The Free State Women’s Anti-Pass Protests

The three newspapers featured here, Abantu-Batho (People), founded by Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Indian Opinion of Mahatma Gandhi and Tsala ea Batho (People’s Friend) of Sol Plaatje, were among the most courageous investigative papers of the day. 

South African journalism in 1913 was marked by domination of the white-owned press. Black newspapers lacked adequate revenue and relied on a readership with greatly restricted incomes. However, enterprising editors such as J.T. Jabavu, John Dube and Solomon Plaatje managed to keep going the first generation of the independent black press, including these three papers. By 1913, this golden age of the black-owned press was limping along, but would soon go into steep decline. 

The two articles are closely connected in political and gender context. The eyewitness reports tell stories of campaigning by African women against the pass laws. The first, from Abantu-Batho, gives voice to vigorous protests by Winburg women in June 1913. Indian Opinion reprinted it, assuring it wider readership. The writer records the dialogue with the location superintendent, highlights the women’s own views (unusual in press reports then, and more so in Abantu-Batho), and describes in detail the women’s festive, yet deadly serious and disciplined, demonstration, vividly capturing their grim determination to continue until victory and their disdain of these ‘dirty papers’ (passes).

The contemporary press rarely carried reporter names and authorship of the first article is unclear. Plaatje was in the region at the time, but aspects of style suggest it may not have been him (Willan, 2018a). Direct connection with Abantu-Batho is also less evident, though editors Cleopas Kunene and Daniel Letanka attended Congress gatherings in the area and prominent local Congress activists such as Edward Sauer Mochochoko are possible authors, as are black women of Winburg who wrote letters to the press on passes. It may even have been a white sympathiser, as in Winburg lawyer Antonie Baumann and his wife Marie, who defended the women. Irrespective of authorship, the article is a fine piece of investigative reporting that captures the features and colour of the protests, people involved and their causes.

The author of the second piece is likely Plaatje. A celebrated South African journalist (Limb, 2016; Willan, 2018b), he travelled across the Free State at the time campaigning against the Land Act and pass laws. White Free State politicians had strongly promoted the Act and pass laws and Plaatje’s journalism, like that of Gandhi, had long targeted their prejudice. Here we see Plaatje’s direct investigative reporting as, together with local female activists, he visits the women in prison and takes up their cause using characteristic striking metaphor and clear logical argument, deftly combining measured fact with principled commitment. His investigations continued for months after. This is Plaatje at his best as an eloquent and probing investigative journalist campaigning against the Land Act and the imposition of passes on black women.

The impact of both pieces was considerable. Circulation of the black press then was limited, but copies were passed from hand to hand and such reports fed into a growing stream of protest. The women had courageously taken the lead, and press accounts of their defiance such as these stung men into action, as seen in huge anti-pass protests in 1919. The 1913 women’s protests were not forgotten and were invoked as a symbol of liberation movement struggle in the grim apartheid years. The stories aroused great indignation and helped swell the numbers of the nascent Congress and give direction to its new policies that if in retrospect might appear tame, nevertheless were bold for their time and enabled Congress to mark out a national, critical approach much removed from the hamba kahle (‘Go in peace’) approach of Jabavu. They also show black newspaper networks sharing investigative reports, which in turn helped strengthen wider black unity, for example between the ANC and the African Political Organisation and its organ, APO.

The gender ramifications of the reports are particularly interesting. Plaatje in this and earlier reports championed recognition of women’s political role. Moreover, whereas elsewhere direct female participation in Congress was very limited, women delegates were active in the Free State Congress. And, white papers of the day commented that ‘the spirit of revolt’ among protestors was in part induced by their reports of suffragette protests in England (Bloemfontein Post, 29 May 1913). Importantly, Plaatje went on the road and joined women in gaol to listen closely to their stories. 


Bloemfontein Post, 29 May 1913; also cited in Julia Wells, ‘The history of black women’s struggle against pass laws in South Africa 1900–1960’, PhD Columbia University, 1982, p. 122. 

Limb, Peter. 2016. ‘The print world of the press and Native Life in South Africa’, in Janet Remington, Brian Willan & Bheki Peterson (eds), Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa, Past and Present. Johannesburg: Wits University Press. 

Willan, Brian. 2018a. Email to Peter Limb, 1 April. 

Willan, Brian. 2018b. Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876–1932. Johannesburg: Jacana Media. 

