Women’s Activism in the Eastern Cape

In the Eastern Cape, there exists a long tradition of various forms of women’s organisation, including resistance campaigns, grassroots organisations of all kinds, self-help groups, feminist-oriented groups and faith-based organisations, some of which have continued to the present period. Women were also instrumental in the national political struggle and, in the Eastern Cape, several female activists were at the forefront of mobilisation campaigns, organising women under the banner of the African National Congress (ANC), through the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) and the United Democratic Front (UDF).

The UDF was formed in 1983 as an umbrella organisation for anti-apartheid groups, and it galvanised a range of forces at community level. Shireen Hassim shows that some women’s organisations were weakened by affiliation to the UDF, particularly the United Women’s Organisation (UWO) in the Western Cape and the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW). Nonetheless, its formation in 1983 added impetus to the organisation of women in other parts of the country, as it incited localised forms of resistance to apartheid at the local level. The women’s organisations affiliated to the UDF articulated linkages between women’s issues and national issues through marches and other forms of protest.


The long history of women’s activism in the national liberation struggle in South Africa is well documented. Several authors have investigated the mobilisation of women in trade-union organisations in the 1970s and 1980s. Although women trade unionists began organising against Afrikaner nationalism as far back as the 1930s, perhaps a useful starting point is the revival of trade-union activism in the 1970s, which spread consciousness among women workers about political and economic injustices, and also helped to shape the ideological content and strategic direction of the women’s movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The Durban strikes of 1973 triggered the formation of unions that went on to become the core of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). This umbrella union combined with other unions to form the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in the mid-1980s.

It was through these trade union movements that women became organisers and rose to positions of influence in South Africa. Women such as Bertha Gxowa, Linda Kompe and Emma Mashinini were influential activists in the trade unions that emerged in the 1940s to 1970s. The South African Clothing Workers Union (SACWU), the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), the Garment Workers Union (GWU) and others all represented avenues through which women would organise against labour oppression. Through their work in labour unions, women received invaluable training in negotiation skills, mobilisation techniques and mass-action strategies. In these ways, trade-union activism changed women’s personal and collective identities and forged a collective solidarity. Though they were active political participants, women were for the most part absent from political leadership roles in the 1980s —an absence attributable to the lack of specific gender-defined women’s issues and to the increase in violent confrontation within the struggle.

In the 1980s, with democracy increasingly envisioned as emerging from below, internalised forms of resistance to apartheid like the civic movement, sought to develop loci of grassroots power among ordinary people to promote a process of radical, mass-based transformation at the community level. Additionally, the development of “people-driven” political organisations and the articulation by civic groups of a political approach to ending apartheid opened up space for the political mobilisation of women in the household, the community and the work place, at an unprecedented scale.

Shireen Hassim has argued that the aims of feminists within women’s organisations expanded the vision of democracy brought about by the civic movement and the UDF in the 1980s. Feminists did not merely seek a regime change or, even more broadly, the expansion of democratic decision-making to reflect people’s power. They also reconsidered the ways in which private inequalities shaped the differential capabilities of women and men. Therefore, women’s gendered responsibilities for household and community reproduction acquired a broader political significance.

The strategies adopted by these women included the embracing of a traditional “motherist” ideology to promote progressive change and the strategic actions and alliances of certain key female players. Women organised around a maternal identity and fought to save the nation for their children. The motherist approach and other identities enabled women to drive issues from the private sphere into the public sphere. And yet, critically, the adoption of these gender-specific roles was a result of women’s demobilisation from confrontational activities.

A common debate regarding women and the liberation struggle has been about how South African female activists had to negotiate their relationship to the national liberation struggle. The tension between nationalism and feminism has thus been a central part of documenting South African women’s struggle. While participation in the national liberation movement was beneficial for women, allowing them to universalise the demand for gender equality within a struggle for national liberation, the extent to which the two were complementary remains questionable. Some scholars support the notion that national liberation struggles around the world tended to relegate gender priorities to a secondary position.

This paper investigates the variations in women’s participation in 1980s King Williams Town, and the effect of the broader social structure on women’s political participation.


Recent research on social movements has focused on conceptualising the political environments that these movements face. The “political opportunity” or “political process” approaches of scholars such as Bert Klandermans, Hanspeter Kriesi, Doug McAdam, John McCarthy, Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, and Mayer Zald have helped pioneer this important development. The basic premise behind these approaches is that external factors enhance or inhibit prospects for mobilisation. Political-opportunity theorists therefore emphasise political opportunities as important components of social-movement development. They address the fact that the strategies adopted by social movements are contextual and are determined considerably by the prevailing political system and by the opportunities available for social mobilization. The creativity of activists’ choices can be best understood by evaluating the political context in which those choices are made.

In their critiques of political-opportunity theory, scholars have pointed to its structural bias, its lack of a collective definition of “opportunity” and its misunderstanding of the relationship between culture, identity and structure in social movements. For Bahati Kuumba and other scholars, though, the contemporary collective actions of women are rooted in structures of opportunity that are the products of women’s past organising. These scholars state that political opportunity is not gender-neutral and that women have historically drawn on a political tradition of gendered opportunity that connects their responsibilities as women to women’s rights in order to make claims on state and society. In short, they query the traditional model’s under emphasis on gender as a power relation that contributes to broader political opportunities, and its favouring of the formal political realm over the subjective and interpretive aspects of political opportunities.

