Printer Friendly

Rewriting patriarchal scripts: women, labor, and popular culture in South African clothing industry beauty contests, 1970s-2005.

"Few countries take beauty pageants quite as seriously as South Africa," noted The New York Times on the eve of the country's first democratic elections. (1) This national passion for beauty contests traces its roots back to the 1920s and 1930s and transcends race, class, and cultural divisions. The popularity of noncommercial beauty pageants throughout the country signals that popular interest extends far beyond Miss South Africa and other conventional contests. This study focuses on the history of the Spring Queen beauty festival in Cape Town's clothing industry: an extraordinary festival of black (2) female working-class culture that began in 1980. "It's really exciting and it's a lovely afternoon," remembered Josie Arendse, a former garment worker and shop steward; "when you watch and see all the people on the ramp and some of us just [laughs], you know, just for the fun of it will enter. It's nice." (3) By privileging the actions and perspectives of workers who experienced the indignity of apartheid racism and earned the lowest wages in the South African clothing sector, (4) this article argues that factory women purposefully transformed a seemingly banal and patriarchal beauty pageant into a cultural production for self-empowerment and trade union solidarity.

The historical significance of the Spring Queen is threefold. First, this local case study unveils a poorly documented yet intriguing aspect of the broader history and culture of South African women. Black women factory workers in South Africa, the continent's most industrialized nation, remain marginalized in the historiography to the point of near invisibility. (5) More than a decade after the publication of historian Iris Berger's seminal book Threads of Solidarity: Women in South African Industry, 1900-1980, the literature consists mainly of a small number of activists' memoirs and institutional histories of labor organizations, as well as a handful of unpublished university studies. (6) By placing women's historical experiences at center stage and adopting a gendered reading of history that incorporates men, this study of workers' culture in Cape garment factories takes an approach favored by influential feminist historians of Africa: "Gender history cannot go far without the continuous retrieval of women's history," Paul Tiyambe Zeleza asserted, "while women's history cannot transform the fundamentally flawed paradigmatic bases of 'mainstream' history without gender history." (7) Gender and women's studies scholar Kathleen Canning, a specialist in European and German history, recently seemed to echo Zeleza: "Rather than fitting gender into the existent mainstream, we might hope that its eventual integration will mean altogether less truncated history, one that dissolves the distinctions between epochal changes and histories of gender, women, and sexuality." (8) Set in the rapidly changing social and political context of South Africa since the 1970s, this investigation of the Spring Queen attempts to do so by reconstructing and representing the sociability of proletarian women in relation to the dominant power of male managers, union comrades, and family members.

The second reason why this study of the Spring Queen has relevance beyond South Africa and Africa is that it focuses on a gendered genre of popular culture that connects workplace and community struggles, topics that labor and social historians have traditionally tended to analyze separately. (9) While this union pageant shared the global logic of beauty contests in placing gender norms and idealized femininities on stage, it also provided a rare opportunity for factory women to publicly assert their human dignity, enhance their self-esteem, and claim equal rights as women and workers in a democratizing South Africa. (10) At different moments, the selection of a Spring Queen as a symbol of collective representation of garment workers bolstered, coexisted with, or endangered the status quo. It went from manufacturing quiescence in the workplace in the early 1980s to boosting democratic transformation in the clothing union in the 1990s. What is particularly interesting about the history of beauty competitions in South African garment factories is their capacity to fuse the domains of "home and work" by enabling women's performance of different femininities: "worker," "mother," "wife," "trade unionist," and "beauty queen." In the end, factory women's resistance against gender discrimination and their unabashed defense of femininity defies simple, neat categorization.

This richly detailed study makes connections to trends identified in recent historical and ethnographic works devoted to beauty contests as a global form of popular culture "in which hegemonic intentions are accommodated, resisted, and reshaped in a variety of ways." (11) For example, beauty competitions in early Republican Turkey fostered vigorous public debates about women's bodies, status, and citizenship. (12) In postrevolutionary Mexico pageants became venues for the gendered construction of indigenismo, while in Guatemala at the height of the civil war they came to represent a newly resurgent Maya ethnicity. (13) In Jamaica and the United States beauty contests have provided venues for the expression of black femininity and pride. (14) In inter-war Brazil and Japan pageants produced and symbolized emerging national and imperial identities and ideologies. (15) As in all these cases, the women who participated in the Spring Queen in Cape Town were neither passive dupes nor independent heroines.

