Apartheid was a horrible time in South Africa during which the ethnonationalist Afrikaner National Party ruled the country under authoritarian white supremacy rule.
There existed a strict racial hierarchy: blacks at the bottom, whites at the top. Though apartheid started in 1948, this racial hierarchy and subsequent segregation and oppression existed before apartheid (and its effects are still present up to today).
It all started with whites invading the African continent. The Dutch set up colonies in South Africa starting from 1652. The British took over Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806. Thereafter, the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 with the unification of the Cape Colony, the Natal Colony, the Transvaal Colony, and the Orange River Colony, as well as the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. Namibia (German South-West Africa) was placed under the Union's administration. The Union became like Canada or Australia, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Like Canada and Australia, it's the whites who were in charge, trampling over the indigenous peoples. The National Party first took power in 1924 then again in 1948 during which it started implementing apartheid by strengthening already existing racially discriminative laws such as pass laws and land acts and enacting new ones to get the desired effect.
There was strong resistance to white minority rule in South Africa, both before and after 1948. However, whenever anti-apartheid activism is discussed, it's most often discussed in relation to male activists. But women in South Africa, who faced both racial and gender discrimination, were challengers of the system and primary catalysts for protests against it.
Take black women. Because they were black, they were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. They were subject to all the anti-black laws in South Africa. These included pass laws. However, because they were women, they were merely dependents. As such, their movement was much more restricted than that of black African men. Getting a job, for a black South African woman, was made that much harder, and they could easily be deported to rural areas.
In the 1920s, black women in South Africa formed trade unions, especially in the laundry, clothing, mattress, furniture and baking industries (the South African Trades Union Council was strictly for white workers). The Federation of Non-European Trade Unions was formed in 1928 with support from the South African Communist Party (SACP) and it had about 15,000 members in 1928. It was successful until the 1930-33 depression and splits in SACP concerning a "black republic".
In 1918, Dr Charlotte Maxeke formed the African National Congress (ANC) Women's League (the ANC did not accept female members until 1943). The Women's League was formed to fight against pass laws – they requested a repeal of the pass laws and, when the motion was denied, they burned their passes in front of municipal offices and were subsequently arrested. The league was active in ANC's Defiance Campaign which is quoted as "the first large-scale, multi-racial political mobilization against apartheid laws under a common leadership". During the Defiance Campaign, protests included burning of passes, and Nelson Mandela famously burned his on March 26, 1960, to protest against the Sharpeville Massacre. The Defiance Campaign in Port Elizabeth was led by women. These women included: Nosipho Dastile (founder of the United Democratic Front), Lilian Diedricks (founding member of the Federation of South African Women), Nontuthuzelo Mabala (she marched against pass laws in 1956 and was jailed for 6 years at the age of 24 for her activism), Florence Matomela (provincial organiser of the African National Congress Women's League and vice-president of the Federation of South African Women) and Veronica Sobukwe (nurse and labour activist).
In 1960, the Pan African Congress (PAC) called for mass demonstrations at the Sharpeville Township. Estimates put the crowd between 3000 to 20,000. About 300 police opened fire at the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 186 people. All the victims of the massacre were black, and most were shot in the back as they were fleeing. After the massacre, a crackdown ensured, and 18,000 people were arrested, including Women's League members. The Women's League, alongside ANC and PAC, was subsequently banned for their role in their demonstration.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela headed the women's league, served on the ANC's National Executive Committee and was detained severally. She was brutally beaten by the police and developed an addiction to painkillers that she took for back injuries that she sustained from the assault. She was affectionately known as the 'mother of the nation'.
In 1954, the Federation of South African women, a lobby group, was formed. It was spearheaded by Lilian Ngoyi and adopted a women's charter at its inaugural conference. The primary aims of the group were: to work for majority rule and end the policy of apartheid; and to build a multiracial women's organization that would also work for the rights of, and freedoms for, women. In 1954, they campaigned for a boycott of government-controlled schools. It was banned in 1963. In December 1975, the Black Women's Federation was formed. It was specific to issues affecting black women and worked in both rural and urban areas, unlike the Federation of South African Women.
In 1957, when bus fare to townships was hiked, boycotts were called for and organized by women. The townships were home to 25,000 black Africans. Within 3 weeks, they were joined in their protest by 20,000 other black Africans. In response, the state ordered mass raids in which 6,606 Africans were arrested and another 7,860 subpoenaed. A rally of 5,000 people in Lady Shelburne was attacked by two police baton charges resulting in 17 Africans being hospitalized. The Government announced legislation that would result in a permanent end to bus services to the African towns. However, the protest continued. After 5 months, the hike in bus fare was scrapped.
The Black Consciousness Movement, inspired by America's Black Power Movement, gained force in the 1970s under Steven Biko, a medical student. The movement stressed the need for psychological liberation, black pride, and non-violent opposition to apartheid. Biko also led the South African Students' Organisation (SASO), which was formed in 1969 because the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) was mostly white and fought for white students. Biko was assassinated in 1977. Women were a big part of the Black Consciousness Movement as well as SASO.
In 1974, a decree was issued that English and Afrikaans be used in school 50:50 in order to stop the decline of Afrikaans amongst black Africans. But Afrikaans, in the words of Desmond Tutu, was the language of the oppressor. Resentment grew, and, in 1976, children in Orlando West Junior School in Soweto refused to go to school. The strike spread to other schools in Soweto. Tsietsie Mashinini, a student from Morris Isaacson High School, proposed the meeting that would lead to the formation of the Action Committee that would set the peaceful mass protest for 16th June 1976. The protest was also for equal treatment of black and white schoolchildren. Tsietsie led students from his school. An estimated 20,000 children protested and were met with fierce police brutality, with police shooting directly at children.
Then a white policeman drew his revolver and shot straight at the unarmed, singing students. Hector Petersen, the first victim of the uprising, fell in front of his comrades. Other police then opened fire. The students, many of them girls as young as ten to twelve years old, were stunned at first, and stood looking at the bodies of the dead and wounded. Then their rage and fury erupted. Picking up stones, bricks or any missile they could lay their hands on, they advanced towards the police lines and threw them at the police. One journalist commented: “What frightened me more than anything was the attitude of the children. Many seemed oblivious to the danger. They continued running towards the police, dodging and ducking, despite the fact that they were armed and continued shooting”. The Soweto uprising had begun. – Excerpt from The Soweto Uprising 1976 by Weizmann Hamilton
The next day, 1500 heavily-armed police and the army were deployed in Soweto as a show of force. 23-100 people were killed the first day and hundreds more the next day.
Girls and women in South Africa have always been and still continue to be an integral part of the struggle to this day, even though their contributions are largely downplayed in order to uphold the status quo.