60 years of women’s activism in South Africa: from the 1956 Women’s March to #RememberKhwezi

Women stand in small groups, sometimes even alone, silently holding placards: “REJECT SLUMS, SQUATTERS, GROUP AREAS BILLS” and “RELEASE OR CHARGE ALL DETAINEES”. People pass and stare, sometimes yelling angrily, or spit on them, or even driving up on the pavement to try and run them over. It’s the 1950s. The South African government is pushing one law after another through Parliament (more than 25 in that decade alone), with the aim of expanding the reach of white supremacy into every aspect of the lives of South Africans.

Four women stand in front of a room of the country’s most powerful people, silently holding pieces of paper which read “#1in3” and “Remember Khwezi”. People stare, and eventually the women are shoved out the door. It is 2016. The results of South Africa’s local elections are being announced to South Africa and the political elite, and four black women remind us that despite numerous allegations of sexual violence against him, our President has managed to dodge conviction while one of his accusers has to go into exile.

South Africa has a long history of women stepping into the fray in our complicated and painful political history. In 1956, women led a march to the Union Buildings to protest against the attempts by the state to force black women to carry a pass. It is this event that we commemorate today, on 9 August. This year marks the 60th anniversary of that historic march, which mobilised tens of thousands of women, not just in Pretoria, but around the country.

The Black Sash and the Federation of South African Women

The Black Sash, or the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League as it was called then, was started in 1955, primarily by middle-class white women who wanted to stop the legal and constitutional changes the state was making which would further entrench white supremacy. Since it had come into power in 1948, the National Party had not only passed a set of racist laws, but had also been trying to change the Constitution which enshrined the voting rights of men classified as Coloured. The women arranged several protest marches against the removal of Coloured men from the voters’ roll, and wore black sashes, which was to become a symbol of their opposition to the curtailment of civil and political liberties.Black Sash protesters 1

One of the main goals of the Black Sash was to convince other middle-class white women to resist injustice, and to mobilise in opposing the ever-increasing number of apartheid laws. That didn’t only mean voting against the tide of other white voters, but also in opposition to one’s life partner, in a time where white women – who had had the vote for only 25 years – were expected to vote in the same way as their husbands. On 18 July 1955, the women of the Black Sash began a daily silent vigil at the ministers’ entrance of the Union Buildings, the seat of the executive branch of government in Pretoria. Their continued presence – which continued until December 1957 – was a reminder that the women of South Africa were watching. During this same period, women wearing black sashes would show up wherever a government Minister was expected to appear, usually standing silently and watching, causing the government much embarrassment.

In 1956, the Black Sash tentatively started developing relationships with other political movements, including the Women’s League of the African National Congress, and the Federation of South African Women (FSAW). FSAW was launched in 1954, bringing together radical, outspoken black, coloured, Indian and white women from political organisations and trade unions, and was led by a steering committee composed of women such as Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Amina Cachalia. One of its first achievements was the development of a Women’s Charter which called for – among other things – equal voting rights for women and men of all races, equality in pay and in relation to property, and free and compulsory education for all children. The Charter also challenged patriarchal customs which denied black women their rights, which could partly be blamed on the distortions imposed by white-led governments that had passed laws that positioned black women as minors under the dominion of black men. The Charter also challenged the role of black men in this state of affairs, by noting that some black men refuse “to concede to us women the rights and privileges which they demand for themselves” (Women’s Charter).

In 1956, the apartheid state made another attempt to force African women to carry passes, which would limit their freedom of movement and employment. This had been tried as far back as 1913, but was eventually dropped in the face of public protests by women. In 1950, the Group Areas Act was passed. It determined where people could live and work based on their racial classification. Specific areas around Cape Town were defined as a “Coloured preference area”, which would mean that no African workers could be hired unless the Department of Labour determined that Coloured workers were not available. Women and children who did not qualify to remain in Cape Town under these restrictions would be sent to live on black reserves.

In response, FSAW organised a march to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956. In an era before social media, cellphones and the widespread use of instant communication, the Federation mobilised tens of thousands of women around the country, 20 000 marching to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and tens of thousands of women unable to make it to Pretoria marching around the country. After handing over a petition to Prime Minister Strijdom, the women stood in absolute silence for half an hour, before departing.