This recognition brings us to the third and final reason for this study's larger significance: a methodological one. This article focuses on women's voices excavated primarily through twenty oral history interviews (my own and those of others). Central to my historical reconstruction and interpretation, oral testimony revealed the multiple motivations, objectives, and meanings of women's actions, and their "strategic engagement" with the forces of capitalism, apartheid, and democratization. (16) Importantly, the interviews uncovered the emotional dimension of the history of popular culture, Informants frequently referred to the "fun," camaraderie, and pride generated by the Spring Queen; other women remembered experiencing stress and anx ahead of the competition. These recollections humanized a painful past and encouraged me to look beyond an understanding of the beauty pageant as an offensive spectacle that sexually objectifies women.

Trade union newsletters, newspapers, and magazines such as Clothes Line and The Garment Worker proved invaluable in complementing the oral sources. (17) The "social" sections of these publications of the alternative press were filled with stories and photographs of industry beauty contests, as well as other workers' leisure practices, events rarely covered in the white-owned mainstream press. (18) Reflecting the masculine bias of official written documents, the archival records of the Garment Workers Union of South Africa, the National Union of Textile Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers' Union, and the Federation of South African Unions, which are housed at the University of Witwatersrand's Cullen Library, held limited information about Cape Town unions and even less bout women of color, let lone their leisure pursuits. It is hoped that future research visits will enable me to gain access to the archive of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (SACTWU) in Salt River, Cape Town, which may also contain records of the Garment Workers Union of the Western Province and the Garment and Allied Worker's Union. The extreme paucity of conventional sources available on women in the Cape garment industry meant that the relationship between gender, labor, and culture in the Spring Queen could only be explored effectively through an interdisciplinary approach that combined historical and ethnographic methodologies.

Labor, Race, and Gender in South African History: A Brief Overview

While it is not possible here to fully elaborate on the history of labor relations in South Africa's clothing industry, it is necessary to outline the complex patterns of union organization in this manufacturing sector. Put simply, profound racial, gender, organizational, and political divisions defined the history of garment unions. (19) The first union in the clothing industry was the Witwatersrand Tailors' Association formed in 1918 in Johannesburg. The name of the organization changed to the Garment Workers' Union of South Africa in 1929-30, shortly after Emil Solomon (Solly) Sachs, a socialist Jewish immigrant from Latvia, became general secretary (1928), a position which he held until 1952 when the apartheid regime forced him to leave the country after charging him under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. (20) Divisions within the union were exacerbated by the actions of capitalist employers and the impact of racist legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. Militant trade unionism re-emerged with the 1973 Durban strikes and the formation in 1979 of the Federation of South African Trade Unions. (21) After a decade of painstaking organizational capacity-building work and deepening political engagement, negotiations in the trade union movement during the tumultuous 1980s led to the creation in 1987 of two large new unions: the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA) and the Garment and Allied Workers' Union (GAWU). (22) In 1989, following lengthy, acrimonious talks, these two large organizations agreed to merge into a single national body: the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (SACTWU); at the time, it claimed nearly 200,000 members (about 80% of workers in the sector) and constituted the third largest member of the anti-apartheid Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). (23) "Perhaps the most significant aspect of the merger [of the clothing and textile unions] was that, for the first time, it brought large numbers of coloured and Indian workers into Cosatu's ranks" and dramatically increased its female membership. (24)

The "feminized" and racialized character of the labor force in the Western Cape garment industry merits a brief discussion. The Spring Queen has been produced and watched mainly by Coloured women. In South Africa, this racial term refers to a broad and diverse group of mostly Afrikaans-speaking people described thusly by historian Mohamed Adhikari:
  The Coloured people were descended largely from Cape slaves, the
  indigenous Khoisan population, and other black people who had been
  assimiliated to Cape colonial society by the late nineteenth century.
  Since they are also partly descended from European settlers,
  Coloureds are popularly regarded as being of "mixed race" and have
  held an intermediate status in the South African racial hierarchy,
  distinct from the historically dominant white minority and the
  numerically preponderant African population. (25)

The racist regime aggressively encouraged this interstitial status. But, as has been noted elsewhere, Coloured-ness was also self-constructed by people who drew on a common identity predicated upon a shared lower-class status, Calvinist Christian beliefs, the use of the Afrikaans language, and a relatively privileged position vis-a-vis the African majority. (26)

