Women Workers and their Role in Rural Areas and Informal Sectors 1950 to 1970 in South Africa

Women workers and their role in rural areas and informal sector 1950 to 1970 in South Africa.

Title: The Pivotal Role of Women Workers in South Africa’s Rural Areas and Informal Sector, 1950-1970

South Africa’s social, economic, and political landscape has witnessed significant shifts throughout history, with women playing an instrumental role in these transformations. Between 1950 and 1970, South African women, especially those in rural areas and the informal sector, bore the brunt of the apartheid era’s harsh realities, yet remained instrumental in shaping the nation’s social and economic trajectories.

Women Workers and their Role in Rural Areas and Informal Sectors 1950 to 1970 in South Africa

Women in the Rural Areas

In rural South Africa, women primarily participated in subsistence farming and domestic work. The agricultural sector, while a significant contributor to the national economy, was heavily dominated by men in terms of ownership and decision-making. Women were primarily responsible for day-to-day operations, including planting, harvesting, and caring for livestock, tasks often unaccounted for in official economic measures.

Even with this significant contribution, rural women faced numerous challenges, including restricted land ownership due to traditional customs and apartheid-era laws. Additionally, many women were left to run family farms single-handedly due to the male migratory labor system, which saw men leave for long periods to work in urban areas or mines.

Women in the Informal Sector

In contrast to the rural areas, South African cities experienced a surge in female labor, particularly in the informal sector. Urbanization and industrialization led to a proliferation of informal businesses, with women being the majority workforce in these operations. Jobs ranged from petty trading, food vending, domestic work, to running shebeens (unlicensed bars).

These women, often migrants from rural areas, faced challenges such as low wages, lack of job security, inadequate social protection, and frequent harassment from law enforcement due to the lack of business permits and the general criminalization of informal trade during apartheid.

Activism and Unionization

Despite the adversities, women in both rural and informal sectors became a formidable force for change. They were not mere passive victims of oppressive systems, but active agents of resistance.

Women farmworkers initiated and participated in strikes, demanding better wages and working conditions. They also led numerous anti-pass protests, challenging the restrictive pass laws that significantly limited their freedom of movement.

In urban centers, women in the informal sector organized themselves into cooperatives and associations, fighting for better working conditions and the decriminalization of their trades. Notably, the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where thousands of women protested against the pass laws, is a vivid testament to the collective power of women in these sectors.


The period from 1950 to 1970 was undoubtedly marked by adversity for women in South Africa’s rural areas and the informal sector. However, their resilience, courage, and tenacity were crucial in shaping the course of the nation’s socio-economic and political narratives. Their experiences reveal a critical part of South Africa’s history that underlines the indispensable role of women in society, an aspect that is often overlooked but is gradually gaining recognition.

By revisiting this era and the role women played, we not only better understand the past, but also shed light on the enduring challenges that women continue to face in the rural and informal sectors, informing interventions that can support economic equality and social justice in the present and future.

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