Throughout the twentieth century, the migration of a large proportion of South Africa’s population from rural ‘homelands’ into the colony’s rapidly expanding urban centres is an historical phenomenon that largely shaped the country’s social structure and had a profound effect on the family and gender ideologies held by the South African people.

Black migration to the cities had been taking place as early as the 1850s, but with the development of the migrant labour system and the detrimental effects this had on many rural familial structures, as well as a variety of other factors, the 1930s and 1940s witnessed the movement of African people and their subsequent urbanisation on a far larger scale. 1] This surge of immigration was marked by a distinctive feature that caused both black tribal chiefs and white colonial administrators considerable worry and which, given the patriarchal nature of South African society, has attracted much scholarly attention; the dominance of females amongst the immigrant population.

By 1951, the number of black females living in the towns had more than tripled since 1921, with more than twenty-one percent of all African females living in urban areas, and the urbanisation of black females was taking place much more rapidly than that of males. 2] The subordinate position held by women in South African society hence came under change during this period, with the imposition of Westernised gender ideologies, especially through schooling and the presence of white European missionaries, growing ever stronger in the towns. [3] With such large numbers of African people opting for an urban way of life, it is inevitable that a distinct urban African culture emerged, and the preponderance of females among this newly urbanised population of course played a significant role in shaping that culture.

It is on this specifically female African urban culture that this essay shall focus, though given the complexity of women’s position in South African society and the added dimension of racial tensions, it is first important to consider how the experiences of African women correspond to those of their white counterparts. Described by Bozzoli as a ‘patchwork quilt of patriarchies,’ gender relations in South Africa varied between different communities, with the extent of women’s oppression depending on the colour of their skin. 4] While white women were undoubtedly in an advantageous position, the benefit of white supremacy was unable to lift the hardship of living in a strongly sexist and male dominated society. Those who made the decision to venture beyond their prescribed role of domesticity were to find that the wider world was as closed to the white woman as it was to the black, with a long established tradition of male privilege dominating and protecting almost all avenues of labour.

In this instance, many white women who made the move to the towns in search of greater economic opportunities were lead in similar directions to those of black women; prostitution and domestic service. [5] By the 1930s, however, due to the fact that Boer families had been entering the towns from an earlier date, and of course through the aid of their race, white working class women did come to dominate some low-status industries, such as garment making and textile industries. 6] Another way in which white women managed to alleviate their status within this highly sexist society was through the employment of black males, and later black females, as domestic servants. The majority of white families were able to afford this luxury, due to both their unfair advantage in the labour market and the pitiful wages they were able to pay young blacks desperate to find work.

Through the employment of domestic servants white women were granted a certain status; they were now managing the domestic labour as oppose to performing it. This victory, however, was at the expense of the subordination of black men and women, and it is clear in this sense that the colour divide’s strength succeeded in cutting through any notion of common womanhood. 7] In the opinion of Hilda Bernstein, a white political activist who fought against the apartheid system and the oppression of women in South Africa from the late 1920s onwards, ‘most white women support or actively help to perpetrate the apartheid system which gives them privileges and benefits at the expense of the black majority,’[8] and so it is clear that racist attitudes were just as potent as sexist ones in twentieth century South Africa. The position of black women was, of course, far worse.

Black women in South Africa suffered first and foremost because of their race, but their triple oppression also hinged on their sex and their class. This subordinate position was subject to dramatic changes within colonial South Africa, with European missionaries taking a particularly hostile stance towards women’s place in pre-colonial tribal society. Practices such as polygamy and lobola (birdewealth) were seen to degrade African women to a position that bordered on slavery, and so European missionaries went about imposing an ideology of black female domesticity that was strongly based on Westernised gender roles. 9] Given the aggressive, masculine tones prevalent in Victorian culture at this time, however, changes in gender ideology proved to have equally detrimental effects on the status of black women. The imposition of Westernised gender ideologies caused strong tensions and contradictions between women’s dominant reproductive role and the new economic demands and opportunities being presented to them, which in turn put strain on traditional institutions such as family and marriage.

Whether living in traditionalist tribal societies or in towns heavily influenced by the colonial presence, then, African women suffered severe disabilities as a result of their gender and race. Their lives were also plagued with both physical and sexual violence, exacerbated by the double standard of colonial sexual morality, which saw white women as in need of protection from the illegitimate advances of men, while black women were regarded as ready prey by their white, male masters. 11] Thus when they entered the towns in ever growing numbers from the 1930s onwards, they entered an increasingly hostile, prejudice environment that in many ways was worse than their subordination in traditional African societies. Given the hostility faced by black women who migrated to the towns and the severe punishments they faced if caught by their male superiors, some explanation must be given as to why they uprooted in their thousands for a new urban way of life.