Demographic realities, apartheid practices, and employers' strategies clarify why clothing factories in the Western Cape employed mostly Coloured women. First, Coloured people (9% of the national population) made up the largest racial group in Cape Town--representing about half of the city's residents although the demographics are shifting at present. Second, the apartheid government's influx control policy, which led in 1954-55 to the designation of the Western Cape as a "Coloured Labor Preference Area," artificially perpetuated this situation by requiring area employers to seek a Coloured person for a job before hiring an African. (27) Third, going hack to the 1910s, Cape Town factory owners deliberately targeted Coloured women--a poor, marginalized constituency--as the main source of low-wage labor. "Feminization" increased with the expansion of manufacturing in the apartheid years, and, according to economists Daniela Casale and Dorrit Posel, further intensified in the era of global free trade. (28) For decades then generations of female garment workers in the Cape entered into industrial wage labor as teenagers. Dropping out of school between Standard 5 and 8 (grades 7-10) greatly reduced any opportunity for social and economic advancement. In fact, factory labor initiated many young women into new roles as the main or even only wage earners in their households, Degrading and oppressive working conditions worsened the impact of the double burden on female clothing workers. (29) Paternalism and sexism in the trade union movement further aggravated the situation. (30) Without question, the history of female garment workers in the Western Cape has been powerfully shaped by their triple oppression as people of color, workers, and women. (31)

Manufacturing Docility in a Defiant Decade: The 1980s

The Spring Queen emerged at a time of ferocious political conflict in South Africa. The 1973 Durban strikes and the 1976 Soweto Uprisings reignited the liberation struggle after a decade of relative quiescence following the apartheid government's brutal crushing of the initial phase of violent resistance. Black Capetonians, including many garment workers, took to the streets in celebratory support of the Soweto revolt; they participated in stay-aways and performed acts of everyday resistance. (32) The regime responded with a mix of reform and repression. Under Prime Minister P. W. Botha, in 1979 the government ended de jure racial discrimination in employment and legalized African trade unions. At the same time, it militarized the state and launched counter-insurgency campaigns that destabilised southern Africa. Botha's "total strategy" encountered fierce resistance on domestic and international fronts. (33) By the mid-1980s the popular insurrection against apartheid was at its peak, "resulting in more than three thousand deaths, thirty thousand detentions, and untold damage to property and the national economy. The government had to mobilize the army and declare two states of emergency to bring it under control, and even then it was only partially repressed." (34)

Militant protests in Cape Town's workplaces and schools struck a blow against the regime's reformist plans. In 1979 African and Coloured workers struck at the Fatti's and Moni's pasta company in Bellville; and the following year consumers boycotted red meat in support of striking slaughterhouse employees and successfully opposed a sharp increase in bus fares. (35) Also in 1980 students in African and Coloured high schools boycotted their classes for months. "Class boycotts," observed William Finnegan in his memoir of a year as a teacher at a Coloured high school, "did express the frustration and anger of not just students, but of their parents and of the black community as a whole." (36) This eruption of popular defiance in the segregated communities of the Cape Flats, where the Group Areas Act forced most black Capetonians to eke out a living, caused tremendous anxiety among whites, employers and government officials included.

It was at this specific historical moment that the conservative and white-controlled Garment Workers' Union of the Western Province (hereafter GWU) crafted the Spring Queen script: "a show by garment workers for garment workers." (37) In 1976 the GWU was the largest single trade union in the country with 35,406 paid members. (38) "At that time people called the union, jokingly, the 'biscuit union'," I was told; "because the union was started by white people in the apartheid years, but the people that worked inside the factories were the black people--Coloureds, Coloured women." (39) Written and oral sources concur that the proposal to organize an industry-wide Spring Queen came from the office of Louis Peterson, general secretary of GWU. (40) "The bosses actually started the Spring Queen," SACTWU member Rachel Visser recalled; "and the reason they started the Spring Queen was to give these women something to shut up, something to be quiet about." (41) In pursuit of this goal, the union had the reliable support of employers eager to avoid a reprise of the tumultuous events of 1979-80.

