Case Study: Orange Free State, South Africa: 1912 – 1918

IssueOctober - November 2018
Comment by Rebekah Grisim

Goal: For non-white women in urban areas to no longer be required to carry documents proving formal employment.
GROWTH: 1 / 3

The anti-pass campaign took place in the Orange Free State in South Africa to protest against non-white South African women being required to carry documentation of formal employment. ‘Non-white’ is a term that was often used in South Africa to classify non-European ethnicities including black South Africans, coloured South Africans [a group of mixed heritage – ed], and Indian South Africans.

The enforcement of passes was meant to establish tighter controls over domestic service. It was mandatory for non-white women to carry documentation detailing their employment as domestic workers, that had to be shown to police officers or city officials on demand.

Passes were a symbol of South Africans’ lack of freedom of movement. Although men were required to carry passes, the Orange Free State was the first province to issue passes for women.

Women organise

The Bantu Women’s League was organised out of the African National Congress (ANC) conference in Bloemfontein in 1912 because women were not yet permitted to become members of the ANC. The Bantu Women’s League was founded and led by Charlotte Maxeke, the first black South African woman to graduate university. She was educated in the United States and was a teacher until she became an activist and one of the first black South Africans to struggle for rights of women.

The goal of the Bantu Women’s League was to force the government to abandon the use of passes for women. The group were mostly educated middle-class black women. They were inspired by the British suffrage movement that they read about in the newspapers and chose to use nonviolent action. In 1906, Mohandas Gandhi and other South African Indians launched a satyagraha campaign against passes, which eventually succeeded in 1914.

The Bantu Women’s League’s first action was a petition which gained 5,000 signatures and was handed to South African prime minister Louis Botha in March 1912. When Botha didn’t respond, a group of six women went to Cape Town to present their case to Henry Burton, the minister of native affairs. They received the sympathy of the minister and were assured that appropriate action would take place.

Direct action

After a year of no response, the League and its supporters gathered on 28 May 1913 in Waaihoek, the black ‘location’ just outside Bloemfontein, to discuss next steps. This mass meeting decided that the women would use civil disobedience by refusing to carry their passes anymore.

200 women marched to the centre of Bloemfontein and demanded to speak to the mayor. The mayor showed little sympathy for their cause and responded by saying his hands were tied.

“The women marched into town and ripped up and burned their passes.”

The next day, the women marched into town again and protested by ripping up and burning their passes. During the two marches, 80 women were arrested and 34 of them served two months in prison. Similar protests were made in other areas of the Orange Free State including Jagersfontein, Fauresmith, and Winburg. Hundreds of women were arrested.

The campaign gained national media coverage in 1913, when the women began to receive greater support for their campaign. The coverage won the sympathy of national government officials in Cape Town. Throughout the Orange Free State, blue ribbons were a symbol of participation and support of the anti-pass campaign.

In Winburg, a group of white women marched to illustrate their support for the non-white women and their cause.

Five years

Finally, in 1918, the campaign gained results: the pass laws were finally relaxed.

The women won this specific victory, however, in the context of a larger South African trend of racial discrimination that led finally to the system of apartheid. The trend manifested in 1923 when the government introduced the Natives Urban Areas Act No 21 which created even tighter controls so that domestic workers were the only non-whites allowed in urban areas.

Although the Bantu Women’s League Anti-Pass Campaign suspended the policy of passes for only five years, the women paved the way for later nonviolent action in South Africa by women’s groups as well as widespread resistance to apartheid.