Pass Laws came in effect soon after the exit of British control of South Africa and the succession of the country’s authority by the Afrikaans government. Afrikaans refers to the white Dutch settlers. The law came into effect in several stages and made it mandatory for all Black Africans to carry the reference book, issued by official authority, which stated their bio, their tribe and their homeland. Homeland referred to the place where they were born or where their parents were from. The reference book was also called the pass book or in Afrikaans language, a dompas.

The purpose of the Pass Law was to control the movement of Black Africans from rural areas to urban or more developed areas, as the latter were assigned to whites only. Pass Laws hurt South Africa in many ways. From physical and mental torture of Blacks to economic costs to the state, Pass Laws were one of the darkest traits of the Apartheid regime.

Protests against carrying passes in the early 1900s

History of the Pass Law

During the British colonial era, there was some sort of law similar to Pass Laws. In 1913, women were forced to carry a pass. Their men had already been carrying the pass book. However, women marched against the law in June 1913. Protest continued for the next seven years. In 1920, 62 women were arrested in the town of Senekal and given the option to either go to jail and labor for a month or pay a fine. All the women decided to go to jail.

In 1919, there was again a protest against the backdrop of a lack of  wage increases by toilet cleaners.  The protesters marched to the pass office and decided that they should all refuse to carry passes. The protesters went around town, collected passes and burned them. In the following weeks, over 700 people were arrested. The protests eventually died down.

But the Pass Laws which came to exist during the British colonial era were more of restriction of movements for Blacks and were very different from the more rigid pass laws enacted in the 1940s and 1950s, according to Mary Burton, who served as the national president of Black Sash from 1986 to 1990. Black Sash was a human rights organization that came into existence in 1955 and was involved in fighting against the unjust treatment of Apartheid regime and vehemently opposed the Pass Laws.

In 1952, the Natives Act introduced the reference book that included all information from various other documents into it. In 1954, the pass laws were extended to women.

Pass Laws were enacted in 1956 by the Afrikaans government. The law was an amendment to Urban Areas Act of 1923 and it went through several stages, according to Harold Herman, former professor at the University of Western Cape.


What was the purpose of the Pass Laws?

The reason behind the reference book for Blacks only was a state sponsored way of controlling their movement and oppressing them. This was part of migrant labor policy, which basically aimed at containing Black people in certain areas.

Professor Harold Herman, who formerly taught at University of Western Cape and Nonkonzo Martins, faculty officer at the same university share their insights in the video.


What was life under the Pass Law in South Africa?

Tamperance Mcanda works as a cleaning lady in University of Western Cape. She first got arrested for not having a dompas when she was 22. In the first instance, she was visiting her uncle in Langa district in Cape Town. She didn’t have her dompas thus the police took her to jail. Next morning, men from her family came and paid Rand 75 to release her. Next time, she was arrested for pass was when she was working in Constantia and had to pay fine again. The third time when police came to check her, she had her pass book.  She had married and moved to Crossroads in Cape Town by then and had been able to make her pass book.

Mcanda’s experience is not unique. They pale in comparison to what happened to many other Black South Africans. From protests of women in 1956 at Pretoria and in Sharpville in 1960 to Nelson Mandela’s burning of the pass book, and struggles of making through the day, pass laws were something that hurt the core of South African society.

It has hard to imagine the horrors of life under apartheid but to sum up the particular effects of Pass Laws, some of the highlights from the era are presented.

Treatment of Blacks-

The story of Mgungundulovu Elias Maphanga points to the hardships blacks had to endure because of pass laws. With a birth defect of blank fingertips, he was unable to get approved for his dompas. He applied in 1978 but four years later he was still without one.  He left school at the age of 16 to help his widow mother support their family. He worked at a bakery as casual labor but was unsure of how long it will continue. Sunday Times quoted him as needing to commit crime showed the desperation of the economic hardship brought by Pass Law.

Another Sunday Times article in 1980 reported that several aged and insane Black people were tried for pass offenses at the Pretoria Commissioner’s Courts.
Black South Africans, arrested for pass offenses were put on parole and made to work for white farmers in what amounts to be a system of forced labor. Amnesty International declared the practice of putting pass offenders under parole to work for white farmers as a system of forced labor, Guardian reported in 1986.

The physical torture continued with forced labor. In many instances, young offenders were flogged. The Pinetown Commissioner’s Court claimed that it was going to continue flogging despite the outcry.  The Acting Commissioner, J.J Burger also said that light flogging was better than sending the offenders to jail, according to a report in Sunday Times in 1979.


Family Life-

An article in Rand Daily Mail in 1971 stated that thousands of women every year were separated from their husbands because they are forbidden to work in areas where their husbands are working. This was the case with teenagers as well, who would be separated from families. This became a bit flexible in the later years of apartheid.

