Silinga, Annie (1910–1983)

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Silinga, Annie (1910–1983)

Member of the African National Congress, organizer of the first Federation of South African Women's conference, and lifelong opponent of pass laws. Pronunciation: See-LEE-nga (nasal "ng" as in "gong"). Born in 1910 in the Transkei, South Africa; died in Langa, South Africa, in 1983; married; children.

Moved with husband to Cape Town, Somerset West (1937); joined the Langa branch of the ANC, arrested during Defiance Campaign (1952); was part of group that planned the first Federation of South African Women's conference in Cape Town (1953); led women of the Western Cape in anti pass-law protests (1954); arrested for refusing to carry a pass (1955); deported to Namaqualand, returned to Cape Town and was arrested again, one of 156 activists arrested and charged with treason (1956); released after charges were dropped (1957); elected president of the Cape Town ANC Women's League (1958); arrested after Sharpeville and Langa massacres (1960).

For over six months in 1952, the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress organized a campaign of civil disobedience against the National Party government of South Africa. They mobilized the people to challenge the laws that segregated public spaces in South Africa according to race. Although she had just joined the Langa branch of the ANC, Annie Silinga was one of the many participants arrested during the Defiance Campaign. Together with her six-month-old baby, she served two weeks in jail. Undeterred, Silinga devoted the rest of her life to resisting apartheid, especially the application of pass laws to women. Her determination served as an example to many others who followed her in the struggle.

I used to sit and think, and worry, about what would happen to my children under apartheid if I should die—that gave me the strength to fight.

—Annie Silinga

Silinga became interested in politics after attending meetings in the township of Langa, Cape Town, where she lived. She first moved to Cape Town from the Transkei in 1937 when she was 27 years old. Her childhood had been happy, during a time of plenty, before overpopulation led to soil erosion and overgrazing of the land. Teenage girls of her generation spent their days helping maintain the family compound and looking after the younger children. The Transkei was part of the reserves, the 13% of land where the majority non-white population was allowed to live. By 1937, conditions had deteriorated to the point where Silinga was desperate to move. Her "babies," she said, "had been dying in the Transkei." When her husband found work in the Cape, Silinga joined him, hoping for better medical facilities.

For the first time, they could live together as a family. At his previous job in the mines of Johannesburg, accommodation was not provided for the families of the mine-workers and regulations forbade women from staying there for extended periods. In the Cape, Silinga and her husband had five children and together led what she described as a traditional life. The family moved into the new African township of Langa after World War II. It was here that Silinga attended meetings at which measures to improve conditions for the community were discussed. Out of concern for the future of her children, she decided to join the African National Congress.

The white-supremacist National Party had come into power in 1948, largely on the vote of white farmers. Determined to preserve "white power," they set about increasing apartheid policies. Through the 1950s, the National Party passed legislation codifying the Bantustan policy whereby Africans were increasingly restricted to the reserves. The Abolition of Pass Laws and Co-ordination of Documents Act (1952), in true doublespeak, actually strengthened the government's ability to control the movement of Africans in and out of the urban centers. As well, the pass system was extended to include women. The Group Areas Act (1950), the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), and the Bantu Education Act (1953) sought to further segregate the different races, suppress opposition to the government policies, and, through the schools, restrict the opportunities African youth had to acquire a meaningful education.

The government's determination to issue passes to women sparked a decade of marches, petitions, and demonstrations by South African women. Annie Silinga led such a protest in the Western Cape in 1954. Alarmed by the resistance, the government delayed issuing passes until 1956. Even then, women continued to protest: burning passes, refusing to register, and holding mass demonstrations.

In 1953, Silinga, by then a member of the ANC Women's League (ANCWL), was part of the core group that organized the first meeting of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), to harness the outrage of women against the pass-law issue. The group was led by Ray Alexander, communist and trade unionist, and included Gladys Smith of the Cape Housewives' League, Katie White of the Women's Food Committee, and Dora Tamanda of the ANCWL and the Communist Party of South Africa. At the first conference, held in Johannesburg in April 1954,

delegates pledged to build a multiracial organization that would both advocate for women's rights and fight against the apartheid government. During the conference, a National Executive Committee was elected to coordinate the direction the organization would take. Silinga was one of those elected to the NEC.

The following year, Silinga was arrested for refusing to register for a pass. Under the Group Areas Act, the Cape Town region had been declared a "Colored" zone where only individuals of mixed African and European ancestry could live. Despite having lived in the region since 1937, Silinga was deported to Namaqualand in the Transkei in February 1956. She was taken there under police escort, but ever defiant she returned to her home in Langa as soon as she could. Arrested again, she was later released. Through the years, Silinga continued to defy attempts to remove her from the Cape. She never registered for a pass and always returned home to Langa.

"You have tampered with the women; you have struck a rock." This battle cry was unleashed on August 9, 1956, when 20,000 women organized by the FSAW marched on the prime minister's office in Pretoria to protest the issuing of passes. Unable to see Prime Minister Strijdom, they left piles of signed protest letters outside his office. That day was extremely important in the history of South Africa.

The anti-pass demonstrations were part of a campaign of mass civil disobedience launched by the Congress Alliance in the early 1950s. The Alliance was a grouping of various anti-apartheid organizations, including the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, and the Congress of Democrats. In late 1956, the government cracked down on the Alliance, arresting 156 leaders and charging them with treason and conspiring to overthrow the state. Silinga was arrested along with Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, future leader of the independent Republic of South Africa, and such FSAW leaders as Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph .

Mandela in his autobiography recalls that by making the arrests, the government had unknowingly convened the "largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years." After a couple of weeks, the accused were released on bail. The initial phase of the Treason Trial lasted until December 1957 when the state dropped charges against 61 of the defendants. Silinga was one of those released.

Annie Silinga continued her activism. She was elected president of the Cape Town ANCWL in 1958. Two years later, she was one of those arrested after the police massacred Africans during demonstrations protesting the pass-laws in Sharpeville and Langa townships. Again she was released without being charged. That same year, the white government banned the ANC as an illegal organization.

Silinga lived in Langa until her death in 1983. At that time, she was being cared for by her children. Without a pass, she could not receive her pension and other benefits that would have helped in her old age. She was proud to have opposed the humiliation of the pass despite these costs. Shortly before she died, she told an interviewer: "I should like to live in a South Africa where black, white, and colored women can all work and live together without trouble. Even now we must try and stand together." Seven years later, the ANC was unbanned.


Lipman, Beata. We Make Freedom: Women in South Africa. Boston, MA: Pandora Press, 1984.

Van Vuuren, Nancy. Women Against Apartheid: The Fight for Freedom in South Africa, 1920–1975. Palo Alto, CA: R&E Research Associates, 1979.

Walker, Cheryl. Women and Resistance in South Africa. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1982, 1991.

suggested reading:

Lapchick, Richard E., and Stephanie Urdang. Oppression and Resistance: The Struggle of Women in Southern Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Mandela, Nelson Rolihlahla. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. MA: Little, Brown.

Muhonjia Khaminwa , writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Silinga, Annie (1910–1983)

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