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Chapter VII Persecution of Coloured Women in the Orange Free State Ripe persecution, like the plant Whose nascence Mocha boasted, Some bitter fruit produced, whose worth Was never known till roasted. When the Free State ex-Republicans made use of the South African Constitution -- a Constitution which Lord Gladstone says is one after the Boer sentiment -- to ruin the coloured population, they should at least have confined their persecution to the male portion of the blacks (as is done in a milder manner in the other three Provinces), and have left the women and children alone. According to this class legislation, no native woman in the Province of the Orange "Free" State can reside within a municipality (whether with or without her parents, or her husband) unless she can produce a permit showing that she is a servant in the employ of a white person, this permit being signed by the Town Clerk. All repressive measures under the old Republic (which, in matters of this kind, always showed a regard for the suzerainty of Great Britain) were mildly applied. Now, under the Union, the Republicans are told by the Imperial authorities that since they are self-governing they have the utmost freedom of action, including freedom to do wrong, without any fear of Imperial interference. Of this licence the white inhabitants of the Union are making the fullest use. Like a mastiff long held in the leash they are urging the application of all the former stringent measures enacted against the blacks, and the authorities, in obedience to their electoral supporters, are enforcing these measures with the utmost rigour against the blacks because they have no votes. Hence, whereas the pass regulations were formerly never enforced by the Boers against clergymen's wives or against the families of respectable native inhabitants, now a minister's wife has not only to produce a pass on demand, but, like every woman of colour, she has to pay a shilling for a fresh pass at the end of the month, so that a family consisting of, say, a mother and five daughters pay the municipality 6s. every month, whether as a penalty for the colour of their skins or a penalty for their sex it is not clear which. There is some unexplained anomaly in this woman's pass business. If the writer were to go and live in the "Free" State, he could apply for and obtain letters of exemption from the ordinary pass laws; but if his wife, who has had a better schooling and enjoyed an older civilization than he, were to go and reside in the "Free" State with her daughters, all of them would be forced to carry passes on their persons, and be called upon to ransack their skirt pockets at any time in the public streets at the behest of male policemen in quest of their passes. Several white men are at present undergoing long terms of imprisonment inflicted by the Orange "Free" State Circuit Courts for criminally outraging coloured women whom the pass laws had placed in the hollow of the hands of these ruffians. Still many more mothers are smothering evidence of similar outrages upon innocent daughters -- cases that could never have happened under ordinary circumstances. The Natives of the "Free" State have made all possible constitutional appeals against these outrages. In reply to their petitions the Provincial Government blames the municipalities. The latter blame the law and the Union Parliament, and there the matter ends. We have read the "Free" State law which empowers the municipalities to frame regulations for the control of Natives, etc., but it must be confessed that our limited intelligence could discern nothing in it which could be construed as imposing any dire penalties on municipalities which emancipate their coloured women from the burden of the insidious pass law and tax. Hon. Mr. H. Burton, as already stated, was Minister for Native Affairs before the Union Government surrendered to the "Free" State reactionaries. A deputation consisting of Mrs. A. S. Gabashane, Mrs. Kotsi and Mrs. Louw, women from Bloemfontein -- the first-named being a clergyman's wife -- waited on him in Capetown on the subject of these grievances, and he assured them that in response to representations made by the Native Congress, he had already written to Dr. Ramsbottom, the Provincial Administrator, asking him to persuade the "Free" State municipalities to relieve the native women from this burden. And if to relieve native women in the "Free" State from a burden which obtains nowhere else in the Union were unlawful, as the municipalities aver, Mr. Burton -- a K.C. -- would have been the last person to ask them to break the law. Subsequently the women petitioned Lady Gladstone for her intercession. But we wonder if the petition was ever handed to Lady Gladstone by the responsible authority who, in this instance, would have been the Department of Native Affairs. Notwithstanding all these efforts, native women in the "Free" State are still forced to buy passes every month or go to prison, and they are still exposed to the indecent provision of the law authorizing male constables to insult them by day and by night, without distinction. After exhausting all these constitutional means on behalf of their women, and witnessing the spread of the trouble to the women and children of the country districts under the Natives' Land Act, the male Natives of the municipalities of the Province of the Orange "Free" State saw their women folk throwing off their shawls and taking the "law" into their own hands. A crowd of 600 women, in July, 1913, marched to the Municipal Offices at Bloemfontein and asked to see the Mayor. He was not in, so they called for the Town Clerk. The Deputy-Mayor came out, and they deposited before him a bag containing their passes of the previous month and politely signified their intention not to buy any more passes. Then there occurred what `John Bull' would call, "----l with the lid off". At Jagersfontein there was a similar demonstration, led by a jet-black Mozambique lady. She and a number of others were arrested and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. The sentences ranged from about three weeks to three months, and the fines from 10s. to 3 Pounds. They all refused to pay the fines, and said their little ones could be