How laws change in South Africa and how women throughout our history have made an impact on legislation

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How laws change in South Africa and how women throughout our history have made an impact on legislation

Blog article by: Jacolene Jansen van Vuuren


A woman’s place is in changing the world. It is only over the last three or four decades that women’s role in the history of South Africa has actually been given some recognition. As we celebrate Women’s Month we commemorate the history of women’s struggle in South Africa and the role of women in the progress towards the new South African democracy.

In the not-so-distant past, it was the men who had the lion’s share of authority in society; women were seen as subordinate. A woman’s role was primarily a domestic one; it included raising children and seeing to the well-being, feeding and care of the family. They were not expected to concern themselves with matters outside the home – that was the domain of men. Women were not expected to be assertive and take matters into their own hands.

The anti-pass protests spearheaded by women in the 1950s were a good indication that they were ready to throw off the shackles of the past. There were three anti-pass campaigns which demonstrated women’s power. The first, in 1913, was in Bloemfontein, the second was in 1930 in Potchefstroom, and the third campaign was masterminded in Johannesburg from 1954-1956, culminating in the march on 9 August 1956 of nearly 20 000 women to Pretoria. Ultimately the permit requirement was withdrawn. Women had succeeded in making their voices heard and this certainly inspired them for the future.

The Women’s March in 1956 to the Union Buildings was a spectacular success. Women from all parts of the country gathered and proceeded to the Union Buildings in a determined yet orderly manner and at Lilian Ngoyi’s suggestion, a masterful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full half hour. Before leaving (again in exemplary fashion) the women sang what would become our national anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’.

Women throughout the country put their names to petitions to indicate their anger and frustration at having their freedom of movement restricted by the detested official passes. The bravery shown by these women remains truly admirable.  They were tired of staying at home, powerless to make significant changes to a way of life that discriminated against them primarily because of their race, but also because of their class and their gender.

Women had shown that the stereotype of women as politically inept and immature, tied to the home, was outdated and inaccurate. Today 9 August is celebrated each year as a tribute to the powerful impact women can have on the course of history.

History was again made when Thabo Mbeki announced in 2005 that the newly appointed deputy president was to be Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka – a first for our country. The appointment was certainly well-deserved, she is a woman who believes that women need not feel disadvantaged, or need to defer to men, simply because of their gender.

Great strides have been made by women to change the law for the better. However,  today there is a more structured way of changing the law.


How do laws change today?

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 sets out the national legislative process and determines that Parliament, as the national legislature, has the power to pass new laws, amend existing laws, and repeal old laws. Both the Houses of Parliament, namely the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, play a role in this process.

The same power is exercised by Provincial legislatures in the provincial sphere of government in respect of provincial laws, and by municipal councils in the local sphere of government in respect of municipal by-laws.


The process of making and changing the law is as follows:


  1. A draft piece of legislation (called a Bill) must be prepared and formally submitted to Parliament before Parliament can consider making it a law. The preparation of a Bill involves the investigation and evaluation of the legislative proposals and consultation with interested parties.

The Constitution distinguishes between four categories of Bills, namely—

  • Section 74 Bills   – Bills amending the Constitution;
  • Section 75 Bills   – Ordinary Bills not affecting the provinces;
  • Section 76 Bills   – Ordinary Bills affecting the provinces; and
  • Section 77 Bills   – Money Bills (that is Bills that deal with

appropriations, taxes, levies or duties).

  1. The next step is for the relevant government department to submit a Cabinet memorandum and draft Bill to the Minister in order to obtain Cabinet approval for the introduction of the Bill in Parliament.
  2. After Cabinet has approved the introduction of a Bill in Parliament the relevant Minister must submit a copy of the draft Bill to the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces after the State Law Advisers have certified the draft Bill. The role of the State Law Advisers in this regard is to ensure that a draft Bill is in line with the existing law and the provisions of the Constitution. The relevant Bill is then ready to be formally submitted to Parliament.
  3. A Bill must be introduced to Parliament after the relevant Bill has been referred to the Joint Tagging Mechanism for classification into one of the above categories. The next step in the Parliamentary process is for the Bill to be referred to the relevant Portfolio Committee for consideration. At the conclusion of its work the Portfolio Committee submits the Bill, together with a report, to the National Assembly for debate and a vote. If the National Assembly passes the Bill, it is referred to the National Council of Provinces for its consideration. At least 30 days before a Constitution Amendment Bill is introduced in Parliament, it must be published in the Gazettefor public comment and submitted to the Provincial legislatures for their views.
  4. The President must assent to, and sign a Bill. Once a Bill has been signed by the President it becomes an Act of Parliament and must be published in the Gazette. An Act becomes binding on everyone when it is published in the Gazetteor on a date determined in terms of the Act.


Women of South Africa across all spheres of life have contributed to the making of South Africa. Today, the contribution that women made in our history is not only visible in our society but on the steps of the Union Buildings.

South African women, across racial lines, have been the source of courage for the entire community. In appointing women into government President Thabo Mbeki stated “No government in South Africa could ever claim to represent the will of the people if it failed to address the central task of emancipation of women in all its elements, and that includes the government we are privileged to lead.”






For more information:

Jacolene Jansen van Vuuren – Jacolenejvv@hammondpole.co.za

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