws in 1913, Julia Wells explains, “the flashpoints that influenced this period of great turmoil were not isolated events – but rooted in history”. We have Done with Pleading: The women’s 1913 anti-pass campaign offers an historical overview of women’s organising in the then Orange Free State (OFS), detailing the economic, social and political trends and events that motivated the push for passes to be extended to black women in the OFS and the different ways in which women pushed resisted these oppressions. This book describes the ways that the 1913 resistance to pass laws was ‘rooted in history’ and also how this resistance went on to influence future thinking and mobilising around women’s organising in South Africa, laying the foundation for what would later grow into a vibrant and powerful national women’s movement.
Wells locates women’s organising against passes within the larger context of South African history, pointing to the ways different political, economic and social factors at the time motivated the OFS government to try to restrict black women’s movement and economic options. Other motivations Wells describes for the extension of pass laws to black women include white employers’ desire for cheap domestic labour, and the government’s desire to limit the black middle class, to cement white power, and to make a clearer relationship between race and class. Wells also discusses how black women’s organising grew at different levels, and in doing this challenged norms of ‘acceptable’ roles for women in politics to develop a powerful movement that saw hundreds of women take to the streets and endure intense violence at the hands of state authorities to fight for their freedom.
Wells’ book was the first to document and analyse the impact of the women’s 1913 organising in the OFS. She draws on a number of primary sources from the period to recreate a picture of the events that shaped the movement, and she highlights the role that different groups and individuals played in shaping the political landscape at the time. Wells also draws on some of the foundational texts on anti-apartheid political organising to contextualise the impact that the women’s campaign had in larger South African history and in the future of women’s organising in South Africa.
Sol Plaatje and Julia Well’s work form the foundational texts of Ndifuna Ukwazi Fellowship Programme’s module on South African history.
The struggle for justice, freedom, equality and dignity for all people especially working-class women and men requires leadership based on knowledge of history, politics, economics, science and culture. Historical knowledge is indispensable to constructing the traditions of progressive struggle for freedom and creating new generations of leaders to transform our world.
Thuto Thipe and Zackie Achmat
 Jacob Zuma. “African National Congress Centenary Memorial Lecture on second ANC President Sefako Mapogo Makgatho delivered by ANC President Comrade Jacob Zuma, Good Hope Centre Western Cape”. http://www.anc.org.za/centenary/show.php?id=9400
 Julia Wells, We have Done with Pleading: The women’s 1913 anti-pass campaign. Ravan Press: Johannesburg, 1991. p. 4.Tags: ANC, anti-pass law campaign, Bloemfontein, british crown, Documents & Reports, Jacob Zuma, Johannesburg, Julia Wells, Michael Petrus, National Congress, orange free state, Racism, Sol Plaatje, South Africa, Zulu people