Consequently, these scholars call for a gendered political-process model that critically questions whether the same political opportunities catalyse activism equally for men and women. This model prefers to speak of “gender-differentiated political opportunities”, which arise from shifts in society’s power structure that differentially impact women’s and men’s ability to organise. Adding a gendered perspective to political-opportunity theory allows for an analysis of the relative positioning of men and women, a focus on gender-differentiated political opportunities, and a move beyond formal sources of power to more female-dominated areas of social life.


Between February and November 2013, I collected data using three main data-collection methods: document analysis (literature review), in-depth interviews with key activists, and focus-group discussions. My approach was retrospective and case-comparative. The retrospective nature of the study meant that I asked questions that reflected on past events. A comparative analysis identifies and weighs the similarities and differences between selected cases. Accordingly, I studied each case-study area in great detail, analysing and tracing patterns between the various cases. To maintain precision and rigor, I ensured the accuracy of my data collection and tried to adhere to strong ethical principles of engagement.


King William’s Town is in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, situated on the banks of the Buffalo River within the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality in the Amatole District. It is the second most populous city in the municipality, with a population of approximately 100,000 inhabitants (“King Williams Town”). King William’s Town’s economy is quite diversified. The three most important service sectors, which are also the three largest sectors in the local economy, are trade, financial services and government services (in order of contribution to the GPP). The town’s economic profile underlines the important service function of the town. With the redrawing of municipal boundaries in 1995, King William’s Town came to encompass eight formerly racially segregated areas, which now constitute the town’s Transitional Local Council area. They are Bhisho, Dimbaza, Ilitha, Phakamisa, Tyutyu, Breidbach, Ginsberg and Zwelitsha.


The settlement of Zwelitsha was developed in 1946 in conjunction with the practice of segregation in King William’s Town. In 1944, the Native Affairs Department had observed that the Ciskei area was heavily overpopulated and overstocked, and that the white farms in its vicinity were overburdened with black African squatters. Zwelitsha was conceived of as a settlement to which squatters could be relocated. It also became a dormitory township for King William’s Town’s African work force and the African population in the Ciskei and Border region. This workforce included employees of the nearby Good Hope Textile Factory owned by the Da Gama Group of South Africa.

Although the textile factory provided jobs and homes for hundreds of unemployed men in King William’s Town and its surrounds, by the end of the 1950s competition from imports meant that the factory was desperate to reduce production costs. To address the problem, women were brought in to the spinning, winding and weaving departments, and at considerably lower wages than men. This led to a flood of young girls moving to Zwelitsha from surrounding farms. Subsequently, a permanent workforce of predominantly African women was established in textile plants across the region. Although it is not clear how the presence of women in the plants shaped activism around waged labour, women participated in the struggles of the day through the church and the civic organisations.


Dimbaza (formerly Mnxesha) is situated 20 kilometres from the centre of King William’s Town, at the western end of an urbanised corridor that now stretches as far as East London. This area contained most of the Ciskei industries and is today still surrounded by undeveloped areas. The town, previously administered by the Ciskei government, was developed in 1967 as a resettlement area for “black South Africans” who had been evicted from “white areas” in the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces. The South African and Ciskei governments designated the area an industrial growth point, and the first industry was established in 1974. By the 1980s, however, the character of the region’s textile industry has been altered by the independence of the Ciskei (with its regime’s drive to attract foreign investment) and the need for automated technology in areas of cheap, manageable female labour (Mager 52). Women’s activism in Dimbaza was therefore intricately tied to the township’s industrial character.


Although very little documentary information on Ginsberg exists, the settlement is best remembered as the birthplace of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Located adjacent to the Tsolo location, it was founded as a response to the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1901. The Borough Council had decided that the advent of the plague necessitated better housing and sanitary conditions, but the “improvements” that they implemented also conveniently furthered segregation attempts along the colour line. All isiXhosa speakers living in the centre of King William’s Town were forced out and resettled in Ginsberg by the 1930s. Its residents were predominantly of a rural background and had been attracted to King William’s Town by the prospect of finding work and accommodation. The location gradually expanded, absorbing the nearby settlement of Tsolo.


In the Eastern Cape, religion has been an important factor in bringing women together. In the face of police brutality, the oppressive Ciskei regime and an assault on the family structure, religion provided support and a collective identity for women. By the late 1970s, several activists in Zwelitsha and the leadership of the King Union Rugby Club, which espoused non-racial sport, had been detained. The Border Council of Churches (BCC) stepped in to lend a hand to families. The BCC, an affiliate of the South African Council of Churches, was at the centre of the anti-apartheid movement in King William’s Town during the 1980s. It worked alongside the Black Consciousness Party in Ginsberg, and also assisted the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee. This latter ANC-linked committee supported women whose husbands had been arrested by the Security Police. The Border Council of Churches provided additional emotional support to these women, providing school fees for their children and ensuring that families were financially maintained in the absence of their bread-winners.

