AUTHOR: VANI MOODLEY
9 th August 1956 was NOT the first time Women
marched to protest against the pass laws of
South Africa ……
Contrary to common belief that the women’s march in 1956 forms the cornerstone of
women’s rebellion against discrimination, South African history also captures the very early
protests as far back as 1898 and the first series of protest marches organized by women in
In the Orange Free State particularly in Bloemfontein, laws to regulate black people were
passed in 1893. For example, Law 8 passed in 1893 included the carrying of residential
passes by male and female.
In South Africa, pass laws were a form of an internal passport system designed to segregate
the population between Blacks from Whites in South Africa. The system was used to
severely limit the movements of the Black African population, manage urbanization, and
allot migrant labour.
In the location of Waaihoek, Black people drew up a petition which they submitted to the
Town Council complaining about the harshness of the laws passed to control them. While
the council responded to some of their requests, the one requiring women to carry
residential passes remained. On 2 October 1898, women were so frustrated by the carrying
of passes that a number of them in the location drew up a petition to President Marthinus
Theunis Steyn at the time, protesting against being made to carry passes.
The series of petitions submitted, made very little difference to the pass laws for women.
Despite this, the government moved to pass more laws forcing more people to carry passes.
A typical example of this is a new law that was passed in 1907 in Bloemfontein requiring
domestic workers to carry a Service Book where details of their employment were written.
These books were to be carried at all times and produced when demanded. Any person
found without the book more than three times could be removed from the municipality
where they lived. In 1908 a special Native Administration commission was established to
investigate labour needs. It recommended the passing of even stricter pass laws and that
families in rural areas should be automatically made servants.
Part of the South African Native Convention’s Appeal in 1913:
“…any law which compels women to carry passes can have no
justification on the ground of utility, expediency, or on any other ground
whatsoever, as it is degrading, harsh, arbitrary, vexatious, and leads to
Written by Vani Moodley
the committal of voice, and is no protection to the respectable and law-
abiding native women”!.”
After a series of protests, marches and arrests of women, in June 1913, a group of about
800 women gathered at the City Hall in Bloemfontein and informed the Mayor that they
would no longer carry passes. The government began arresting women in large numbers
and by July 1913, women sent a petition to the Mayor to negotiate abolishing passes for
girls over the age of 16 and unmarried women.
In addition to protests and petitions, women organised themselves and formed the Orange
Free State Native and Coloured Women’s Association in Bloemfontein. The organisation was
led by Catharina Symmons and Katie Louw. The association raised funds to assist those
women who were imprisoned pay for their medical bills. Between September and October
1913, the Orange Free State women’s Anti-pass Campaign began spreading to other parts of
the country, something which the government feared.
The general unrest of the 1920s, the African mineworkers strike, the white mine workers
strike in 1922 and the pressure applied by women in the preceding years forced the
government to relax the pass laws. This relative freedom of women remained in force until
1955 when the Apartheid government that had come into power in 1948, began forcing
women to carry passes.
This was the key reason for the second series of mass action that culminated in the march to
the union buildings in Pretoria on the 9 th August 1956….