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When Lord Roberts and his army of 34,000 men triumphantly marched into Bloemfontein on 13 March 1900 (Image 1) to occupy the capital of the former Orange Free State republic, they were welcomed with open arms. While the pro-British sentiments of Bloemfontein’s predominantly English-speaking whites were understandable, the troops were surprised when the town’s black residents (all people of colour who were legally and socially discriminated against on the basis of race) responded to their arrival with loud cheers. In their memoirs of the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) the soldiers recalled how black people showered them with gifts of fruit and cigarettes. Bloemfontein’s black people – most of them residents of the Waaihoek (Image 2) ‘location’ (in the historical South African context, a segregated living area for people of colour; locations, today known as ‘townships’, were usually situated on the margins of ‘whites-only’ towns and cities) – believed that Lord Roberts and his men had come to liberate them from the Boers and their oppressive laws, such as the hated pass laws. While Waaihoek’s educated class had always displayed a taste for British culture and institutions, they also believed that Queen Victoria (1819–1901) was sympathetic to the plight of black people in the British colonies. The black journalist R.V. Selope-Thema (1886–1955) wrote that black people looked “… upon that Throne as their protector and the guardian of their rights and interests”.

Image 1: British troops marching down Maitland Street, Bloemfontein, being welcomed by residents, 13 March 1900. (Photo: National Museum)

 

Image 2: The Bethanie section of Waaihoek, c. 1902–1903. (Photo: National Museum)

 

After the War, the Orange Free State republic became a British colony, renamed the Orange River Colony (hereafter ORC), and Bloemfontein’s residents became British subjects. If Bloemfontein’s black residents had hoped that their new colonial masters’ perceived respect for “… the principles of liberty and justice”, as Selope-Thema described it, would bring them freedom from oppression, they were disillusioned. The British Military Authorities, which replaced civilian rule, not only maintained the hated pass system but strengthened it. The republican Law No. 8 of 1893 which required every male and female location resident above 16 to wear a so-called “residential pass” (then called a “verblijf brief”), was kept in place. In addition, the police were given extraordinary powers to enforce the pass law. These decisions must be partially viewed against the backdrop of a huge influx of uprooted, unemployed, and impoverished black people, who came from farms and rural Free State towns in search of a livelihood. Most of them settled in Waaihoek, which caused the population of an already overcrowded location to swell even further. In 1904, Waaihoek’s population stood at 18,382. The black population of the ORC was in flux, and it posed a huge challenge to the Military Government. To stabilise a fluid situation, passes were issued to “… natives who wished to travel about the colony” and to those who resided in locations such as Waaihoek and Kaffirfontein, another smaller location.

In 1901, while the War was still being fought, the Military Authorities decided that, instead of the Resident Magistrates’ clerks of the various towns issuing passes to black people, as was the case during republican times, municipal police should issue passes. The Provincial Commissioner of Municipal Police of the ORC (Image 3) argued that an “Issuer of Passes” had to be in constant touch with the movements of the black population and should, in fact, control them. It was reasoned that the police were better qualified to do this due to the nature of their work. This pointed to a strengthening of the pass system; in fact, it was argued that the pass system had to enable the police to tell “… exactly where a certain native should be at a certain time”, to quote the Police Commissioner.

Image 3: The official stamp of the Provincial Commissioner of Municipal Police of the ORC, 1901. (Source: Free State Provincial Archives)

 

The Military Government emphasised the importance of having a “recognized place” in each town, such as a police station “… where a Native can always obtain his pass”. In later years, especially during segregationist and apartheid times, this “recognized place” became known as the “Native Pass Office” or “Pass Office”. Subsequently, municipal police station officers, typically those with the rank of sergeant, were appointed as “Native Pass Issuers” in towns across the ORC. They operated under the general instructions of Resident Magistrates. In March 1902, Bloemfontein’s “Native Pass Issuer” reported that he had been “… issuing Passes to all Natives in Bloemfontein”, including “Yellow Passes”, which cost six pennies, and “White Passes”, which cost one shilling.

During post-War years the pass issue – specifically women’s passes – became a bone of contention. Although this emotional issue caused much frustration and anger among Bloemfontein’s black residents before the War, it became intolerable after the War. In republican times the general feeling among location residents was that they were not “free” in the Orange Free State because they not only had to carry passes but they also had to pay for them. Since very little had changed after the War due to the fact that the British were no easier masters than the Boers, the issue of women’s passes became a vehicle to bring the pass situation to a head. Waaihoek’s “blockmen” (ward councillors) organised themselves politically by forming a Native Vigilance Committee. The activities of the Committee and other black political organisations contributed to an increased anti-pass sentiment among location residents. Bloemfontein’s black population was also inspired by prominent black leaders and thinkers such as Solomon (Sol) T. Plaatje (1876–1932; Image 4) and Davidson D.T. Jabavu (1885–1959), leading to Waaihoek’s residents gaining self-confidence. They felt themselves emboldened to express their true opinions. In fact, they dared to criticise the persisting unrighteousness of the pass regime in no uncertain terms, causing much outrage among whites.