When individual women in the community began to respond to the situation around them, they found an outlet in the church manyano [1] and in the other community-based organisations. Women’s innate propensity for survival in the face of repression, and their responsibility towards community reproduction, acquired a broader political significance through these community structures, as individual women and church groups were left to fill the gaps caused by the fragmentation of family and social life. As Suttner has pointed out, “Notions of motherhood are treated as static and do not take adequate account of why women’s first point of entry into the political arena is often as mothers. They also fail to recognise that male protection of womenfolk is not merely a ‘proprietary’ right, but also an attempt to provide protection against real and ever-present dangers specific to apartheid repression, especially manifested when in police custody” (Suttner 237).

In Zwelitsha, the three prominent women’s charitable organisations in the 1980s were the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Zenzele clubs and the Zwelonke movement. The YWCA is one of the oldest associations in the country, started in Great Britain in 1855 and established in Cape Town in 1886. By 1930 there were seven YWCA branches in South Africa (Masipa 2). The organisation comprised the relatively more educated and better off African church women. A former president in the Ciskei region, Mrs L. B., stated that it was not politically involved, but rather organised women and taught them how to cook, sew and take care of the home. It was also a charitable organisation that organised soup kitchens, counselled the abused and donated clothing to the needy residents of Zwelitsha. Although it began in South Africa as a body of white women concerned primarily with the problems of white girls entering industrial employment, the YWCA began incorporating black chapters towards the middle of the twentieth century. Fatima Meer shows that by the 1940s, the African component was the largest, composed almost entirely of the Zenzele clubs.

The Zenzele clubs were similar in scope and purpose to the YWCA. They eschewed political activism and centered their activities on training women to plough the land. The organisation sought to improve the lives of rural women by enhancing their farming and cooking skills and educating them about basic child and health care. Members of the Zenzele clubs organised bazaars, Women’s Day events, church activities and fundraising campaigns.

The women’s and mothers’ manyano groups were believed to have been established as early as the 1900s. They were initially set up by missionaries to cultivate “devout domesticity” among women, but in the 1980s they also became networks of mutual support for women in the face of social, economic and political hardship, and for women whose husbands had moved to the cities for work. The Zwelonke movement, an active manyano in the area, encompassed women from different churches, denominations and political groups in Zwelitsha. It represented women who were relatively unskilled and uneducated and who mainly domestic workers. Much like the YWCA and the Zenzele clubs, Zwelonke provided domestic support and served as a welfare pool for women, through the organising of stokvels (savings clubs).


In Natal, state repression and male opposition to women’s activism meant that many women found it easier to be involved in community-based women’s organisations, where mobilisation took place at the church and market. In Zwelitsha, it was fear of surveillance, secrecy among comrades and the repressive tendencies of the Ciskei regime that kept women at the margins political organisations. The Ciskei government, under the command of Dr Lennox Sebe, resisted opposition of all kinds, and through the Ciskei Police constructed an atmosphere of fear among its citizenry. A former president of the YWCA in Zwelitsha stated:

At that time you wouldn’t stand up and reveal your political affiliation because you were afraid of being killed. I was part of the UDF women in King William’s Town but I didn’t want to reveal my affiliation to the underground movement (N. L., personal interview, 26 August 2013).

Similarly, for the King William’s Town Women’s Organisation formed in 1984, although UDF affiliation allowed for the collective organisation of women from Zwelitsha and surrounding areas, its ability to operate as a forthright political women’s organisation was hindered by the authoritarian regime, and informed by a gendered discourse where women fit into prescribed domestic roles such as child care, health, nutrition and clothes-making. The organisation was formed with the intention of liberating women, an objective directly tied to these gendered roles. Twenty women formed the executive structure of the organisation, which represented women of the UDF. These women often obtained resources by fundraising, and although many of their activities were aimed at educating women about their oppression, members also used the platform to organise women around their domestic roles. This view of women’s domestic function permeated even women’s self-defined roles, as is evident in the preamble to the Constitution of the Allied Black Women’s Federation:

Black women are basically responsible for the survival and maintenance of their families and largely the socialization of the youth for the transmission of the Black cultural heritage (Gqola 137).

The former treasurer of the King William’s Town Women’s Organisation explained how the fight for national liberation and for emancipation of women were linked:

I was involved with the UDF in 1985 through the King William’s Town Women’s Organisation. We would go to villages outside King William’s Town to organise women and make them aware of what is going on in South Africa, and of the oppression of women. We had to be emancipated as women and discuss our problems at home (N. L., personal interview, 7 August 2013).

The multivalent system of oppression meant that some women were inadvertently thrown into political upheaval. A member of the YWCA stated:

My husband was an ex-political prisoner on Robben Island. He was a PAC man. The Ciskein government would come to search for documents because my husband used to get funding from abroad and the Council of Churches. It was not easy to be the wife of a political man, so rather than being a victim, I decided to follow suit, because whether I was participating or not, I was involved (L. B., personal interview, 9 August 2013).

Although the main thrust of these organisations was the welfare of local women, some served as a camouflage for the channelling of politically motivated grievances. Women of the YWCA took any possible opportunity to discuss political matters within their social networks. At church meetings and at other social events, women discussed the politics of the day, often bemoaning the brutality of the apartheid regime, the dominance of the Ciskei government, and the anticipated emancipation of the African National Congress.