The migrant labour system, imposed and maintained by colonial administrators, and the dispossession and subsequent impoverishment of rural communities are commonly cited as the central causal factors in the mass urbanisation of African women. [12] Described by Bernstein as making a ‘mockery of family life,’ the migrant labour system placed considerable strain on the traditional rural way of life, exerting much pressure on marriage and homestead organisation, which in turn encouraged subordinate females to challenge the male authority imposed upon them. 13] In many instances this affected the women in a positive way by helping them to shake off male oppression and ‘escape’ to the towns for a more independent way of life. In other cases, however, the migrant labour system had a negative impact, forcing the women out of their homes to go in search of absent husbands and subsistence. Expeditions such as this often ended in failure, and those who did manage to find their husbands were often rejected by them anyhow.

Faced with the prospect of destitution many women abandoned in this way decided to take root and make a living for themselves through petty-trading, beer brewing or prostitution. [14] It was not only hardships resulting from the colonial presence in South Africa that contributed towards the migration of women, however, as certain aspects of traditional rural life also affected their decisions to migrate. Women often migrated simply to escape the violence of their rural marriages, many having tried ho ngala (absconding back to their own family) but having been forced to return to abusive husbands by their own families. 15] Rising levels of bridewealth in many rural areas also contributed to the migration of women, as men who could not afford to pay lobola increasingly began to abduct the women they wished to marry and elope with them instead.

Elopement commonly resulted in the abandonment of women, who having run away from their rural home often had little option but to travel to the towns with the hope of making a living. [16] Polygamy was also a contributory factor, with many of the married women who chose to migrate being junior or co-wives in polygynous households. 17] Aside from all of the ‘push’ factors, there were also a number of ‘pull’ factors which attracted women to the towns, and which show that women were not solely driven by a desire to escape from the control of their ‘homeboys. ’[18] Not only was town life seen as an appealing alternative in the face of oppressive social relations and deteriorating economic conditions in the rural reserves, but the prospect of an independent income and relative social freedom proved very tempting to a great number of African females.

Female headed households became relatively common in a number of urban centres, and many women were able to exercise control over their sexual experiences. Through engagement in the informal sector, women who moved to the towns were able to make a living for themselves, helping them to secure an independent way of life relatively free from dependence on men. [20] This increased independent was central to the female African urban culture that developed during the middle decades of the twentieth century, and thus African women’s position within the towns must now be addressed.

The historiography surrounding the position of African women in the towns is to some extent contradictory, with some historians arguing that town women’s lives were ruled by a pervasive vulnerability and the constant threat or reality of rape, harassment, theft and brutal attacks, making them nothing more but ‘passive victims,’[21] while others argue that moving to the town gave women a marked independence and the ability to assert control over their social and sexual lives. 22] It is clear, however, that in these unfamiliar territories, the seemingly contradictory traits of vulnerability and independence could easily go hand in hand, but also that their positions varied according to the town in which they lived, their character and the way in which they chose to make a living. Those who made the move to the towns have frequently been applauded for their bravery and strength of character, though this was certainly not the case at the peak of their migration, when the notion of women no longer being dependents was a fearful one to both the indigenous male population and to the colonial administrators.

During the twentieth century, town women were widely stereotyped as immoral, irresponsible and promiscuous, with the men in most towns referring to those who were single or ‘unattached’ as prostitutes or as ‘loose. ’[24] Women from Basutoland, or modern day Lesotho, formed a disproportionately large component of the female migrant population and acquired this lurid reputation more so than any other migrant group, with their own men folk agreeing with the police and native commissioners about Basotho women’s immoral behaviour. 25] It is suggested by Deborah James that the readiness to portray women in this light suggests more about men’s desire to control women then their actual experiences. [26] Given the vehemently sexist nature of the South African state, James is most likely right to a degree; however the widespread practice of prostitution among young township women cannot be overlooked, and is a feature of feminine urban culture that shall be explored further in a later section.

This engagement in prostitution and the women’s supposed promiscuity was often blamed for the violent sexual treatment of women in the towns, and was used as an excuse by those who wished to abduct women and sexually assault them. [27] Away from the protection of their families and husbands, women in the towns were exposed to men’s sexual violence on a horrific scale, and were terrorised by youth gangs such as the tsotsis.

School girls and attractive women were particularly vulnerable, and in 1955 the situation was so bad that in a report in The Star newspaper Councillor Lewsen commented that: Wives and young girls are raped in the streets and on their way home from work. Some are even raped in their own homes in front of their families, who are too terrified to report to the police for fear of victimisation[28]

Evidence such as this paints a bleak picture of African urban culture and the experiences of African women, whose rape was treated as a minor offence by the colonial authorities, in stark comparison to that of white females, for which a black man could be sentenced to death for. [29] Nevertheless, as has already been suggested, even in this frightful environment town women did develop a high degree of independence and staked their claim for equality far more strongly than those in the rural reserves. 30] Some women took this sense of independence more seriously than others, learning knife and fighting skills in order to defend themselves.

These women, described as ‘fierce and lawless’ by a witness from Basutoland,[31] were generally those who brewed beer or owned shebeens and thus needed to protect their living, though a minority assumed a ‘masculine’ identity with the purpose of ‘taking on the tsotsis at their own game’ and forging some control over the direction of their sexual lives. 32] Therefore it is clear that within a violent, oppressive urban culture, many women were incredibly vulnerable and subject to assertions of male power far worse than they had experienced in the countryside. Despite this, however, women who moved to the towns were able to exert a certain degree of power over their fellow African men, largely due to their ability to earn an independent income. The forms of employment and money-earning strategies that African women were able to access in the towns played a central role in shaping the developing African urban culture.

