History of Feminism in South Africa


By Bathandwa Magqaza

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 8 of VARSITY News.


It is quite perturbing when the concept of feminism becomes an infrequent language spoken in the public discourse of South Africa. There are many reasons to this, however, the most prominent of them all being the suggestion that feminism is “un-African”. If that’s the case, then how do we conceptualise the struggles that the women of South Africa fought so hard and tirelessly for?


Feminism is an absolute necessity for African societies. This assertion can be justified by the drastic increase of domestic violence, female circumcision and other harmful traditions endured by women. From an African point of view, the movement of feminism emerged together with liberation struggles. Alongside male counterparts fighting against systemic control, activists that were women fought for state autonomy and women’s rights.


Feminism in the African continent set off in the early 20th Century and among its pioneers was Charlotte Maxeke, the founder of Bantu Women’s League in 1918. Nonetheless, the government of that time was exclusively concerned with the suffrage of white women, as a result, they were permitted to vote in the elections from 1930.


The spirit of bravado exuded by the likes of Winnie-Madikizela Mandela, Lilian Ngoyi, Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Albertina Sisulu and many more, was a huge contributory factor that led to the debacle of Apartheid.


Lilian Ngoyi, also known as “the mother of black resistance” joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1952, and became the first women to be elected in the executive committee of the ANC. Ngoyi was a highly transnational figure, in 1955 she served as an elected delegate to the World Mothers’ Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. A year later, she, along with 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in protest against pass laws. South Africa annually commemorates this incident on 9 August as National Women’s Day.


Moreover, Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, a stalwart who wrote many articles on the social effects of apartheid. During the 1960s, she organised students into African Students Association (ASA). The aim of this body was to mobilise the student population in South Africa to resist apartheid education.


Figures like those mentioned above depict the relevance of feminism in movements against
systemic control in the South African context. It is important to integrate these demonstrations of activism into public discourse not only to commemorate their efforts but also to see how close our realities are and apply their theories and demonstrations to contemporary experiences of multilayered injustice in South Africa.



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