Similarly, though apolitical on the face of it, Zwelonke became a platform for women and mothers who were not politically engaged to partake in civil protests often in defence of their detained husbands and sons, and in defiance of high rents and poor housing. As a member of Zwelonke commented:

All the women in their different uniforms from different churches participated. Most of the women who participated in Zwelonke did not actually participate in politics. But when it came to mass demonstrations for the women of the different churches, they were there—but not in mainstream politics (P. M., personal interview, 27 Jun. 2013).

Fatima Meer has shown that the manyano, too, had the potential for quick politicisation. They defended women’s right to brew beer in the 1940s, resisted the extension of passes to women in 1913 and in the 1950s, and agitated against the expropriation of African-owned property and forced removals in 1954, as well as against statutory inferiorisation of African education in 1955.

These sorts of actions illustrate the overlap of the private and public domains, of family and political life. As Tina Sideris has noted, “the unique relationship women have to domestic institutions puts them at the centre of the battlefield, in situations of war and political repression, and gives them a pivotal role in social reconstruction in the aftermath of conflict” (90). Due to the highly politicised nature of the communities in King William’s Town at this time, women, although primarily concerned with the welfare of their families, could not escape the extremely perceptible presence of apartheid oppression. Moreover, women’s domestic responsibilities meant that they understood and were far more invested than men in policy issues concerned with health, social welfare, street children and the elderly.

By 1991, the ANC Women’s League was unbanned, opening up the space for the women’s groups to forge an overt political identity and a channel to address their grievances as women. The former treasurer of the King William’s Town Women’s Organisation recalled how she and other women often gathered at the Anglican Church to discuss politics. Her flat was used as a hideout for politicians, and as a result these activities invited the presence of the police intelligence who often patrolled the area. Such circumstances contributed to women’s appreciation of their position within the wider liberation struggle.

Yet this awareness did not produce sustained overt political action against the Ciskei and apartheid regimes, and organisations like Zwelonke did not become extremely politicised as their counterparts did in other parts of the country. Women addressed community needs as a response to poor social services and the fragmentation of the family and community. In Zwelitsha, an unfavourable opportunity structure in the form of a violent regime and women’s gendered responsibilities towards community reproduction relegated their participation to the realm of safe spaces.


Although the UDF was formed in 1983 as a front against developments such as the introduction of the Tricameral Constitution and the Black Local Authorities system, the township of Ginsberg had already begun laying the groundwork for mass insurrection, with some organisations being formed after the ban of Black Consciousness activism of the 1970s. The area saw a great deal of activism, spurred by Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and other BCM activists.

In 1983, the Ginsberg Civic Association was formed, along with street and area committees. These structures were given impetus by the launching of the UDF, and largely stood up to the leadership of black local authorities. Although women played a wide role in the street committees and the civic association, there were few represented in important discussions or in leadership positions (V.P., personal interview, 14 Nov. 2013). They were believed to be the “best mobilisers” and took the role of rallying community members (including those that were apolitical) during protest events. Their shouting and singing would draw hordes of curious residents who would eventually amass a crowd of protesters. Similarly, when a group of students was arrested for the burning down of a school, women were at the forefront of the trial at the Grahamstown High Court. These women used the rich social capital in Ginsberg as a tool to build social cohesion around such important political events.

The leadership of the Ginsberg Civic Association remained conscious of the need to include women in its structure, and four women were represented within a committee of nine. Former activists from the organisation maintain that the participation of women was never a mere afterthought, and that women played supportive roles as adherents of the struggle, although they ultimately remained in marginal positions within these UDF-affiliated structures.


Though much has been written about the sexism in the discourse and practice of the BCM, the movement was significant in developing a political outlook among women in Ginsberg from the 1970s onwards. BCM did not have an overt political agenda regarding women, but rather a focus on the promulgation of a Black Nationalist identity. Hadfield has analysed the key role played by youth, women, and churches in supporting and carrying out BCM projects. She reveals how BCM’s Black Community Programs empowered youth and women and altered perceptions of their respective roles in society. Although youth, women and churches were vitally important in BCM programs, the ideology and discourse of the BCM was decidedly masculinist.

There were widely held beliefs that the Black Women’s Federation, formed in 1975, failed to develop a broad support base owing to its ideological location within the Black Consciousness movement. Jessie Duarte, an activist in the Federation of Transvaal Women, has attributed the rise of the Black Women’s Federation to black women who were upwardly mobile but not feminist activists. “[W]omen were still activists at the helm of the traditional patriarch,” she explains, “taking up the spear of national liberation but not taking up the spear for the struggle of women’s emancipation”(Hassim 61). Mamphela Ramphele has offered a different perspective: “It could be argued that it was our privileged position in society that gave us the space to play this role” (Gqola 136). In Ginsberg, some women, predominantly educated and working-class women, were empowered by its ideals and the teachings of BCM leaders:

Black consciousness for most of us was the best thing that could have happened to that generation. Yes, Biko was patriarchal, but he never undermined other people’s views on anything simply because they were women. Our political consciousness was raised because of Biko and BCM (P. M, personal interview, 27 Jun. 2013).

