Maids and Mesdames: Contested
Objectives in Social Welfare Provision
for African Women
In 1911 the first Union-wide census found that of a total female African population of 1,995,989 only 4.9 percent (97,981) were residing in urban areas, compared to 20.28 percent (410,161) of a population of 2,022,889 African men. As late as 1960, before the formal implementation of the bantustan policy and systematic forced removals to roll back black female urbanization, only 26.7 percent (1,443,021) of African women had found their way into urban areas, compared to 36.36 percent (2,000,929) of African men. 1 From these figures it can be seen that throughout the first half of the twentieth century the vast majority of African women in South Africa remained tied to the reserves and to white farming areas, where they carried the major burden of agricultural labor and propped up the edifice of the male migrant labor system.
Many factors contributed to the continuing grip of the countryside on African women in these years. One was the persistence of precolonial patterns of patriarchy, which invested male heads of homesteads, headmen, and chiefs with wide authority over women. Legal impediments tying women to rural homesteads were also generated by the promotion of "native customary law" by the colonial authorities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, culminating in the Native Administration Act of 1927. For all practical purposes women in the countryside were legal minors, dependent on the permission of their male relatives in all matters involving family, work, or property. An even more serious impediment to female mobility was the conservative attitude of many parents and husbands, who feared for the sexual purity and the obedience of their daughters and wives if brought into contact with the immorality and freeness of life in the towns. Another factor was the conservatism of many of the African women themselves, who shared the broader conception of all country folk that towns