Sixty years ago an estimated twenty thousand women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the so-called ‘pass laws’. With women coming in their numbers from all over the country, the 9th August 1956 proved to be a historic day, and one that changed the course of history. The Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act of 1952, commonly known as the Pass Laws Act, made it compulsory for all black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry their pass book with them at all times. The Act was just one in a series of laws that restricted the movement of non-whites within the urban areas of South Africa, but it was the first time that women were included in the pass laws. For decades the South African government had been trying to control the influx of black and coloured people into the towns and cities, while still getting the benefit of the cheap labour that they provided. In Durban the small white community thought they would become overwhelmed if uncontrolled black urbanisation was allowed, and so the ‘Durban System’ was put in place in the early 1900s in order to control the influx of black people, many of whom were coming to work in the docks, by requiring them to have permits to be in town.

Over the course of the next four decades various Acts were passed or amended that put tighter and tighter control over the movement on non-whites, and the dompas became synonymous with the discriminatory system of apartheid. The 1952 Natives Act repealed the many regional pass laws and instituted one nationwide pass law. In terms of the Act no black person could stay in an urban area more than 72 hours unless

  • the person had been born there and resided there always since birth;
  • the person had laboured continuously for ten years in any agreed area for any employer, or lived continuously in any such area for fifteen years.
Example of a pass book
Example of a pass book

The pass book was similar to an internal passport, containing fingerprints and a photograph, but also provided employment details, documented permission requested to be in a certain region, and the reason for seeking such permission. Under the law, any governmental employee could strike out such entries, in effect canceling the permission to remain in the area.

The Natives Act was administered by the Municipal Native Affairs Department, which was established in 1916. The Native Affairs Department played a central role in the lives of Africans in Durban. Medical examinations, passbooks, the paying of fines and rickshaw licences, and the provision of housing and accommodation were all conducted from this department. In the mid 1990’s the building housing the Department of Native Affairs was converted into the KwaMuhle Museum, which now forms part of the Liberation Heritage Route. The museum was named after John Sydney Marwick, the first manager of the department, who was given the name ‘uMuhle’ after he successfully repatriated seven thousand Zulus back to Zululand prior to the onset of the South African War.

The KwaMuhle Museum hosts a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions, including an exhibition on the Durban System, which laid the groundwork for apartheid in later years.


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