Many women formed part of the BCM’s membership base and others served as one-time movement participants, rousing themselves into action during periods of peak mobilisation. A few women—such as Thembi Nkabinde, Deborah Matshoba, Nomsisi Kraai, Thenjiwe Mtintso, Mamphela Ramphele and Vuyi Mashalaba—defied the typical mould through which female participation in the BCM was prescribed. On the whole, though, few women who were aligned to the BCM were in leadership positions and those who were did not demand an overhaul of the patriarchal character of the movement. Women’s mobility within the movement was also cut short by its banning in 1977.

The accounts of some male activists suggest a gendered approach to women’s participation, as well as a perceived need for men to protect women in the face of increased violence. In response to the view that few organisations had addressed women’s struggles, a former sports activist asserted:

I must be honest, we were chauvinistic in approach in this sense. It was difficult to trust women with serious things. I deduced that the problem we had at the time was to trust them. You can’t expose them to a lot of information because they are vulnerable. When they get detained you know there are assaulted by the police. You can’t blame them when they break and start you know…talking…We felt that we needed to protect them. We needed to involve them in so far as doing the office work kind of thing you know and they must not know about other very sensitive kinds of things…

When I get detained there must be somebody who looks after the family because what happens if I get caught and get sent to gaol for six years or 10 years on Robben Island. There must be someone at home who will keep the fire burning (P. N., personal interview, 27 Jun. 2013).

Closely related to the absence of a feminist agenda and of women in leadership roles was the fact that women’s activism in Ginsberg involved a collective effort and a response to people’s needs. And as was the case in Zwelitsha, women’s concerns were practical and primarily for the safety of their families—what Maxine Molyneux has termed “practical gender needs”. Some people I interviewed pointed to this collective agenda:

Women were always beside the men. Most sons and brothers were in jail so women kept the home fires burning. The well-being and safety of their husbands and children were vital. In Ginsberg there’s never been a situation of the women here and the men there. Everyone was always on par with everyone else and respecting their opinions (P. N., personal interview, 27 Jun. 2013).


The formation of the UDF meant that women in Ginsberg found a forum for channelling their gender-specific grievances. As such, the Ginsberg Women’s Association was formed under the aegis of the UDF and was successful at attracting both working-class and unemployed women. Constituting its membership of over 80 women were prison warders, teachers and nurses. Ten women formed the executive committee, which included a president, chairperson, deputy chairperson, secretary and deputy secretary, treasurer and organiser. Due to the high rates of poverty and unemployment, especially among women, the association had the specific objective of emancipating women. Its foremost mission was the setting up of self-help projects, including the growing of vegetables and sewing clothes, which were often distributed to needy families in the township. The organisation also recognised that it could not detach itself from the political issues that formed part of the daily lives of Ginsberg residents, including women. They often partook in consumer boycotts and stay-aways, and attended marches organised in the greater King William’s Town area.

These issues became “women’s issues”, and were related to issues of street safety and security. The street and area committees that formed under the Ginsberg Civic Association were established to maintain law and order, and women were especially active in these structures. They ensured that the streets were clean and that the municipality maintained the houses and even settled disputes among residents of particular streets. Female members of the street committees also took on motherly roles in ensuring that the streets were free of street children, and that they went to school. Moreover, they used this platform to mobilise residents to join the struggle.

Due to fear of police brutality and incarceration, not all women in Ginsberg participated in political activities and organisations. Nevertheless, in their different capacities as working-class women, mothers and community members, the women I interviewed had remarkable personal accounts of their experiences of oppression, gender inequality and political and community participation. These narratives reveal the real difficulties women faced in organising themselves within a repressive environment and a breakdown of community structures. Yet these women made remarkable efforts to survive and to ensure the safety of their children and dependants, re-creating broken family bonds and social and community relationships. Under hostile socio-economic circumstances, they tried to generate enough income to secure food and build shelters for themselves and those they were taking care of.


Perhaps the most significant structural change that influenced women’s activism in Dimbaza in the 1980s was the increased labour-force participation of women, following the creation of the township as an industrial growth-point. Gay Seidman shows that in South Africa, rapid industrial expansion through the 1960s increased employers’ demands for African labour, and by the 1970s government officials had successfully put into effect the shift towards a black industrial labour force, allowing employers to hire black Africans in skilled positions previously restricted to whites. These developments altered the conditions of social reproduction, increasing the possibility that some women might pursue gender-specific demands more vigorously and strengthening their capacity to do so.

In the 1980s several factories existed in Dimbaza, the majority of which employed female workers from the township, the surrounding villages and King William’s Town. The unsanitary conditions in these factories and the meagre wages tendered to the female factory workers meant that a spirit of discordance soon developed among the work force. While the shift to labour participation did not mean that gender-specific workplace demands were shared by all women, two key factors created a favourable opportunity structure for women’s mobilisation: the presence of activists espousing the importance of women’s participation in the struggle, and the revival and growth of trade-union activism and workers’ unions in the 1980s.


