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Women of the UDF

The early 1980s saw a rebirth of women's organisations, linked to the growing grassroots movement. Women's organisations - notably the Federation of Transvaal Women (Fedtraw) in the Transvaal and the United Women's Organisation (UWO) in the Cape - revived the spirit of Fedsaw, founded in 1954.

As with other newly formed and newly revived mass-based community organisations, they addressed immediate problems facing their members: they helped to organise protests at rent increases and boycotts in support of strikes, and mobilised around issues relating to the removal of "unemployed" women and families to bantustans.

Activist and leader Helen Joseph, in the opening speech, hailed the formation of Fedtraw:

"I know that all our hearts are set on achieving a really great national federation ... you have moved from the grassroots level, the local groups, to this, the Transvaal regional level. And the next step after this will be to a national federation, where you will join with your sister organisations from the Cape and Natal and other areas ...

"We are, this federation is, too, a part of the whole growing liberation movement. Our aims of equality, justice and peace are not only for ourselves as women and mothers; here we struggle alongside our men, our husbands, our brothers, our sons, and we are striving for fundamental rights for our children, our sons as well as our daughters! For the generations to come ...

"This Transvaal Federation of Women is the expression of that inner drive of women which unites us in our struggle for justice, for recognition as women and as human beings, and in the struggle for peace and freedom for all in South Africa."

With the formation of the UDF in 1983, these organisations saw their role increasingly as reaching towards national mobilisation. In 1984, for example, Fedtraw formed local organisations of women in black residential areas throughout the Transvaal. And in December 1984, these groups came together in the Federation of Transvaal Women (Fedtraw) at a conference in Lenasia, as an affiliate of the UDF.

In 1986, Cheryl Carolus, then national co-ordinator of the UDF, later general secretary of the Federation of South African Women, talked about the role of women in the UDF:

"There certainly are a lot of reasons why women in South Africa should be organising as women. As in most countries, we have an unequal economic system - you find that women play a particularly important role in upholding that society ... Maybe one particular example applicable to white women in South Africa: if you look at the whole militarisation question, you look at the army and the campaign against conscription and one just realises that women are socialised to form an important part of that infrastructure which sort of keeps the boys at the border and going to the border, the whole sort of war mentality. The question of women being at home looking after the children, being faithful, knitting socks for Boetie on the border - and that in fact is an important part of keeping the whole war psychology going - and we know how South Africa depends on the army, the extent to which the army fits into the whole South African scene, the extent to which South Africa depends on militarisation as a minority regime.

"So back to the question of women ... We know that in an unequal economic system people are exploited on the basis of race, very similarly people are exploited on the basis of sex; for example, to look at the whole bantustan system again - how that exploits the whole question of sex. The fact that women are reared in a way that makes them think that their place is in the home is important because it means that women are locked into the bantustans. They are the first people who are forcibly removed from so-called squatter camps, because they are not considered to be economically - or as labour units they are not considered to be - viable. It means that they are sent to the bantustans to look after their children, who will in turn go to the mines once their fathers die. ...We look at the questions of how women get paid far less than men, and not in a sort of bourgeois feminist way, but one can actually see how they can get exactly the same kind of labour for half the price going. In that kind of way they exploit people, they use the fact that you are a woman in much the same way as they would use the fact that you are black, not white, to underpay you.

"We feel that women, on that kind of basis, their particular role in SA and the kind of psychology created around upholding an unequal system, that women across colour bars have a lot in common to organise in seeking for a just South Africa - and there's no way that there can be change in a country if half the population is not part of forming that change and in fact benefit from that change. And women in SA form 51% of the population.

"I think from my organisation's point of view, we see women as a particular sector involved in our fight for national liberation. In the same way that you see students organising themselves around particular issues that affect their education, we would see women organising themselves - but not separately. Because firstly, women's oppression will not come to an end unless there is complete national liberation in the country; and we don't see the two processes separate - and for that reason we would see women organising themselves as women forming part of the national democratic struggle in our country."

Source: Interview with Cheryl Carolus, May 1985 (South African History Archive, AL2460: Julie Frederikse Collection)


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