Using a new weekly broadsheet called Clothes Line, a medium designed to advance status quo conservatism, Peterson announced in the autumn of 1980 the creation of a union-wide beauty contest. (42) During the 1980s and into the 1990s, mainstream print and broadcast media ignored the Spring Queen. Coverage in the Cape Herald and later newspapers aimed at a mainly black readership was modest--usually a short article in the inside pages about the final night of the competition accompanied by one or two small photos of the top three finishers. As a result of the lack of media coverage, Clothes Line quickly established itself as the source of information about the contest. It shaped popular knowledge, discourse, and memory; it also circumscribed the impact of commercialism on this cultural ritual of unionism. (43)

Peterson's idea for a trade union beauty pageant built on a remarkable cultural tradition found in South Africa's post-war clothing industry. In the early 1960s, for instance, the Kimberley branch of the National Union of Clothing Workers regularly staged a "Miss Garment Worker" competition, as well as a "July Queen" pageant. (44) This same union also held an annual union-wide national beauty contest, which survived into the 1970s and 1980s. (45) The case of Carolyn Seemela, a shop steward at Tavaria Clothing in Johannesburg, suggests that the boundaries between community festivals and commercial pageants were permeable. Seemela won the union title in 1964 and then went on to claim the 1965 Miss Black South Africa--a competition reserved for African, Coloured, and Indian women excluded from the all-white Miss South Africa contest. (46) In Cape Town in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Pep Clothing Company sponsored beauty pageants in its plants in an apparent Fordist public relations ploy aimed at consumers and, perhaps, at recruiting workers in Coloured areas. (47)

It is beyond the scope of this study to analyze how community pageants in South Africa accommodated, adapted, or rejected dominant standards of beauty associated with "whiteness," but it is important to underline how racism and material poverty exaggerated the social significance of beauty pageants in black communities. (48) "I don't know why, I haven't thought about it," Visser remarked, "but in our communities you enter a competition and you are the queen you are immediately above the normal ordinary person." (49) "Battles for social honor," African-American sociologist Maxine Leeds Craig has argued, "have important consequences in the lives of those who are positioned at the bottom of a social hierarchy by structures of inequality." (50) Anthropologists Monica Wilson and Archie Mafeje concurred with Craig in their analysis of social dynamics in Cape Town's African township of Langa published in 1963; "Scope for leadership among Africans is very limited ... [and therefore] a source of social prestige." (51) Not only did grassroots beauty contests afford oppressed black women a rare opportunity for status achievement and visibility, but they also carved out a social space largely free of male control where "cultural sovereignty" could be exercised. (52) Anthropologist Adam Ashforth recognized the significance of this gendered space among young girls in Soweto. Reflecting on the impact of street beauty pageants in the 1990s, Ashforth asserted that "girls were learning important lessons of organization and solidarity . . . Despite taking the form of a presentation of female beauty for a putative male gaze, these performances in Sowetan backyards were set apart from the worlds of males. They were a business of girls. Thus they learn young to make a world without men." (53)

The Garment Workers Union in 1979-80 tried to harness the gendered sociability and cultural resonance of beauty contests in urban black communities to defuse political tensions in the Western Cape's 300 clothing factories. According to an October 1979 article published in Clothes Line, W. F. Alexander, a union official, attended the "Spring Fashion Queen" festival at the Andilyn factory in Elsies River, a grim Coloured township in the Cape Flats. "I hope this will be repeated annually," Alexander wrote expectantly. In the wake of a two-day work stoppage on June 16-17, 1980, to commemorate the 1976 uprisings, Alexander again praised the 1979 Andilyn show in Clothes Line (with reprinted photographs), hailing it as a model to emulate: "what we would like each factory to do is to arrange such a show," he explained. (54) Three months later, Ursula Bredeveldt, a worker at the Burnita factory, claimed the inaugural GWU Spring Queen crown at a raucous Saturday night bash, held at the union hall in Salt River. (55)