By the 1980s several political prisoners had been released from Robben Island and sent to the Eastern Cape. Activists like Moses Twebe and Smuts Ngonyama were extradited to Dimbaza. The presence of these activists made women (and men) more politically attuned and acutely aware of their oppression. In the same way that Ginsberg became known for the political teachings of Steve Biko, Dimbaza residents were strongly influenced by the leadership of Moses Twebe, and several of the women I interviewed highlighted the influence that he had on their lives as activists. Twebe joined the ANC in the 1950s and, alongside Mandela, was a founding member of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Retracing Mandela’s long walk”). He moved to Port Elizabeth where he became volunteer-in-chief of the ANC. He was arrested and detained at Robben Island in 1963 and was moved to Dimbaza in October 1969. He had received a banning order and was under house arrest for two years, after which he re-entered politics and began mobilising the youth and women. The MK veteran’s influence on the people of Dimbaza was immense, and he was ardent about educating the youth on the struggle. Under his tutelage, the Dimbaza Youth Congress was formed.

Women were mobilised by Mrs Twebe to form women’s structures, including the Dimbaza Women’s Organisation (DWO) in 1984. For this group of women, the sexual division of labour in the home was clearly a point of contest. And yet the choice to inform women about domestic gender inequality appears to have been driven by strategic rather than feminist motives. Women of the DWO informed women that “their place was not in the kitchen, but in the struggle” (M.B., personal interview, 12 February 2013). A former factory worker and shop steward for COSATU and NUMSA was the chairperson of the organisation. Along with Moses Twebe’s wife, 15 women comprised the committee structure of the DWO. As with other civic organisations at the time, the DWO and the Dimbaza Women’s Congress (DWC), formed in 1988, mobilised people around their grievances and needs. With its over 300 female members, the DWC was a force for change in their community and women rallied around the issues that most affected their lives: woman and child abuse, poor housing, unemployment and poverty.

While the emancipation of women from the struggles that were unique to them was an important objective of both organisations, an equally immediate challenge was the preservation of households and communities—a challenge often articulated as “women playing their part within the struggle”. As Janet Cherry explains:

The nature of civic organisation, focused as it was on the household and the concerns of township residents—housing and living conditions, rent and service charges, electricity and sewerage provision—was inherently of concern to women, especially older women who were responsible for households and bore the burden of poor service provision (Gasa 287).


The emergence of trade unions in the early 1970s was largely characterised by strikes over wages. In addition, women’s involvement in labour-movement activities is also highlighted in disputes over trade union recognition rights in the workplace. Women participated in union activities during this period as they were already part of the labour market and were the most affected by low wages.

In Dimbaza, over 200 factories had been established by the 1980s, employing a majority of female workers. Factories such as Midas Jewellery, Consol Plastics, Inter Sky and the Southern Combing factory employed hundreds of women to sew clothes, weave cotton and operate heavy machinery. Many of these women were originally from Middelburg and Cradock, but came to Dimbaza in the 1960s owing to the forced removals of black people from these areas. The grievances of these women, coupled with opportunities for participation, dictated the nature of their involvement in labour-union activism. As Cynthia Tshoaedi has shown, the political-opportunity structure and the ability to identify relevant opportunities were central in placing women’s issues on the agenda of the labour movement (33). In this regard, the launch of COSATU in 1985 was significant for the working class as it signalled its strength to stand against both employers and the apartheid regime. Tshoaedi explains further that COSATU’s adoption of the resolution on gender equality in 1985 was used by women to make demands for transformation and the increased representation of women in the leadership structures of trade unions and in the labour movement as a whole.

In the latter part of the 1980s, unions such as the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU), the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the South African Clothing and Textiles Workers’ Union (SACTWU) began to represent factory workers’ demands. A former factory worker, Mrs. J.A., was employed at the Inter Sky factory in 1986. The factory employed approximately 300 workers, most of whom were women. She felt that the working conditions were generally acceptable, with the exception of the overtime they were expected to work. Her job involved trimming T-shirts with scissors and she was often given the target of completing fifty shirts before 10 am and another fifty after 10 am. She and her fellow workers were represented by SACTWU, which took on wage negotiations with factory bosses in the interest of workers.

However, because of the unfeasible targets prescribed by employees and the lack of change in working conditions, the women of Inter Sky decided to protest. In a protest against the factory in 1987, women ransacked and destroyed furniture in the factory. None of the workers were jailed and the union leaders successfully negotiated with the factory bosses for more lenient conditions. Some of the examples cited by Tshoaedi draw attention to the wage demands made by women during this period. He discusses two disputes over trade-union recognition rights in the workplace, one involving 230 coloured female workers at Eveready and another involving 300 workers (mostly women) at the Turnwright Sweet Factory in Johannesburg who staged a walkout in protest over working conditions in August 1974.

Although poor wages featured prominently in labour strikes during this period, the gender discrimination suffered by women also became an important rallying factor. A former factory worker, Mrs P. R., spoke of the victimisation that factory workers faced at the hands of bosses. As a worker at Consol Plastics, she often worked long hours and overnight shifts with meagre wages. Her struggle to make ends meet was typical of many women in the industry. She also witnessed how other workers were dismissed without any written warning. She was unable to recall the name of the union that had represented them, but spoke of the benefit of having this representation. While she was aware that the most arduous jobs were unfairly given to women, she saw women’s ability to use the machinery as uplifting and empowering.