Unsurprisingly, the ever present racist and sexist attitudes meant that black women had virtually no access to formal kinds of employment, and so they engaged overwhelmingly in the informal sector and domestic service jobs. There were a small exception, however, who were formally employed in jobs such as teaching and nursing, and a smaller number still who made names for themselves in the entertainment industry, though for the vast majority jobs such as these were a million miles away from their everyday practices of beer brewing, prostitution and street selling. 33] Basotho women in particular were renowned for their beer brewing techniques, and by the 1930s had acquired a reputation for brewing the strongest ‘poison’ on the Rand due to their ability to brew particularly potent versions of indigenous beers such as skokiaan and joala. [34]

Home brewed beers such as these were sold to African men in shebeens; ‘illicit liquor dens’ that became central to African social life in the towns, by the notorious shebeen queens who were well known in their day for being strong, commanding women. 35] During the first few decades of the twentieth century beer brewing provided a largely unchallenged source of income for newly urbanised African women, but with the amendment of the 1923 Urban Areas Act in 1937, compelling local authorities to establish municipal monopolies over the production and sale of beer, women’s already very limited access to making a living was severely threatened. [36] From this point on, a tumultuous and ongoing battle began between the police and the urban women, who were not prepared to let their independence go without a fight.

With Judith Gay’s investigation into the economics of brewing in the 1970s revealing that women brewers could earn up to four times the amount of domestic servants, it is not surprising that the police faced a strong wall of resistance. [37] The fact that beer-brewing was now against the law had a pronounced effect on the African culture in the towns, with the centre of African social life and simple recreation now being classed as criminal activity.

This development also affected the position of women in the towns, as now they were not only at threat from the attacks of drunken men, but were also under constant attack from the police and the authorities, who were often just as brutal towards the women as most township men, and who, according to Bernstein, were not unknown to sexually assault or even rape the women whom they arrested. 38] Once again, however, these strong women were not merely passive victims in these assaults on them and their incomes; female beer brewers, especially those from Basutoland, were widely regarded by both the authorities and the common townsmen as cleverer than the average African women for their abilities to dodge the police, manipulate the law and corrupt native constables. [39] Many shebeen queens had their own deals with the police, and in townships such as Alexandra black policemen would not arrest black women for beer brewing as they were customers themselves.

Instead, black policemen would warn the women when they were going to be accompanied by white policemen who would not hesitate to arrest them. [40] Another income generating activity that helped to shape female culture in the towns, and that often went hand in hand with beer brewing or waitressing in shebeens, was prostitution. As a result of the migrant labour system, the towns were full of lonely, domestically incompetent men away from their wives, and thus there was a great demand for this type of work, to the extent that most women working as prostitutes could exercise significant leverage over the men they were working for.

To this end, it is clear that prostitution was ‘not without rewards,’ and by the early twentieth century Basotho women were known to be leaving Basutoland specifically for a life of prostitution in the South African towns. [41] The state’s reaction to prostitution was different to that of beer brewing, as while women beer-brewers were seen to have a deteriorating effect on township life, black prostitution was seen to prevent the emergence of ‘the Black Peril’ by satisfying black male lusts, and so it was a relatively easier way to make a living. 42] Despite these differing reactions to African women’s money making activities, the police were less concerned with stopping either activity than they were with ‘taxing’ them through constant raiding and fining. These incessant attacks on black commercial enterprises resulted in the police being regarded as the persecutors rather than the protectors, and thus helped to feed the ever growing conflict between African town dwellers and their white oppressors. [43]

Sectors such as domestic service and industry were not reserved solely for men and white women for the duration of the twentieth century though; with the erosion of informal jobs through state regulations and the increased proletarianisation of the African people, black women were eventually drawn into such jobs as a source of cheap labour during the mid-century period. While domestic service was a highly exploitative job at the very bottom of the occupational hierarchy, women’s entry to it granted them an entry point into the colonial economy, thus providing an escape route from oppressive cultural practices such as prostitution. 44] Entry into the industrial labour market had similar results, promoting economic independence through legal and respectable means.

Entry into this sector was considerably slower though, with African women representing only one percent of the industrial labour force in 1946 and again in 1954. [45] African women were the last group to enter into the industrial market, and so were the weakest and poorest paid sector within the workforce; a result, Bozzoli argues, of African women’s resistance to, and subsequently delayed, proletarianisation. 46] While it is clear that some women did resist formal jobs as a result of their greater earning power in the informal sector, this argument seems fairly simplistic in that it presents African women in the townships as being able to dictate their own occupation and resist the forces of capitalism; actions which surely would not have been possible in the oppressive colonial society in which they lived.

Therefore women’s culture in the towns was heavily influenced by their inability to access formal employment, and thus their frequent involvement in illicit, oppressive practices. This exclusion was not wholly negative, however, with practices such as beer brewing and prostitution enabling women to establish themselves in the towns before moving on to jobs in the formal sector when society allowed.