entrusted to the care of Providence till their mothers and sisters have broken the shackles of oppression by means of passive resistance. As the prison authorities were scarcely prepared for such a sudden influx of prisoners there was not sufficient accommodation for fifty-two women, who were conveyed on donkey carts to the adjoining village of Fauresmith. When this happened, Winburg, the old capital of the "Free" State, also had a similar trouble. Eight hundred women marched from the native location to the Town Hall, singing hymns, and addressed the authorities. They were tired of making friendly appeals which bore no fruit from year's end to year's end, so they had resolved, they said, to carry no more passes, much less to pay a shilling each per month, PER CAPITA, for passes. A procession of so many women would attract attention even in Piccadilly, but in a "Free" State dorp it was a stupendous event, and it made a striking impression. The result was that many of the women were arrested and sent to prison, but they all resolutely refused to pay their fines, and there was a rumour that the Central Government had been appealed to for funds and for material to fit out a new jail to cope with the difficulty. This movement served to exasperate the authorities, who rigorously enforced the law and sent them to jail. The first batch of prisoners from Bloemfontein were conveyed south to Edenburg; and as further batches came down from Bloemfontein they had to be retransferred north to Kroonstad. In the course of our tour in connexion with the Natives' Land Act in August, 1913, we spent a week-end with the Rev. A. P. Pitso, of the last-named town. Thirty-four of the women passive resisters were still incarcerated there, doing hard labour. Mrs. Pitso and Mrs. Michael Petrus went with us on the Sunday morning to visit the prisoners at the jail. A severe shock burst upon us, inside the prison walls, when the matron withdrew the barriers and the emaciated figures of ladies and young girls of our acquaintance filed out and greeted us. It was an exceptionally cold week, and our hearts bled to see young women of Bloemfontein, who had spent all their lives in the capital and never knew what it was to walk without socks, walking the chilly cemented floors and the cold and sharp pebbles without boots. Their own boots and shoes had been taken off, they told us, and they were, throughout the winter, forced to perform hard labour barefooted. Was ever inhumanity more cold-blooded? Do these "Free" Staters consider their brutality less brutal because it happens to be sanctioned by law? Is Heaven so entirely unmindful of our case that it looks on with indifference when indignity upon indignity is heaped, not only upon our innocent men, but even upon our inoffensive women? Tears rolled down our cheeks as we saw the cracks on their bare feet, the swellings and chronic chilblains, which made them look like sheep suffering from foot-and-mouth disease. It was torture to us to learn the kind of punishment to which they were subjected and the nature of the work they were called upon to perform; these facts were stated to us in the presence of the prison officials, and they were communicated by us to the Native Affairs Department merely as a matter of course. But what must be the effect of this brutal punishment upon girls who knew only city life? To our surprise, however, they vowed never to buy passes, even if they had to come back. A month later, when we visited Bloemfontein, a majority of those who were at the Kroonstad jail had already returned to their homes, and the family doctors were doing a roaring trade. Their practice, too, was most likely to continue to boom as the sufferers were still determined to buy no more women's passes. This determination caused a white man to suggest that "instead of being sent to prison with hard labour, these madcaps should be flogged" -- and this because the women refuse to be outraged by law. Our visit to Kroonstad took place just after the Circuit Court had convicted the white superintendent of the Kroonstad Native Location for an outrage upon a coloured woman. He arrested her in the location ostensibly because she could not produce her residential pass, and in the field between the location and the town through which he had to escort her to prison he perpetrated the atrocity. In sentencing him to four years' hard labour, the Chief Justice said for a similar crime upon a white woman a black man would be liable to the death penalty. When General Botha assumed the portfolio of Native Affairs at the time of this trouble, the writer, as General Secretary of the Congress, telegraphed to him the greetings of the South African Native Congress, and pointed out to him that over two hundred coloured women were at that time languishing in jail for resenting a crime committed upon them, a crime which would have been considered serious in any other place outside the "Free" State. The chivalrous General replied in a Dutch telegram containing this very courteous reply: "It shall be my endeavour, as hitherto, to safeguard the just interests of the inhabitants of this land irrespective of colour." General Botha's assurances are so sweet, especially when they are made to persons who are not in a position to influence his electoral support. The Natives, who know the "sweets" of these assurances cannot be blamed if they analyse the Premier's assurances in the light of their past experience, especially the phrase "as hitherto". To them it conveys but one idea, namely, "If the future policy of the South African Government found it convenient to send coloured women to prison in order to please the ruling whites, they will, AS HITHERTO, not hesitate to do so." While on the subject of native women, it is deeply to be regretted that during this year, while the Empire is waging a terrible war for the cause of liberty, His Excellency the Governor-General in South Africa should have seen his way to issue a Basutoland Proclamation -- No. 3 of 1915. This law decrees that under certain penalties, no native woman will be permitted to leave Basutoland "without the permission of her husband or guardian". The Proclamation on the face of it may look comparatively harmless, but its operation will have wide and painful ramifications amounting to no