The Impact of Women Before and After the Abolishment of Apartheid

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1837 Words
Date:  2022-04-04

Apartheid was a system of discrimination in South Africa that was based on the grounds of race. The legacy of Nelson Mandela, his freedom fight against apartheid and his leadership after the abolishment of apartheid is well documented. However, there was silent oppression that impacted women of all racial and social classes in South Africa. This paper will discuss how apartheid and the oppression of women combined led to an uprising of protest not just for freedom, but also gender equality as anti-apartheid movement was initiated.

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The history of Apartheid dates back to the expansion of European colonialism in the 17th century in Africa. In the 1600's the Dutch and English began a settlement at Table Bay in the Cape in South Africa under colonial rule (Barbarin and Richter 45). They robbed cattle and denied the herders on that land access to water resources and grazing pastures (Barbarin and Richter 45). According to Mhlauli, Salani and Mokotedi in the 19th century, the expansion of European colonization and 'civilizing inferior natives' was attributed to the birth of racism in South Africa (2). This idea of the civilization of inferiors is based on the Darwinism theory of evolution, in which Whites believed that they were superior because they "were at the top of the evolutionary scale" (Mhlauli, Salani and Mokotedi 2).

From there Apartheid emerged, but it started off as a campaign slogan for the Nationalist Party in the 1940's; apartheid meaning separateness. Politics of this party promoted the idea of separation, and after winning the election, this ideology led to the formation of Afrikaner Nationalism that promoted supremacy over non-Whites and led to a system of racial discrimination (Barbarin and Richter 112). Their goal was to isolate non-Whites frorm Whites and to divide Blacks from each other along their tribal-lines to take away their power. Mhlauli, Salani, and Mokotedi state that "Winning political power thus put the Afrikaners in a position to steer the country in any direction they so desired. The greatest desire of the Nationalist Party was to take over the major institutions, that is, the economy, the political and educational systems. To achieve its goals, the National Party had to design a system which would elevate whites over other racial groupings through economic and political deprivation." (3). The prosperity and power of White individuals in South Africa were based on how they used their power to exploit Black South African labor. The white people wanted to control all aspects of development form education to the economy and even the politics. They did not want black South Africans to rise or be empowered since this would initiate their downfall. They, therefore, resulted in oppressing the Blacks and this included women South Africa.

One of the strongest types of oppression was the oppression of women in South Africa. It dates back to Dutch and European colonial settlement. The impact of apartheid affected the people being oppressed, but all women in South Africa were placed into different levels of this oppression depending their race and social class, which was the lowest ranking position. Being a woman meant you were a second-class citizen and the ideology of apartheid supported this theory (Clark and Worger 45). During the reign of apartheid, the legislation enacted by the South African government always emphasized on the differences that existed among individuals. The sex (man or woman) and skin color determined the life role an individual would play once they are born (Nolde 205). This meant that jobs, status, achievements were all predetermined. This second-class citizenship also meant you were subject to either customary or common law, and it would be up to the Commissioner of the courts to decide which law to use. "This racial and sexual bias is legally established by a system developed through a blend of parliamentary supremacy, common law, and customary law. Parliament may make laws on any subject it pleases, and no court of law may inquire into the validity of any Act of Parliament, except one which affects equal language rights" (Nolde 206). This meant that discrimination was well established in law and hence it was difficult for the Blacks to fight it in any way. As much as men were being oppressed, women faced even tougher oppression during this period as there was no platform for them to articulate their grievances. Furthermore, since racial and sexual biases were legally set, women at this time had no rights.

The impact of oppression of women was not equally felt by all across the board. White women suffered mostly from legal discrimination and sexism, but overall the least because they benefited from being in the highest racial ranking. Indian women were oppressed and experienced poverty, but they were able to move around to find jobs and have some normal family life, however, for a Black woman their oppression was triple; gender, class, and race. Black women were at the bottom of the pedestal, and the only opportunities that could ever exist were either doing domestic work or agricultural labor. More than half of Black women found themselves doing low skill work with low wages, and young Black girls were often forced to leave school at an earlier age to begin domestic duties (Nolde 205). As far as families were concerned, they were often separated from their spouses and older sons. This separation meant absent fathers, broken families and a violation of human rights. (Andrews 695) "This systematic separation of black children from their fathers and wives from their husbands created social and psychological conditions, which have yet to be explored in South Africa." (Andrews 696). Black women and their children could occasionally be separated meaning that women did not have a chance to raise their kids the way it should and this bad for their psychological development. This separation was undoubtedly hard for black women to cope with being that they now had a family to raise on their own.

