Rural women's protests in Natal in 1959.
In the 1950s, apartheid policies in the Natal countryside served to oppress the majority of African women more than they had ever been before. Yet ironically, it was their being 'left behind' by the system of migrant labour that goaded them into taking overt action against their condition in 1959. The aim of this mini-dissertation is to trace and explain their struggle against "grand apartheid". These women were a force to be reckoned with, and the government of the day felt temporarily threatened by their actions. This study vehemently rejects the misconception that the African women of the rural areas of Natal were docile, slave-like individuals, who placidly accepted their position. The protest marches in the 1950's, more especially 1959, proved African women to be strong-willed and determined to succeed against all odds. These women emerge as anything but placid and docile. History has shown us that women's oppression is not simply a matter of equal rights or discrimination under the law. African women struggled to be recognised as human beings, no different from any other race. In the early 1950's African women, in most parts of South Africa, became more politically active. They played a significant role in the 1952 Defiance Campaign. Shortly after that a "Women's Charter" was adopted. It sought the liberation of all people, the common society of men and women. It took women like Lilian Ngoyi, who made history in 1956 by leading 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against passes for women, to ignite rolling mass action in the various Provinces. This thesis tells of the contemporary struggle of African women in the 1950's, more especially 1959, in Natal. This is a tribute to the countless African women who have made courageous sacrifices in order for change. It is through their radical and somewhat aggressive stance that we have a lot to be thankful for today. We must be mindful of the fact that in the Apartheid era the law itself was used to oppress people. In our new-found democracy it is pleasing to note that the law is somewhat gender sensitive, so that it does not discriminate against men or women in its application. Many of us who research African women are mere observers, who digest what we read, hear and see. Many of us do not understand the complex African way of life. We tend to employ Eurocentric theories and assumptions, which instead serve as a handicap. Thus the African woman is seen as a victim of the African male, and of traditional customs and practices. We fail to see that African women did from the outset, have varying degrees of economic independence, and that colonialism was responsible for depriving African women of their political as well as economic status. These women can claim a degree of triumph in that in the wake of the mass protest action, it took the government years to implement its policy of passes for women.