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South African Bantu women win anti-pass campaign in Orange Free State, 1912-1918
The anti-pass campaign took place in the Orange Free State in South Africa to protest 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, 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 that had to be shown to police officers or city officials on their demand.
Passes were a symbol of South African's 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.
Bantu Women's League was organized 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. Maxeke was 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 of women consisted mostly of educated middle class black women. They were inspired by the British Suffrage Movement that they read about in the newspaper and chose to use nonviolent action. In 1906 Gandhi and other South African Indians launched a satyagraha campaign against passes, which eventually succeeded in 1914. [Indians in South Africa wage Satyagraha for their rights, 1906-1914.]
The Bantu Women's League’s first action was a petition which gained 5,000 signatures and was handed to 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.
After a year of no response, the League and its supporters gathered on 28 May 1913 in Waaihoek to discuss next steps. This mass meeting decided that the women would use civil disobedience by refusing to carry their passes anymore.
Two hundred women marched to the centre of town in 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 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 2 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 they first began to receive greater support for their campaign. The coverage won the sympathy of the Union 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 implemented a march to illustrate their support for the non-white women and their cause. 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 Native (black) Urban Areas Act No 21 which created even tighter controls so that only non-white domestic workers were 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.