Initially, the Cape union's attempt to use beauty contests as a political "safety valve" and as a vehicle for manufacturing docility in the workforce seemed successful. Enthusiasm for the Spring Queen competitions cut across generational lines. (56) Belittled by exploitative employers and apartheid, victimized by an unrepresentative, conservative union and with very few possibilities of advancement in the workplace, many women toiling in garment factories yearned for even the slightest chance to escape the certainty of repetitive industrial labor and unglamorous domestic work. (57) Management involvement in and support of factory competitions engendered factory loyalty and, in some cases, short-term labor-management unity. Former District Six resident Gadija Reinhardt, who began working in a garment factory in the late 1970s and rose to supervisor in the 1980s, explained it thusly: "Everyone helped to make the Spring show a big success. It was excitement and fun until the final. Then the queen was crowned by the manager. And he would finish by saying that the whole experience proved that we can all work together well and that he felt that it had brought us all closer together. (58) A former manager agreed: "Let me put it to you this way," he said, "it doesn't harm relations with your workers. It's probably the best time of year in the factory ... I would say that most factories would rather have it than not have it. It boosts morale and makes for a happier environment." (59) Critics of the Spring Queen have interpreted this outcome as the result of a classic ease of paternalist capitalism. According to oral historian Paul Johnson, the contest fostered a "family cult" that co-opted the black female working class into a culture of "implied consent." In Johnson's words:
  Starring our mostly in a grimy factory setting with modest prizes, and
  moving with tantalising symbolic significance to the Good Hope
  Centre's lavish finals, the Spring Queen Festival fed off socialized
  parameters of gender, and reinforced it with graduating intensity
  through an inviting rites [sic] of passage which defined 'femininity'
  in terms of docile decorativity ... it functioned as a recurring and
  tenacious hegemonic behaviour cull in the clothing industry, drawing
  tens of thousands of women into a voluntarist manufacturing process in
  which the desired product was the gentility associated with "royal"
  behaviour, rather than the royalties themselves. (60)

Rather than understanding factory workers' earnest embrace of the Spring Queen as a form of "false consciousness," however, it may be more productive to consider the multiple ways in which women unionists actively reconfigured the Spring Queen script as part of an ongoing quest to humanize their everyday lives under apartheid conditions. "It was like a get-together for garment workers," a female shop steward recalled. "You can't just have meetings and rallies ... to get the workers together, you must also try to get something that workers want." (61) The implications of worker-driven "serious fun" in South African factory pageants were neither neatly conservative nor radically oppositional. (62) For garment women, staging the Spring Queen always entailed a fair amount of accommodation to, as well as constant negotiation with, the competing patriarchies of business and labor. This pragmatism is laid bare by an investigation of the "generative process" underlying the pageant as it was (and is) created by women unionists in rapidly changing political and economic circumstances. (63)

"Just for the Fun of It": The Emancipatory Power of Escapism

Union members' testimonies unanimously explained the pageant's popularity in terms of the fun and excitement it generated. (64) For most workers, the Spring Queen was a time to "let your hair down," dance and listen to music, to support co-workers, and just he amused. The emancipatory power of fun was reflected in the event's ability to foster solidarity across racial, ethnic, religious, and generational lines through a form of sociability independent of male control. It constituted a non-commodified cultural venue for self-definition and self-understanding. At the same time, however, acceptance of the beauty pageant form meant that female garment workers in Cape Town remained vulnerable to the effects of "the persistence of deeply oppressive and limiting structures and practices ... rooted in the ideas about gender difference and sexuality paraded on the beauty contests stage." (65) Like most forms of popular culture in Africa (and beyond), the Spring Queen pageant's history is riddled with contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities. (66)

The ritual calendar of the Spring Queen has remained basically the same since its inception. After the conclusion of the final round of wage negotiations in June, factory contests take place between July and September. Factory "queens" then go on to compete in two semifinals held in October at the 700-seat Union Hall in Salt River. There, contestants (two-dozen in the past, about sixty-five presently) earn their passage to the glittery grand finale in November (sometimes early December) at the Good Hope Centre--Cape Town's cavernous indoor arena. The primary goal for contestants and their supporters alike is to see the factory queen advance to the final evening. "It's Saturday night at Cape Town's ageing Good Hope Centre and about 7,000 factory workers have come to see their queens," an article in the November 10, 2002, issue of the Sunday Times reported. "It's like a boisterous Miss South Africa. Husbands and sons look on bemused as their dancing, shouting, whistle-blowing wives and mothers parade between the stands waving banners that proclaim their factories' names. The sweet perfume mixes with cigarette smoke. Drag queens weave coyly through the heaving crowds and empty beer cans pile up under the seats". (67) At the end of the evening's entertainment, which features music, dancing, comedy routines, and the pageant, the union Spring Queen is crowned.

