A hidden history

2014-08-14 00:00

IT is time that the popular narrative on women’s struggles in South Africa is broadened beyond the August 9 anti-pass march to the Union Buildings.

A cursory review of old newspaper cuttings and academic papers stashed in university libraries reveals a hidden history waiting to be made more popular.

There’s a richness and texture to the women’s struggles that shaped resistance history in this country. For KwaZulu-Natal there is a revelation that this province was at the forefront of many of those struggles. We do, indeed, have a legacy of feisty women, and future generations need to know about them.

Following the Pretoria march, a series of anti-pass provincial protest actions were organised.

Pietermaritzburg was the venue for the KZN action which took place in November 1956.

Women from Durban, including Dr Monty Naicker’s wife Marie, travelled up to Pietermaritzburg. There were well over 600 women in that gathering and the protest was led by Violaine Junod, a member of the Liberal Party and Ida Shange, who was the senior nurse in Dr Chota Motala’s surgery. Some 200 marchers were arrested by the police and locked up in a warehouse in Longmarket Street. Much to the consternation of the women, they were released in the early evening when the men from the ANC and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) got lawyers involved. Years later, one of the women arrested, Ruth Lundie, said such was the spirit among the protesters that they were prepared to sit it jail and were irritated with the men for coming to bail them out.

Simmering tensions and anger around the extension of pass laws to women did not die down. Nor did the organisational work being carried out. Sibongiseni Mkhize, who has researched the early women struggles, described the situation by 1959. He said: “The women saw no change in their economic and social situations. Their problems were exacerbated by government policies which wanted to ‘revive traditional policies’ by subjecting the women to the control of tribal leaders and their husbands. This was an ironic situation because both men and tribal leaders had been emasculated and could offer neither protection for their families nor an effective resistance to the imposition of apartheid policies.”

By June 1959, there were the massive beer-hall protests in Durban and the revolt in Cato Manor, which is well-documented.

In rural areas dipping tanks became a target. Women were forced to fill and maintain these dipping tanks for cattle without payment. They reacted against this form of exploitation by burning and destroying the dipping tanks. The protests spread throughout Natal.

Pietermaritzburg’s beer-hall uprising took place today and tomorrow, exactly 55 years ago.

On August 14, 1959, according to news reports, a bus load of women from Table Mountain arrived in Edendale. At Edendale, 200 women had gathered.

Meanwhile, five buses carrying women from Durban and outlying areas arrived near Sobantu Village. The groups converged in the Matsheni opposite the Berg Street beer hall. An Ilanga reporter described the scene (August 29, 1959): “While the women were still waiting for others at a park in Retief Street so that they could go and see the Native Commissioner in Pietermaritz Street, the police arrived. When their commandant arrived he blew the whistle without even speaking to [the] women to hear why they were there. At that time the baton charge began. The police were beating indiscriminately, including the onlookers. Women, men and children were scattered. More than 623 women were arrested on that day not just in Retief Street but Edendale as well.”

The events culminated in an even bigger uprising that took place in Sobantu Village on the weekend of August 15 and August 16. There were further revolts that weekend in Estcourt, Harding, Ixopo, Mooi River, Hibberdene and many other areas. Protest action continued until the State of Emergency declared by the South African Government in March 1960.

That spirit of resistance did not die down. Women involved in the 1959 uprisings, including Florence Mkhize, the mother of Witness columnist Shauwn Mpisane, and Dorothy Nyembe, joined in with a new group of women activists in the eighties to form the Natal Organisation of Women (Now). This was the group that started in 1984 to commemorate August 9 as Women’s Day. Now saw it as a day to unite women and deal with women’s issues.

The leadership of Now went on to become the who’s who of South African politics — both within and outside government. That is a story that has still to be told.

• nalini@witness.co.za

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