BlackFacts Details

Women's Anti-Pass Law Campaigns in South Africa

The first attempt to make black women in South Africa carry passes was in 1913 when the Orange Free State introduced a new requirement that women, in addition to existing regulations for black men, must carry reference documents. The resulting protest, by a multi-racial group of women, many of whom were professionals (a large number of teachers, for example) took the form of passive resistance - a refusal to carry the new passes.

Many of these women were supporters of the recently formed South African Native National Congress (which became the African National Congress in 1923, although women were not allowed to become full members until 1943). The protest against passes spread through the Orange Free State, to the extent that when World War I broke out, the authorities agreed to relax the rule.

At the end of World War I, the authorities in the Orange Free State tried to re-instate the requirement, and again opposition built up. The Bantu Womens League (which became the ANC Womans League in 1948 - a few years after membership of the ANC was opened to women), organised by its first president Charlotte Maxeke, coordinated further passive resistance during late 1918 and early 1919. By 1922 they had achieved success - the South African government agreed that women should not be obliged to carry passes. However, the government still managed to introduce legislation which curtailed the rights of women and the Native (Black) Urban Areas Act No 21 of 1923 extended the existing pass system such that the only black women allowed to live in urban areas were domestic workers.

In 1930 local municipal attempts in Potchefstroom to regulate womens movement led to further resistance - this was the same year that white women obtained voting rights in South Africa. White women now had a public face and a political voice, of which activists such as Helen Joseph and Helen Suzman took full advantage.

With the Blacks (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act No 67 of 1952 the South African government amended the