During the years of apartheid, there were many forms of resistance from non-violent protests, strikes, and political actions. Many peaceful attempts failed, many people died, and several leaders in the ANC military wing were either captured, executed or imprisoned fighting for freedom. The founder of this military wing was Nelson Mandela, and when he was imprisoned, it drew tons of international support and attention for the abolishment of apartheid. The whole world was watching, and the racism that was happening in South Africa was exposed.

The world knew about the racial discrimination, but the oppression of women was not discussed. Women in South Africa had to fight most on their own as the world, and the nation concentrated on the general racial discrimination.

The freedom from the oppression of women was a fight within a fight. Fighting against apartheid for women were fighting against the one thing that justified their abuse. According to Nolde "The collectivized strength of South African women has historically played a significant role in the anti-apartheid movement." (213). One of the most famous protests was in 1956 when 20,000 women marched to protest the past law system. Women from all over the country and mostly from Cape Town came forward and decided to protest against the previous legislative laws that were discriminating them basing on their sex (Bond 49). The laws did not recognize women as important members of the society, and this is something women felt needed to change. There was an emergence of groups over the years formed by women that protested, marched and supported the anti-apartheid movement. Women formed groups, associations, and unions to come together to support and inspire one another. Organizations such as the "Federation of South African Women" were formed to fight against the exploitation of women and the anti-apartheid movement. After that, many other unions were formed such as the "Congress of South African Trade Union" (COSATU) (Coombes 5).

As years passed, people became more and more aware of their rights. Women also were not left behind, as they were actively involved in several unions that were fighting racial and other forms of discrimination. Nolde states that "In 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) adopted a set of resolutions on working women in South Africa" (215). This was one of the first major movements towards gender equality in the workforce for women. It was a big risk for women even to be involved in these unions. They took risks to be a part of this movement. Also, "The ANC Women's League produced a document on June 11, 1991, setting forth its goals and determinations concerning women's protection and advancement. It is titled, -Programme of Action, a Plan of Action on Affirmative Action and Women's Emancipation- Within the document, domestic workers' concerns are addressed" (Nolde 215). Here again, the power of Women's organization to move forward women's rights. "The Women's National Coalition lobbied the major political parties throughout the constitutional negotiations to address women's issues and to commit to the principle of gender equality." (Andrews "Apartheid to Non-Sexism" 718). Over the several years and after apartheid was abolished, the South African government passed several legislations to improve the quality of life for women. The Domestics Violence, Employment Equity and the Recognition of Customary Marriages Acts were passed in 1998 (Andrews "Violence Against Women" 720).


In conclusion, South Africa evolved from being a racist, misogynistic and sexist society for years using Darwinism and separation as a way to control people and gain power. It took over 50 years for the people who were being oppressed to rise and overthrow apartheid. Many people suffered, died, and were incarcerated for fighting for what was right. Women were degraded to a great extent and ended up becoming the backbone of the anti-apartheid. Although there isn't a lot of history documented about women during apartheid, it was clear that they were an important force in the movement. South Africa has come a long way in reformation, but I still believe there is a lot of work to be done.

Works Cited

Andrews, Penelope, "From Gender Apartheid to Non-Sexism: The Pursuit of Women's Rights in South Africa" (2001). CUNY Academic Works.

Andrews, Penelope, "Violence Against Women in South Africa: The Role of Culture and the Limitations of the Law" (1999). CUNY Academic Works.

Barbarin, Oscar A., and Linda M. Richter. Mandela's children: Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa. Routledge, 2013.

Bond, Candace Lillie, "The Revolution Will Be Recognized: Black South African Women's Fight Against Patriarchy and Apartheid" (2010). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 652.

Clark, Nancy L., and William H. Worger. South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

Coombes, Annie E. History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory In A Democratic South Africa. Duke University Press, 2003

Mhlauli, Mavis B., End Salani, and Rosinah Mokotedi. "Understanding apartheid in South Africa through the racial contract." International Journal of Asian Social Science 5.4 (2015): 203-219.

Nolde, Judith (1991) "South African Women Under Apartheid: Employment Rights, with Particular Focus on Domestic Service & Forms of Resistance to Promote Change," Third World Legal Studies: Vol. 10, Article 10:

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The Impact of Women Before and After the Abolishment of Apartheid. (2022, Apr 04). Retrieved from

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