The road to the final begins at factory level, where Spring Queens have typically been staged on Friday afternoons in the plant's canteen, or occasionally in the cutting room or perhaps outdoors. By the mid-1980s, many factory Spring Queens had migrated out of industrial workplaces and into nightclubs at company expense. The Galaxy in Athlone and the Space Odyssey in Salt River were popular venues. Management offered prizes for the "queen" and two "princesses." Typical prizes included cash, gift certificates from a department store, flower bouquets, chocolates, and sometimes a trophy. (68) As the industry-wide competition garnered more and more popularity, it became commonplace in the mid-1980s for managers to assist with the factory queen's preparation for the semifinals and, if necessary, the final. Companies paid for the queen's dress, a gown usually designed in-house, as well as a professional makeover and, in some cases, training sessions with modeling agencies.

Self-organization was central to women's empowerment. Workers spent their scarce time and money putting together the factory pageant. Shop stewards created a special fund to cover costs associated with the event. The build-up to the big event cannot be overlooked, especially given the enjoyment workers derived from it. In the two months preceding the competition, contestants practiced walking styles, postures, and dance moves in the canteen during lunch breaks. This practice became a seemingly endless source of amusement and conversation. Significantly, the proletarian beauty queens regularly made their own dresses, drawing their inspiration from contemporary fashion trends, as well as styles and designs seen on television and in popular magazines and newspapers. Dressmaking showcased workers' skills and creativity. It subtly demonstrated pride in productive labor, and asserted women's humanity and citizenship beyond their roles as wives and mothers. (69) Some pageant contestants borrowed outfits. "I just got a normal ordinary dress from a friend," remembered Visser, who grew up about thirty miles north of Cape Town in Atlantis, an economically depressed apartheid "ethno-city" for Coloureds. (70) "[It] was the most beautiful dress I've ever had in my life," she said. "To wear that dress for that hour or two hours was just magnificent. Just putting on the dress made me already feel like a queen, so I didn't care if I won or what; it was just looking like the queen, being on stage heating the people scream and shout; the feeling was just unexplainable for a machinist." (71)

The Spring Queen's inclusiveness greatly enhanced its standing as a training ground for self-governance and informal democratic practice. The only requirement for participation has always been union membership. Unlike commercial beauty pageants, the Spring Queen never discriminated against contestants according to their marital status and age. Both Christian and Muslim women regularly entered the competition. (72) "Some of them were fat, and some of them were a bit tall, and I mean, some of them weren't nice looking. And they didn't walk nicely!" said Glynnis Pinto, a one-time contestant in the mid-1980s. (73) As an ecumenical and entertaining form of gendered sociability, the pageant soldered bonds of solidarity among working women and strengthened ties within the union. Judging standards and procedures reinforced this tendency.

The Construction of Alternative Femininities

It is important to examine the ways in which judging standards infused the contest with its gritty flavor and influenced the forging of alternative working- class femininities. During the Spring Queen's first decade, three or more male and female judges, often whites selected by management, were brought from outside into the factory to adjudicate the competition. (Beginning in the 1990s, worker committees selected the judges.) Organizers asked judges to evaluate contestants not simply on physical and aesthetic beauty derived, however subjectively, from hegemonic notions of white femininity, but also on personality, style, and performance. "So it's entirely on attitude, you need to go on to the stage and it's how you project yourself," a union organizer said; "it's not the matter of being beautiful. If you walk on that stage and judges see confidence, like this girl can go far, she got the walk, the look, the everything [then] she doesn't need to be beautiful. She can have all those qualities and still go far." (74) An individual's potential to progress beyond the semifinals and on to the Good Hope Centre was also taken into account. "At the factory, what I've always tried to look for is just a person with lots of confidence," an experienced judge told me. "I always try and speak with the other people and say I'm not looking for anybody who's beautiful, just someone who can really carry themselves forward and really compete with other people within the union because it becomes quite a tough competition." (75)

The world of the Spring Queen in the clothing factories of the Western Cape carved out a festive space for self-fulfillment and the expression of a self-constructed blue-collar feminine identity. "It is definitely not the normal beauty competition," Rachel Visser emphasized. "Look at the color of your skin; look at the long hair you have; look at the color of your eyes; look at the perfect body. It is not that kind of competition. Because factory workers are normal ordinary people," Visser said; "they sit behind their machines, in their overalls ... and the Spring Queen has to be open for all ages, all body shapes, all colors, for all kinds of women if you want." (76) The presentation of assertive, confident, attractive workingwomen offered a stark rejoinder to the racist and sexist stereotype of Coloured women as subordinate, fragile, and passive.

