Throughout history, women leaders and women activists have played an integral part in our struggle for liberation. One of the iconic events that speak to the activism and indeed the militancy of women in the struggle for liberation, is the Women’s March, on the 8th of August 1956, to the Union Buildings; where up to 20 000 women of all races, classes and religious persuasions protested against the extension of pass laws.

It is mainly in remembrance and in honor of those brave women of 1956 that the month of August has been designated as Women’s Month in our country. However, the story of our liberation struggle is littered with episodes where women have stepped to the fore to take charge of their destiny, write their own history, dictate the direction of our struggle; and in doing all of this change the course of history.

Despite a racist and bigoted social order, imposed by colonialism and apartheid, the ANC evolved into a community transcending the narrow boundaries of race, drawing into its ranks people of various colors, religions and beliefs, embracing men and women alike. All of these sectors of society worked and struggled together in the spirit of comradeship. Collectively, they were driven by the certainty that South Africa and all her people deserved a better and united future. Charlotte Maxeke, who earned the fitting accolade of being referred to as “The mother of African freedom in this country.” by Dr A.B. Xuma, the 7th President of the ANC, was present at the Founding Conference of the ANC in 1912.

Petitions and deputations were the preferred mode of struggle in the early days of organized resistance. However, it was women who, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, carried the torch of mass mobilization and pioneered the tactics of direct engagement with the oppressors as well as militant resistance. In this regard, we recall the militant Orange Free State anti-pass campaign of May 1913 when, in defiance of the laws of the time, women decided to stop carrying passes. The campaign spread across the country and led to numerous confrontations between women protestors and the police. Many women who were refusing to carry passes or permits were imprisoned. This rare act of militancy by women, drew admiration and became a source of general pride in women’s achievements amongst the (male) leaders of the congress movement at the time.


While the ANC concerned itself with the long-term issues of constitutional reform and representation in parliament, women tended to mobilise around bread and butter issues of immediate concern to themselves, their children and their families. Organized under the banner of the Bantu Women’s League, led by Charlotte Maxeke, women continued with their militancy forming branches of the League across the country. They used these branches to take up local issues and participated in campaigns initiated by political organizations and trade unions at local and national level.

Since 1941 – the year when full membership of the ANC was extended to women – women have been an indispensable part of the life of our movement. Speaking at a conference of the ANC women’s section in Angola, in 1981, President O.R. Tambo challenged both men and women in the ANC when he said: “Women in the ANC should stop behaving as if there was no place for them above the level of certain categories of involvement. They have a duty to liberate us men from antique concepts and attitudes about the place and role of women in society and the development and direction of our revolutionary struggle.”

It is a matter of pride that women in the ANC continue to respond to the call by O.R: to stop behaving as if there was no place for them above certain levels of involvement. They have taken their destiny into their own hands. They are writing their own history. They are refusing to be bystanders in the struggle for their total emancipation. They continue to liberate us men from antique concepts and attitudes. And increasingly, they are asserting their role in our movement and in society.

Sadly, however, advances made by women towards their total emancipation suffer serious setbacks as acts of gender discrimination, gender-based violence and the abuse of women continue unabated in our society. These acts have reached a crisis proportion. They are an affront to all that we stand for as a movement and as a country. They render in vain the sacrifices and bravery of the women of 1913 and generations after them. These acts do not belong in our movement and in our society.

Patriarchy, the abuse of women and gender-based violence have been endemic in our society for centuries, entrenched in apartheid and colonial oppression. Our task, as a revolutionary movement, is to dismantle and not to perpetuate this legacy. We must, therefore, do everything necessary to ensure that this scourge – in whatever form and guise – seizes to be used as a structural weapon to keep women silent and disempowered. Those who commit these acts, both within our ranks and in society, must face our collective condemnation.

At all times let us remember that it was women who pioneered mass mobilization and militant forms of struggle within our movement; thus paving the way for our struggle to advance to a much higher and more effective level. There is no doubt that without the contribution of women, our fight for liberation would have been weakened, and our liberation delayed.

Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!


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