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Sol Plaatje,
Native Life in South Africa

Chapter 7

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Introduction etc. | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Appendices etc.

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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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