Image 4: Solomon T. Plaatje, undated. (Photo: Free State Provincial Archives)

 

Journalist and politician Solomon T. Plaatje was one of the most vocal critics of women’s passes. Although based in Kimberley, he was in touch with black sentiment in Bloemfontein. The pass system applied to black women and men, but women were hit hardest. Plaatje noticed an anomaly in the manner in which the system was applied in Bloemfontein: married men could get exemption from ordinary pass laws on the basis of their status as “respectable native inhabitants”, but their wives and daughters had to “… produce a pass on demand” and also pay a shilling to renew them every month. In a letter to the editor of The Friend, Plaatje condemned the “native women’s pass law” because it empowered “… males [policemen] to accost respectable women in the streets and order them to search their skirt pockets”. In addition, Plaatje described the “pass tax” that had to be paid by female carriers as “… a barbarous method of raising revenue”. While the pass system was primarily used as a control mechanism, it also benefitted the municipality’s coffers. Plaatje ended his letter with a stern warning: “Believe me, Sir, your natives feel very strongly on the subject”.

During the colonial period, Bloemfontein’s black residents made all possible constitutional appeals against the outrages of the pass system, including passive resistance, grievances and petitions sent to Bloemfontein’s Mayors as well as Lady Gladstone (wife of the Governor-General). The authorities replied in their customary blame-shifting fashion: the provincial government blamed the municipalities and the municipalities, in turn, blamed the Union Parliament and its laws. In 1912, when it appeared that the promises for intervention and change were not kept, it was decided to send a formal deputation to the Minister of Native Affairs, Henry Burton. A deputation of six Waaihoek women visited Burton in Cape Town to deliver a petition signed by more than 5 000 women. Despite Burton’s promise to request the Administrator of the Orange Free State, Dr A.E.W. Ramsbottom (1860–1921), to persuade municipalities to relieve the Orange Free State’s black women from the passes, the position of Bloemfontein’s black women remained unchanged. Disappointed, Plaatje remarked that “… the Bloemfontein Municipality was still continuing the old law”.

In 1913, the situation in Bloemfontein regarding women’s passes became untenable. Done with pleading, the women of Waaihoek decided to take matters into their own hands. The women were inspired by Charlotte M. Maxeke (1874?–1939; Image 5), South Africa’s first female black graduate and women’s rights activist. Maxeke believed that the “women question”, specifically the pass issue, required activism. Being aware of the plight of Bloemfontein’s women, she helped to organise the women’s anti-pass campaign in Bloemfontein in 1913. After a mass meeting held in Waaihoek on 28 May, where the women declared their unwillingness to carry passes, a group of them, reportedly led by Maxeke, marched to the office of Mayor Ivan H. Haarburger (Mayor of Bloemfontein from April 1912 to March 1914) to inform him of their decision. Because he was unavailable, a crowd of women gathered at the police station that night and tore up their passes. More than eighty women were arrested and charged for not having passes. On 29 May 1913, almost 600 angry women marched to the magistrate’s court, where they demanded that all charges against them be dropped. From there they proceeded to the town hall in Maitland Street (today Charlotte Maxeke Street) where they repeatedly chanted their demands (Image 6).

Image 5: Charlotte M. Maxeke, 1891. (Photo: Charlotte Mannya Maxeke Institute)

 

Image 6: Waaihoek’s women in front of Bloemfontein’s town hall, now demolished, 29 May 1913. (Photo: National Museum)

 

It seems that the extensive media coverage given to the Waaihoek women’s protest action put pressure on the national government to respond to their grievances. Finally, the women’s persistence bore fruit because, soon after the protests, the pass laws were significantly relaxed in Bloemfontein and in the rest of the Orange Free State. However, Waaihoek’s women only won a complete victory in 1923, when all the Union’s women of colour were excluded from the humiliating pass laws.

Sources

Du Bruyn, D. 2020. What black women demanded in 1913: Re-visiting the anti-pass protests in Bloemfontein, Culna, 3.8.2020. https://nationalmuseumpublications.co.za/what-black-women-demanded-in-1913-re-visiting-the-anti-pass-protests-in-bloemfontein

Du Bruyn, D. 2021. British influence on houses, gardens, and the gardening culture in Waaihoek (Mangaung) from the late 1800s to 1917. South African Journal of Cultural History, 35(2), pp. 92-122.

Free State Provincial Archives: CO 40(3788/01); CO 58(641/02); CO 85(2756/02) & CO 126(6117/02).

Menpes, D. 1903. War impressions being a record in colour by Mortimer Menpes. London: A. and C. Black.

Plaatje, S.T. 1982. Native life in South Africa, before and since the European War and the Boer Rebellion. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Selope-Thema, R.V. 1925. The Bantu and the British Throne. Umteteli wa Bantu, 23.5.1925, p. 2.

Schoeman, K. 1980. Bloemfontein: Die ontstaan van ’n stad, 1846–1946. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.

Schoeman, K. 2015. Imperiale somer: Suid-Afrika tussen Oorlog en Unie, 1902–1910. Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis.

The Bloemfontein Post, 10.5.1900.

The Friend, 29.11.1912.

Wells, J. 1991. We have done with pleading: The women’s 1913 anti-pass campaign. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Willan, B. 1982. An African in Kimberley: Sol T. Plaatje, 1894–1898. In: Marks, S. & Rathbone, R. (Eds), Industrialisation and social change in South Africa: African class formation, culture, and consciousness, 1870–1930. Boston: Longman, pp. 238-258.

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