Martins said that while initially women couldn’t come and live with their husbands and in later years, when they could, the couples would be forced to live in a single small room with multiple families.

Black Sash provided aid to many people including women who would be arrested from their homes and taken into custody during pass raids. Mary Burton in her book writes “They (Black Sash) learned about the law, and they learned about the lives of the people who lived under that law. They heard about women who were trying to build a family life with their husbands and children; about youngsters who had come to town to find their migrant worker fathers; about people who had been born and lived in the town all their lives, but did not have the documentation to prove it.”

They learned how the law was carried out by Commissioner’s Courts. Black Sash members sat in many of the court’s proceedings to witness how the matter was dealt with and then provided advice and assistance to those affected by it.


Economic Impact-

Pass Laws brought immense financial hardships for the Black community. They were deprived of working in areas where there were better earning opportunities. Besides, whenever they were arrested for not having a pass book, they had to pay fine, deepening the hole in their wallets. Martins states that many were forced to look towards crime. If Blacks were arrested, at least they got food in jail.A news article in Rand Daily Mail quoted black advocate, Mr BM Mabiletsa linking Pass Law to be responsible for directly increasing the escalating crime rate in African townships. However, he economic effect was not just limited to the enforced poverty of the black community and the crime riddance among them.

The annual cost of maintaining the Pass Laws to the state was Rand 112 million ( approximately USD 7800000 ) in 1977 as calculated by Dr. Michael Savage, a sociologist at University of Cape Town.  The costs included arrests and summons, imprisonment, issuing and updating the pass book, patrolling and policing, cost of prosecution, loss of production, labor contracts and labor bureaus, maintaining transit camps and aid centers. The figure would actually have been much higher if hidden costs had been included. The hidden costs comprise transport system to take the offenders to jails, employers facing replacing costs of workers and putting pass offenders in contact with criminals of serious offenses in jails.

Once, a pass raid stopped production at a Port Elizabeth factory in 1984, according to a report in The Star. The officials trying to enter the facility were asked by the guard, a black, for the purpose of their visit and requested to sign in the check-in register. The officials instead asked the guard to show his dompas. They entered the facility, and ended up arresting 109 workers. This incident was noticed by International Labor Organization and the divestment lobby in the United States.

Pass Raids-

There was a once a truck called Blue Maria. It was operated by Lieutenant Mathews and his men. The truck would come mostly on Thursdays, when domestic workers traditionally took a day off from work.  The officials wouldn’t even wait for the people to be able to go back home and collect their pass books. Sunday Times reported on this in 1977.But the lieutenant said that his men allowed the arrested Blacks to collect their passes if the distance was “reasonable”.
Blue Maria was part of the many raids conducted in homes, in workplaces and random search and stop on the streets for checking on pass books. Pass raid was an unofficial name given to this form of policing, according to Burton. The state called it routine inspection. Under the inspection, people would be asked to produce the pass book. On failure to do so, they would be taken to the charge office or sent to jails. Martins and Mcanda discussed this in the videos.

If the offenders were sent back to their homelands, they would still return to the city as they had no means to food and income in their homelands.


Aid Centers-

Government announced in June 1978 that homeland rehabilitation centers will be setup to deal with pass offenders. Also called aid centers, they were part of the Bantu Laws Amendment Act of 1964.  The Act stated that any African who is arrested for any type of pass offense may be admitted to an aid center.The Black Sash considered the aid centers as another official policy that would hurt the Blacks.

Black Sash claimed that number of people serving in the jail will fall down but that number will now be passing through the aid centers and they will end up in care of the department, who will relocate them to areas of labor shortage. Those areas are mostly white-owned farms, or in settlements and rehabilitation centers in the homelands of Blacks.

“If you were going to arrest all the black people for transgressing pass laws, you wouldn’t have enough jails to put them in” Prof Herman. Aid centers were a way to ameliorate the problem of overcrowding of jails.


End of Pass Laws

After a series of protests, international pressure and the weakening of the Apartheid system, Pass Laws were abolished in 1986. The state made the announcement and amended the legislation.  Mcanda recalls that she couldn’t believe when she heard that she didn’t have to carry the pass book anymore.

Pass Laws’ reign of terror spanned for around four decades. People in South Africa no longer have to carry such heavy burdens of racial profiling but the situation is still not a case of “once upon a time”, not in South Africa and not in the rest of the world. Race based discrimination still hurts millions of people across the world. It is important to realize that racial profiling doesn’t just harm the victimized race, it harms everyone, including the perpetrators, just like the Pass Laws did.



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