Online Exhibition

Women Power: The Resistance Against Pass Laws (9 August 1956 March)


The stereotypes about women have placed women in roles that are intrinsically related to motherhood and home-bound womanhood. The patriarchal gender oppression, places women at the bottom of a hierarchy in terms of opportunities, options and access. The stereotypical gender roles have marred women activism and attempted to downplay the involvement of women in political struggles. This exhibition seeks to acknowledge and recognise women who have made an indefinable mark and fought alongside men to end apartheid.


During apartheid South Africa there were laws which regularised the restriction of movement of African people in designated areas at specific times of the day. Initially, the Pass Law was aimed at African men but the apartheid government extended the issuing of passes to women. Accordingly, the administration enforced a more stringent law, the Natives Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents Act 67 of 1952.


The intention to extend the issuing of reference books to women was to ensure adequate supply of domestic workers in urban areas and as farm labourers. Both men and women were required by law to carry a reference book which contained their picture, race identity card, official authorisation to be in an urban area, name and address of their employer among other particulars. It was at this juncture that women refused to carry pass laws and were willing to endure police brutality and face imprisonment.


The women’s movements namely the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) and the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) organised women from different races, classes, ethnicity to fight against the atrocities committed by the apartheid government.


It was on 9 August 1956 when 20 000 women gathered at the Union Buildings to hand over their signatories of their petition to the then Prime Minister, Mr J.G. Strijdom detailing their grievance against the Pass Laws. The march saw women from all walks of life stand in defiance of the pass laws. Women who carried babies on their backs, pregnant women, single or married women, women with formal or informal education, all united chanting “1Wena Strijdom, wa’thinthabafazi, wathint’imboko, uzokufa”. Loosely translated “You Stijdom, you have touched the women, you have struck against a rock, you will die!”.


On that fateful day, almost 100 women were arrested as they demonstrated against the repressive pass laws by throwing themselves on the ground. However, the arrest of some women did not deter the movement as the resistance intensified thereafter.


Further, the women’s movements strategised and decided to dispatch groups of women who would try to dissuade others from accepting their reference books. This strategy proved to be successful as hundreds of women responded and protested at the issuing offices even when they were faced with arrest.


The resistance against Pass Laws signified the fight for dignity of black people, particularly women and the fight against economic oppression and exploitation of both men and women. In honour of the contributions of women to the liberation struggle, each year in South Africa the month of August is declared Women’s Month. Women’s Month allows us to commemorate and reflect on the bravery and resilience of women who were united to liberate all South Africans.

2Among the revolutionary leaders who championed the march are:

Albertina Sisulu

Dora Tamana

Gertrude Shope

Lilian Ngoyi

Mary Moodley

Rebecca Koloane

Amina Cachalia

Dorothy Nyembe

Gladys Smith

 Lizzy Abrahams

Mary Ngalo

Rica Hodgson

Annie Peters

Elizabeth Mafeking

Helen Joseph

Lucy Mvubelo

Mary Thipe


Annie Silinga

Ethel Leisa

Hetty McLeod

Ma Nxayiya

Mildred Lesia

Ruth Mompati

Ayesha Bibi Dawood

Fatima Meer

Hilda Bernstein

Mabel Balfour

Nellie Jibiliza

Seapei Kgabale

Bertha Gxowa

Fatima Seedat

Ida Mntwana

Magdaline Resha

Nokukhanya Luthuli

Sonya Bunting

Bettie du Toit

Florence Matomela

Josie Mpama

Margaret Ballinger

Nontsokometse Joyi

Sophie Williams – de Bruyn

Caroline Motsoaledi

Florence Mkhize

Katie White

Margaret Gazo

Pixie Benjamin

Thoko Mngoma

Cecilia Rosier

Florence Mophosho

Letitia Sibeko

Martha Mothlakoana

Rahima Moosa

Viola Hashe

Chrissie Jasson

Frances Baard

Lilian Diedericks

Mary Goitsemang Ranta

Ray Alexander Simons

Violet Weinberg