less than an entrenchment of the evils embraced in polygamy; and in carrying out this decree civilization will have to join hands with barbarism to perpetuate the bondage, and accentuate the degradation, of Basuto women. It is a fact that no respectable Mosuto woman wants to leave her husband or guardian; but the economic conditions of to-day press very heavily on polygamous wives. Their lord and master finding himself no longer able to provide for half a dozen houses at a time, bestows on them the burden and anxieties of wifehood without its joys, namely, a husband's undivided care and the comforts due to wives in monogamous marriages. Some of these polygamous wives have from time to time sought relief in emigrating to European centres where they could earn their own living and send food and raiment to their little ones. A woman cannot always be blamed for having entered into a polygamous marriage. More often than not, she did so in obedience to the wishes of her aged parents. The old people, in many instances, have judged present day economics from the standard of their own happy days when there was plenty of land and rainfalls were more regular; when the several wives and children of a rich cattle-owner could always have enough grain, eat meat, drink milk and live happily. But times are altered and even a monogamist finds the requirements of one wife quite a stupendous handful. The country is so congested that the little arable land left them yields hardly any produce. I have seen it suggested in official documents that sheep-breeding should be limited in Basutoland as there is not enough grazing for the flocks. And under this economic stress these surplus wives are sometimes driven to accept the overtures of unscrupulous men who gradually induce them to wallow in sin; hence too, they give birth to an inferior type of Basuto. That such a law should be adopted during the reign of Chief Griffith, their first Christian Chief and the first monogamist who ever ruled the Basuto, is disappointing. And while we resent the policy of the British authorities in the Union, who promote the interests of the whites by repressing the blacks, we shall likewise object to an attempt on the part of the same authorities in the native territories to protect the comfort of black men by degrading black women. God knows that the lot of the black woman in South Africa is bad as it is. One has but to read the report of the Commission recently appointed by the Union Government to inquire into cases of assault on women to find that their condition is getting worse. Presumably the evidence was too bad for publication, but the report would seem to show that in South Africa, a country where prostitution was formerly unknown, coloured women are gradually perverted and demoralized into a cesspool for the impurities of the family lives of all the nationalities in the sub-continent. In her primitive state, the native girl was protected against seduction and moral ruin by drastic penalties against the seducer, which safeguards have since the introduction of civilized rule been done away with. With tribes just groping their way from barbarism towards civilization natural hygienic and moral laws have been trampled upon, and for this state of affairs the white man's rule is not wholly free from blame. It should be a crime to defile a potential mother and a woman should continue to be regarded as the cradle of the race and her person remain sacred and inviolate under the law, as was the case in former times. The only charge that could be brought up against primitive native socialism was that by tolerating polygamy it had incidentally legalized concubinage; but taking all circumstances into consideration, it is doubtful if the systematic prostitution of to-day is a happy substitution for the polygamy of the past. There were no mothers of unwanted babies; no orphanages, because there were no stray children; the absence of extreme wealth and dire poverty prevented destitution, and the Natives had little or no insanity; they had no cancer or syphilis, and no venereal diseases because they had no prostitutes. Have we not a right to expect a better state of affairs under civilized European rule? It is apparently in revolt of similar horrible conditions that when the war broke out, British and Continental women were fighting for the vote with a view to liberating their sex and race from kindred impurities, for the soul rises up in "divine discontent" against a state of affairs which no nation should tolerate -- evils to which the coloured women of South Africa are now a prey. To this kind of degeneracy may also be traced the undoing of the finer elements of the native social system, the undermining of their health and of the erstwhile splendid physique of the African race and the increasing loss of the stamina of our proverbially magnificent men and women. The effect of these evils and of the abuses inherent to the liquor traffic is manifest in several of the tribes who are to-day but shadows of their former selves. The safeguarding of our maidens and women folk from the evils of drink, greed and outrages resulting from indefensible pass laws and the elimination of bad habits among men by a rightful policy will restore that efficiency, loyalty, and contentment which aforetime were the boast of pioneer administrators in British South Africa, and which if fostered will render them a magnificent asset to the Empire for all time. But as often as the coloured woman has been attacked she has humbly presented "the other cheek". Evidence of her characteristic humility is to be found in the action of the coloured women of the "Free" State, whose persecution by the South African Government, at the instance of certain "Free" State Municipalities, prompted the writing of this chapter. After the war broke out (the Bloemfontein `Friend' tells us) the native women of that city forgot their own difficulties, joined sewing classes, and helped to send clothing to the afflicted Belgians in Europe. Surely such useful members of the community deserve the sympathy of every right-minded person who has a voice in the conduct of British Colonial administration; so let us hope that this humble appeal on their behalf will not be in vain.
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