Native Women’s Brave Stand 

Indian Opinion, 2 August 1913, reprinted from Abantu-Batho, July 1913 

In Winburg – the oldest town in the Free State – as soon as the women heard what the Bloemfontein women had done and were doing (observes the native newspaper, Abantu), they also decided to take action. A meeting was immediately called, in which it was agreed that all the passes be collected and delivered to the proper authorities with the intimation that the papers will not be wanted any longer.On Monday, June 2, all the women of the location assembled at the square and formed themselves into a procession and proceeded towards the town.On reaching the gate dividing the town and the location they stopped, and all the passes were collected from each individual, young and old, and were wrapped up in a rag and the bundle was carried onwards.Being led by three big tall women, they marched 10 by 10 through the town.The three leaders had flags of the Union Jack as an emblem of freedom and liberty.Young women and girls had sticks, whips and sjamboks.The old ladies had long broom-sticks in their hands.There was no outward demonstration; no noise, no shouting or singing – in fact, one woman in the crowd tried to sing and demonstrate, but she was quickly stopped by the others; sticks and sjamboks being instantly applied to silence the woman who dared to make noise of any sort! The procession was quiet and very impressive; so much so that for want of a biercoach and two black horses, it might have resembled a funeral procession.Nevertheless, the women went on bravely and resolutely, pledged never to carry the obnoxious passes again.The same paper thus amplifies the account: 

The Town Hall was reached.A clerk appeared, and the women demanded to see the Superintendent of the Location.He was soon found, and when he appeared he said: ‘Oh! You people almost frightened me.What’s wrong?’ 

‘We’ve brought your passes: we don’t want them any more’, spoke one of the leaders, showing the little bundle.The Superintendent said: ‘I don’t want the dirty things!’ 

‘Where shall I put them?’ asked the same woman, and then threw the bundle down at the door, whereas the Superintendent had pointed to some other direction where to put the ‘dirty’ papers.But eventually he called a clerk or official to pick the bundle up and commanded him to burn it at the yard yonder.The women were also standing in the yard, and so the bundle was picked up, and at a further corner a match was lit and put into the bundle.Thus, in the presence of the Superintendent and before all the women, the ‘dirty’ passes were burnt into ashes! 

To an outsider it was an amusing little ceremony, but to the women it meant much and more than the Superintendent himself realised.

The Superintendent then said the married women need not carry passes, but that all young ones must.The leaders protested against their daughters being compelled to carry passes as if they were loose girls.The Superintendent, however, took down the names of the three leaders, and then made the rest file in fives so as to count them.They numbered 162.He told them to go away quietly, and promised to bring their grievances before the Town Council and would report the result to the Location Vigilance Committee.The crowd, satisfied for the time, dispersed quietly without noise or singing or other demonstration.

The scene was a great contrast to that which I described to your readers a little while ago about the Bloemfontein women of the Waaihoek Location.At Winburg everything was done quite simply and orderly – the forming of the procession; the solemn delivery of passes by each individual; the impressiveness of the march towards the Town Hall; the gentle manner in which the ‘dirty’ bundle was thrown down in front of the Superintendent; the short, interesting ceremony of the burning of passes; the quiet and orderly way in which the crowd dispersed – each act, one by one, showed in remarkable degree what combination can do, what great victory boldness and determination can win.One wondered how these women kept their tempers and remained orderly throughout, more especially when one remembered those wild and violent scenes of big political demonstrations by the women of England – the disorderly and unwoman-like scenes one so often witnessed in Hyde Park, or Trafalgar-square, or on the Bristol Downs.There was no doubt at Winburg as to which demonstration was more ladylike in conduct and manner.

The day after I asked one of the women who had taken part as to what they would do next.She said, ‘We won’t carry passes, and we are determined to go to Edenburg (meaning to gaol) and to reduce the Pass Law into ashes, as we did the “dirty papers”.’ This was without doubt a solemn declaration representing the united opinion of all other women, not only in Winburg, but throughout the Free State.

The War of Degradation! The Imprisoned Women: Happiness in Adversity 

Sol Plaatje, Tsala ea Batho, 16 August 1913 

Denied the right to wear their own boots, but determined to return to gaol till the stubborn Bloemfontein Municipality gathers some sense. 

Last Sunday morning, in company with Mrs Pitso and Mr and Mrs Michael Petrus, our editor visited the 34 native and coloured women of Bloemfontein, who were sentenced to two months’ hard (labour) under the exceptional ‘Free’ State conditions, which forces native women to carry passes.They are incarcerated at the Kroonstad gaol, to which they were transferred from Edenburg.They are keenly determined to fight the pass business to its bitterest end.They are subsisting on the coarsest diet, but recognise they have not gone to Kroonstad to enjoy themselves but to fight bitterly for their liberty.Their only complaint is that if the Union government or whoever feels benefited by their imprisonment, had no boots to offer them doing their imprisonment, he could at least have allowed them to wear their own shoes.This is denied them, they are told, by the Doctor’s orders.Perhaps it will be good for his profession if 34 coloured women can contract disease and became invalids for the rest of their lives; who knows? Any way, they are determined that until the Bloemfontein Municipality shakes off its imbecility, they are prepared to return to prison; and, if necessary, die there, but they are determined that the struggle will only end when the Bloemfontein Municipality ceases to send male policemen to accost respectable coloured women in the streets and order them to turn out their skirt pockets for the Badge of Degradation.Some of the most refined … women of Bloemfontein are negotiating the pebbles and the cement floor with the bare skins of their feet.There is no doubt that the pain … is having a serious effect upon them.… For they present the appearance of … sheep suffering from foot and mouth disease.We admire their determination, and their incarceration has, if anything, only served to harden their hearts.And we were glad to find the preparations at Bloemfontein showing that a rousing welcome is awaiting them on their glorious homecoming on the 24th .