Perhaps the largest factory in Dimbaza in the 1980s was the Malaysia-owned TW Garments Factory, which employed in excess of 1000 workers. Although the workers were represented by SACTWU, the owners of the factory were strongly against union representation. A former worker at the factory recalled the abuse received at the hands of the factory owners, the working conditions, and her dismay at the closure of the factory in 2004. Her consciousness of gender was forged through her bitter experiences of the patriarchal labour environment.

We were beaten by the owners because they didn’t want us to join SACTWU. I saw that at least the men could fight back, but women could not. The factory closed down in 2004. They didn’t tell anyone…we were not warned. We never even received pay for the whole time we worked there. I was married with two children and my husband was not working…After the union came, we got three months maternity leave. Before that, there was no maternity leave and you’d work till the last day [of pregnancy] (P. R., personal interview, 7 Aug. 2013).

Along with other female workers, she took part in sit-ins and marches demanding increased wages, maternity leave and an end to the mistreatment. The factory workers also protested against the absurd restrictions that allowed for food and lavatory breaks only once per day. In October 2004, the factory closed down on account of bankruptcy, leaving about 1400 workers jobless. Women arrived for work to find the factory locked and deserted. Subsequent to the closure, hundreds of women staged a one-week sit-in at the offices of SACTWU in King William’s Town, demanding that the union ensure payment of all the money owed to them by the factory owners. Police arrested 20 women for illegal occupation of property. Although the Eastern Cape Premier at the time was called on to intervene in the matter, Mrs. P. R. lamented that she and other women had never received a retrenchment pay-out, bonuses or annual leave payment.


A common opinion among the women I interviewed was that during the Lennox Sebe regime (as Chief Minister and then President of the Ciskei from the 1970s to the early 1980s) people were fearful of mobilising against the poor working conditions in the factories. Instead, women elected a representative whose task it was to present workers’ problems to the factory bosses. Although Sebe had supported the creation of the factories as a means of alleviating poverty, he was not overly concerned with the poor working conditions. He adopted a stringent approach to the trade unions operating in the Ciskei, including those in Dimbaza; a number of trade unionists were detained and several unions were banned. The new regime of Oupa Gqozo, who came to power in 1991, saw an increase in unionism, but no change in the general repressiveness of the state. Individuals believed to be ANC loyalists were regularly surveillanced and arrested, their homes torched by the Ciskei police.

The austerity of the Sebe and Gqozo regimes in the Ciskei made organisation difficult and women’s forms of resistance uneven. As in Ginsberg, the thought of organisation was for many Dimbaza women a fearful one. This trepidation, coupled with a sense of duty—to the household and to the factory—meant that women’s organisation was often confined to the church and burial societies. Mrs. N refused to join SACTWU or protest against poor working conditions at the Midas Jewelry factory out of fear of factory bosses.

Although collective formations among women existed and built a sense of solidarity, uniting them in the fight for national liberation, it should not be assumed that the growth in women’s political consciousness during this period was uniform or universal. Mrs. P. R explained that there were two factions of women in Dimbaza: those who were politically conscious and prepared to stand for the greater cause of worker’s rights, and those who had developed an allegiance to the factory bosses. As most managers were against union activity and resistance among the workforce, these women supposedly released the names of workers that were part of unions, in exchange for pay-outs. A worker at the TW Garments factory believed that these women had prior information of the sudden closure of the factory in 2004 but did not inform their co-workers of this.

By 2005, Dimbaza, a once-thriving industrial area, was struggling, after the closure of all its factories. Thousands of women who had been engaged in waged labour and union activism were thrown back into lives of economic hardship. For some, there was apprehension about the possibilities of a change in women’s circumstances:

There are not many differences in the constraints women faced then and now. We were more active then because we thought that if we get this thing we were fighting against, we will be uplifted. But now, township and poor women still suffer. Many of the women we struggled with are struggling even now…they are unemployed (Y. G., personal interview, 11 February 2013).


The participation patterns of women in Ginsberg, Dimbaza and Zwelitsha in the 1980s illustrate how social structures shape the behaviour of social actors and the opportunities (or lack of opportunities) for mobilisation. They also show how gender, as a power relation, contributes to political opportunities. Following Bahati Kuumba’s call for a de-emphasis on formal sources of power and authority, I conclude that, while these should not be completely excluded from our understanding of political opportunities, more female-dominated areas of social life (community, family, kinship networks) need to be recognised as equally essential organisational resources for women’s participation and activism. The study sites make clear how significant these informal resources were in women’s forms of organisation during apartheid.

In Zwelitsha, the manyano and welfare organisations served as organisational resources for women’s collective participation. Women within these structures took on maternal roles in addressing the practical needs and responsibilities of the home as well as the social fragmentation and poor services of the community at large. Barbara Risman’s definition of “structure” denotes a clear dualism between structure and action, with structure as constraint and action as choice. She further asserts that while constraints are an important function of structure, to focus only on structure as constraint minimises its importance. Women and men are not simply coerced into differentiated social roles; they often choose their gendered paths (431). In adopting the support roles that they did, the women of Zwelitsha still served as pillars of strength in times of hardship, handling the critical task of social reproduction.

