‘Strijdom, you have struck a rock’

August 1956 - Federation of South African Women met outside the Union Buildings

On 9 August 1956, 20 000 women from the cities and towns, reserves and villages, some with babies on their backs, took a petition addressed to the prime minister to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. He was not in. The petition demanded that the pass laws be abolished. The top picture shows women waiting patiently, with the Union Buildings in the background. Above they board a bus.

Meanwhile, a Federation of South African Women to which the ANC’s Women’s League was affiliated began organising protests against the extension of pass laws to black women. This opposition was orchestrated especially dramatically in August 1956 when 20 000 women assembled outside the Union Buildings to sing their triumphant anthem: ‘Strijdom, you have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock.’ The movement proliferated and as it spread it became more confrontational. In Johannesburg, township branches of the ANC Women’s League persuaded 1 200 women to deliberately court arrest before an alarmed ANC leadership directed that women should not break the law.

Despite such strictures, women’s protest expanded well beyond the boundaries of organised politics. In mid-1959 anger about passes and soil conservation regulations helped to generate a series of revolts led by women in the Natal countryside. Mostly, participants concentrated on destroying cattle-dipping tanks, but they also set fire to sugar fields and marched on police stations and magistrate’s courts.

Even the former Youth Leaguers who now predominated within the ANC’s national executive believed that the organisation was unready for protest of the scale and the intensity of this spontaneous rural rebellion. This was despite their efforts to implement a programme of street-level cellular organisation, the so-called M-Plan, first developed by militants in Port Elizabeth during the Defiance Campaign and later adopted nationally in a rather uneven fashion. From December 1956, national leaders would be limited in the actions they could initiate or direct after they were arrested and charged with treason.

August 1956 - Women boarding a bus

August 1956 - Women boarding a bus

For the rest of the decade, the ANC would depend on its allies in the labour movement to mobilise protest. In 1957 the ANC’s trade union affiliate the SA Congress of Trade Unions led an 80%-effective (among black workers) ‘stay-away’ in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth in support of its call for a ‘One Pound a Day’ minimum wage. Encouraged by this success, the following year the ANC leadership called for a similar three-day protest to coincide with parliamentary elections in April. Generally low rates of absenteeism persuaded the ANC’s Johannesburg-based National Working Committee to end the protest on the evening of its first day.

On 26 June 1959, the ANC announced ‘a second phase’ of the anti-pass campaign which up to then had confined itself to opposing giving passes to women: a series of nationwide protests and demonstrations intended to reach a climax on 26 June 1960. Its plans were pre-empted by its new rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), founded in April 1959 and led by a group of former Youth Leaguers who considered that the ANC’s ‘multiracialism’ had diminished its appeal to blacks. Robert Sobukwe and other PAC leaders believed that the ANC’s adoption of the Freedom Charter was evidence of the ANC’s subordination to communist leadership.

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