Feminism in South Africa

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South Africa celebrates National Women's Day on August 9th.

Feminism in South Africa has been shaped by struggles for political and racial equality as well as by national and transnational struggles for gender equality.[1] Through the country's transition to multi-racial democracy in the mid-1990s, South African feminism contributed to the process of reconstruction, striving for a nonracist, nonsexist society.[2][3] However, feminist activism and radical transformational politics were largely diluted in the process. Contemporary South African feminism continues to engage with questions of the role of feminism within broader national and international struggles for class and racial equality.[1]


Women's suffrage and political office[edit]

In South Africa, adult white women were given the right to vote in 1930.[4] The first general election at which women could vote was the 1933 election.

Asian and coloured women in South Africa gained suffrage in 1983.[5]:371

In 1933, Leila Wright, wife of Deneys Reitz, was elected as the first female Member of Parliament.[6]

Today, South Africa is ranked among the top five African countries that have high representation of women in the national legislature.[7][8]

Equal pay[edit]

According to the South African Revenue Service, South African women earn on average 28% less than men. This statistic is calculated across the job field, so it includes the total hours worked by each gender showing men simply work harder in the sense of more hours they put in on average. It is illegal in South Africa to pay either gender more or less for the same work per hour or per annum.[9]

Anti-discrimination laws[edit]

On August 9, 1956, some 20,000 women held a protest march at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against passes for women. The march was organised under the banner of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW). This day later became National Women's Day in South Africa.[4]

After the country's first democratic elections in 1994, many discriminatory statutes in South Africa were scrapped and replaced with the Domestic Violence Act of 1998.[9]

Persecution of activists[edit]

During the 1950s, activists from the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) were placed on trial for treason, alongside members of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party and other organisations.[10]:60–61


According to research on the history of the Federation of South African Women, initially, the struggle of women in South Africa was seen as a two-pronged issue: firstly, the issue of apartheid, which discriminated against nonwhites, and secondly, the issue of laws and institutions that discriminated against women. During the time of the Apartheid, women of color experienced significant inequity as they were a part of both repressed groups. Women of color suffered from the structural violence tied to discrimination against non-whites in addition to the being subject to the inequalities assumed by all women.[11] For several decades, anti-apartheid causes and protests took precedence over gender equality initiatives. Following the abolition of apartheid in 1991 and a transition to democracy in 1994, more attention was devoted to women's rights.[12]

Some have argued that feminism in South Africa was often associated with white, middle class women.[13] For black South Africans, feminism may often be a highly charged position to take up; it has been seen as a colonial importation, white and middle-class.[14] This is despite most strong feminists (such as Thuli Madonsela and Zakeeya Patel both being black African woman) being African in contemporary South Africa.


While there is no peak body organisation for women in South Africa, what passes for the women’s movement is a collection of disparate NGOs such as People Opposing Women Abuse, Sonke Gender Justice and Progressive Women’s Movement of South Africa.[9]

Other organisations that have played a historical role in promoting the rights and privileges of South African women include:

Other national and regional organisations include:

  • Progressive Women's Movement of South Africa (PWMSA) – a national women's movement founded in 2006.[4]
  • Rape Crisis (RC) – a feminist nongovernmental organisation based in the Western Cape Province which advocates for gender equality and the freedom from gender-based violence.[5]:98


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Buiten, Denise. "Feminism in South Africa." The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies.
  2. ^ Steyn, Melissa. "A new agenda: Restructuring feminism in South Africa." Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 41-52. Pergamon, 1998.
  3. ^ Frenkel, Ronit. "Feminism and contemporary culture in South Africa." African Studies 67, no. 1 (2008): 1-10.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Women's struggle timeline 1905-2006". sahistory.org.za. 
  5. ^ a b Blee, Kathleen M., and France Winddance Twine, eds. Feminism and antiracism: International struggles for justice. NYU Press, 2001.
  6. ^ "Commando". Cederberg Publishers. 
  7. ^ Mavuso-mda, Adele. "The Rising Tide of Women's National Coalition: The Experience of South Africa." Global Media Journal 8, no. 15 (2009).
  8. ^ Bauer, Gretchen, and Hannah Evelyn Britton, eds. Women in African parliaments. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006.
  9. ^ a b c d "South Africa needs a strong feminist movement to fight patriarchy". The Conversation. 
  10. ^ Shimoni, Gideon. Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa. UPNE, 2003.
  11. ^ Graybill, Lyn (January 2001). "The contribution of the truth and reconciliation commission toward the promotion of women's rights in south africa". Women's Studies International Forum. 24 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1016/S0277-5395(00)00160-6. 
  12. ^ Walker, Cherryl (1991). Women and resistance in South Africa. New Africa Books. 
  13. ^ Van Der Merwe, Anita S. "The power of women as nurses in South Africa." Journal of Advanced Nursing 30, no. 6 (1999): 1272-1279.
  14. ^ Driver, Dorothy. "Transformation through art: Writing, representation, and subjectivity in recent South African fiction." World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (1996): 45-52.
  15. ^ Also referred to as African National Congress Women's Section.
  16. ^ a b Hassim, Shireen. "Voices, hierarchies and spaces: reconfiguring the women's movement in democratic South Africa." Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies 32, no. 2 (2005): 175-193.