Four leaders of the 1956 March (left to right): Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophie Williams

The Black Sash did not officially participate, as their relationship to more radicalised, black-led protest movements had a bit of a rocky start due to their more conservative leadership. This was to shift, however, in the 1960s when the anti-apartheid movement grew increasingly militant. The state began banning organisations and activists, forcing many organisations to close their doors and activists into exile, but the Black Sash’s early conservatism initially protected them from targeted government crackdowns, aside from the occasional police raid. In contrast, FSAW was not only more outspoken but also led primarily by black women, and as a result, it found itself struggling to survive as its leaders were placed on government and media blacklists, and its activities were severely curtailed after 1963.

During the late 60s and early 70s, the Black Sash became increasingly radical in its opposition to apartheid. At the same time, white backlash against their activities grew and the organisation found itself being increasingly subject to scrutiny and harassment by the security forces. Its members were sent death threats, their offices and advice centres were attacked, and they were intimidated by police officers who would continuously follow them in an obvious manner intended to frighten and discourage them from voicing resistance to white rule.

In 1976, after the Soweto uprisings, the government banned all protests. Undeterred, the women of the Black Sash chose to stand one by one on street corners to avoid breaking the law against public gatherings. In the face of white backlash and an increasingly hostile security services known for their tendency to torture and murder opponents of racism, it took immense courage to stand alone with a placard stating your opposition to apartheid, with people walking past and staring, or even throwing things or swerving off the road, aiming for the lone figures who dared to declare their opposition to white rule.


Three days ago, President Zuma stood up to speak at the announcement of the results of the local government elections. At the same time, four young black women stood in front of the stage facing the audience holding up makeshift protest banners. These signs forced us to remember Khwezi, the name given to protect the identity of the woman who accused Jacob Zuma of rape, which led to a trial and his eventual acquittal. The reasons given by the judge included the fact that Khwezi hadn’t screamed and had no physical injuries. Zuma insisted that it had been consensual, and that one of her supposed signals that she wanted sex was that she was wearing a khanga (a colourful wrap worn as a skirt). As if this isn’t enough, Zuma supporters hounded Khwezi, burning effigies outside the court while screaming “Burn the bitch!”. After the trial, she went into exile in the Netherlands.

On 5 August, four women did something extraordinary. In a country where challenging powerful men can result in being chased out of the country, and where declaring that you are a rape survivor can bring shame, scorn and judgement, four women stood up and did exactly that. The audience sat in stunned, uncomfortable silence while the security staff were scowling and frozen in place, uncertain of what to do. Zuma kept talking as if the women weren’t even there, though with their eyes riveted on the protesters, the audience probably didn’t hear a word he said, as the silent protest was the loudest thing in the room.

Khwezi-Four 1
The #RememberKhwezi protesters. Image via Daily Maverick

When he stopped talking and departed the stage, the protesters – Naledi Chirwa, Simamkele Dlakavu, Amanda Mavuso and Tinyiko Shikwambane – were shoved and hustled out of the venue by security, while Zuma pretended it wasn’t happening and members of the ANC Women’s League glared at them with contempt. This is the same Women’s League that was at the forefront of women’s resistance to apartheid, and endured violence by both the state and within their own movement from men who resented their political leadership. It is the same Women’s League that organised a protest outside the meeting venue of the 1992 negotiations to end apartheid where only 5% of the representatives were women, and where they threatened to boycott the elections until it was agreed that all parties to the negotiations would ensure that 50% of the representatives would be women. It is the same Women’s League that engaged in extensive internal lobbying which resulted in the ANC committing itself to ensuring that one third of the parliamentary candidates on the ANC’s party list would be women.

The #RememberKwhezi protesters being pushed by security. Image via Daily Maverick.


In response to the #RememberKhwezi protest, ANC Women’s League President Bathabile Dlamini went on a tirade, blaming everyone except the ANC for what had happened. It was the Independent Electoral Commission’s fault for allowing it. It was the EFF’s fault as they had instigated it. It was the Defence Minister’s fault, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, as it constituted a “security breach”. Then in a rather strange turn of events, Dlamini stated that the protest was improper as Zuma had been acquitted in a court of law. This is the same Women’s League that protested the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial, which also took place in a court of law, as they felt that the verdict and sentence were too lenient.

The #RememberKhwezi protesters carried the spirit of the women of 1956 with them. They stood in the face of power and privilege, and used silence to embarrass the political elite. They challenged the pervasive culture of protecting men from facing the consequences of the violence they inflict on women’s bodies every day, particularly young, black women. They challenged us to remember that we still have work do.

To the women of 1956, and to Chirwa, Dlakavu, Mavuso and Shikwambane – I salute you.


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