The black-consciousness ideology that heavily influenced the political consciousness of women in Ginsberg township appears, for the most part, to have drawn in more privileged and educated women. The influence of BCM rhetoric was more pronounced in Ginsberg than in the other areas I studied. In addition, expectations about women’s participation in the struggle were notably gendered, and although a few women defied these prescriptions for participation, many were still absent from leadership positions within the BCM and its various civic structures. For Pumla Dineo Gqola, there is no doubt about the paucity of black women in the organisations of the BCM, and about the conservative terms of their participation in the movement. She quotes Mamphela Ramphele: “women…were involved in the BC movement because they were black. Gender as a political issue was not raised at all” (Gqola 137).

Women here were deemed important as community mobilisers and ralliers. This is not insignificant, given Ginsberg’s long establishment as a township with rich social capital, and women drew on these familial networks as opportunities for mass mobilisation. Critically, too, these women traversed the boundaries of the private and public spheres. Their domestic responsibilities informed their public participation. On the whole, women’s grievances in Ginsberg related to “people’s struggles”, and participation took place through a mass-based and collective effort.

In Dimbaza, labour-force participation and union activism formed a central component of women’s engagement and political resistance, although female factory workers did not organise through union activity until the mid-1980s when laws against union activity became more relaxed. Women carried the full burden of labour in the factories and they therefore responded to strategic gender interests that questioned gender inequality within workplaces and the domestic arena. Many female activists joined the workplace and the trade-union movement already aware of gender inequalities and gender discrimination, while for others this awareness was engendered more acutely by gendered experiences of oppression in the workplace and of apartheid repression. Trade-union activism offered opportunities for these women to organise as a collective gender group and identify issues of common concern.

On the whole, three common factors that conditioned women’s participation in Zwelitsha, Ginsberg and Dimbaza in the 1980s were: a repressive state system, gendered notions of how women should participate, and the collective nature of mobilisation at the time. Firstly, on a macro scale, the social structure, constrained by a repressive regime and women’s gendered responsibilities, relegated women’s participation to the relatively “safe” spaces of the church, home and community networks. In the second instance, many organisations of the liberation movement were principally patriarchal in outlook, and although they did not explicitly pursue a masculinist agenda, they did not promote female leadership within their civic bodies either. For Gay Seidman, these tendencies were rooted in a fear on the part of male leaders that an attempt to change women’s options would divide the “imagined community” upon which their nationalist ideologies were built. Moreover, some nationalist leaders in the anti-colonial struggle avoided explicit challenges to gender subordination because they viewed the domestic arena as the source of an autonomous national identity that had to be protected (291).

While the emancipation of women in various forms was an objective for some women’s organisations, it ultimately did not lead to a sustained activism against the forces and structures that relegated women to positions of subordination, both within the household and at work. In short, there was an articulation of practical gender needs, and not of the strategic gender needs that women require to overthrow power inequalities based on gender. Bonnin’s study of Mpumalanga township in the 1980s illustrates a similar aspect of women’s participation:

Women’s public protests were never intended to challenge existing gender politics. The activities themselves remained within the discourse of the “good wife” yet at the same time they subtly undermined the practice (316).

Women’s consciousness of oppression and of gender inequality, although not uniform or universal, was typically forged from their individual experiences and interactions with gender oppression, including in the household and at the workplace. For some, their choice to participate politically was forged out of this consciousness; for others, participation happened inadvertently.

In terms of collective mobilisation, though the 1970s were a period of organisation-building, the 1980s saw the mass mobilisation of communities in the struggle against apartheid, including youth, women and men. Women’s participation during this time was therefore tied to the broader, urgent pursuit of national liberation, and was informed by practical gender needs, including mending the fragmentation of families and societies in the face of poor services, death and oppression. As such, women’s articulated their grievances regarding poverty and unemployment—the people’s struggles—within the broader struggle against apartheid. The organisation of women in these areas was for the most part subordinated to the broader strategy of the national liberation movement, and the dominance of civic structures through the UDF meant that women were at the forefront of the struggle only marginally. Few organisations were formed as women-centered organisations; where they were, their programmes and actions were fundamentally tied to those of the civics and of the UDF.

The cumulative effect of these factors was that women essentially played supportive roles as wives, mothers and sisters. With the exception of religious structures, there was very little visible leadership of women, especially within political and civic organisations. However, the importance of these more private spaces of participation cannot be ignored. Xolela Mangcu argues that there needs to be a broader understanding of the role of civil society, as more than just the politically motivated movements of the 1980s, but also as the associated networks that have historically provided meaning and action in black communities. Communities and the women within them continue to reproduce themselves through every day, non-political organisation.

[1] Manyano are prayer movements or organisations within the church. These organisations may be incorporative or exclusive. For more on the Manyano movements of South Africa, see Mokhele Madise and Lazarus Lebeloane, The Manyano movements within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa: An expression of freedom of worship (1844 – 1944), Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae, 2008, 34 (2), 117 – 126.


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Kem Igumbor is a research consultant with a strong interest in gender and local development issues. She was based in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa for ten years, were she served in different roles as a volunteer tutor, administrator and lecturer. At present, she is completing doctoral studies on the social and political participation and activism of women in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape since the 1980s.