Audiences profoundly influenced the experience, meaning, and outcome of these beauty competitions. (77) At the factory level, the relatively small audiences were (and are) made up almost exclusively of company employees, mostly women. It is here that alternative definitions of femininity more effectively challenged normative standards of beauty--light skin color, straight hair, trim body--which in apartheid society were difficult to distinguish from beauty queen images defined by white middle-class culture. As the Spring Queen progressed from the factory to the larger crowds at union-wide level, counter-hegemonic conceptions of beauty tended to lose their attraction. Alternative femininities seemed more difficult to "sell" to the judges in the highly competitive semifinals featuring audiences with more men and outsiders than at factory contests. The shitting composition of the Spring Queen's audiences and their influence on judges' decisions illuminates a weighty contradiction in the complex process of rewriting the Spring Queen script. Despite an explicitly egalitarian and democratic ethos, virtually all the top finishers in the pageant's history have been women of appropriate height in their late teens and early twenties, with clear skin, lean physiques, and (until recently) straightened hair. The Spring Queen engendered a culture of autonomy and fun hut this did not necessarily lead to working-class women's wholesale rejection of hegemonic ideals of female aesthetic beauty.

Two examples should provide sufficient evidence of this contradictory aspect of the contest. June Hendricks (nee Meyer) and Shariefa Benjamin (nee Abrahams) won the GWU Spring Queen crown in 1982 and 1987 respectively. Twenty years old at the time, Meyer said in an interview that she had had previous experience modeling prior to entering the Spring Queen. (78) She recalled getting useful modeling tips from her idol Pearl Jansen, with whom she had worked at an Edgars department store as a teenager. Jansen had placed second in the 1970 Miss World competition, ahead of her white South African counterpart much to the delight of many black South Africans. (79) In an extraordinarily rare case of the Spring Queen propelling upward social mobility, Meyer escaped her job at the Wolpe factory and went on to manage her own modeling agency for some time. Shariefa Abrahams, on the other hand, had never modeled before entering the Spring Queen at Kayteen Fashions in Athlone. At twenty-one years of age, "I was a very shy girl," she said. "1 did not have an interest for such things ... I did not want to enter, but all at the factory said 1 must ... because I'm always made-up and well dressed . . . They wanted me to enter. I was thin [my emphasis]". (80) These testimonies strongly suggest the limited oppositional power of alternative femininities as they eventually capitulated to a hegemonic body image resembling that of the commercial beauty queen.

The modest material rewards available to participants counteracted the "mainstreaming" effect described above and infused the pageant with its gritty working-class character. The prizes for the top-finishers, while certainly welcome, were hardly life changing. In the 1980s the GWU Spring Queen won a weekend trip for two to Sun City, courtesy of Southern Sun Hotels; shopping vouchers; and a training course at a Cape Town modeling agency. Winners gained temporary fame and social honor, but little else. "After I won," the 1987 winner said, "I was the same person as I am now." (81) "Some people think that if you win the Spring Queen pageant, you'll be on top," added Beverly Julius, Rex Trueform's 2003 Spring Queen and the lead character in Jane Kennedy's recent documentary film Cinderella of the Cape Flats. "I asked him [the factory managed: 'Is there no new job for me seeing that I'm the Queen of Rex Trueform?' So he said: 'I will see, but there's nothing come up yet [sic].'" (82) At the end of the film, Julius is walking out of the Good Hope Centre with her evening gown on her shoulder and says: "I'm still the same and I'm still where I am. I'm still myself--still in a factory." Escapist amusement trumped material rewards and upward mobility, but the emotional capital generated by the contest could be subtly mobilized in the service of workplace struggles.

The Spring Queen, for instance, opened some new spaces for clothing workers to contest management's power and to negotiate improvements in work conditions. After a few years, employees secured a half-day off with pay for factory pageants. Shop steward Awal-Tief Jacobs emphasized the value of scoring small victories for garment workers. "In the factory you got racism. [...] In my company, the half-a-day that we gained in the past, I've also learned that whatever you gained from your employer you should never just throw it away. You see? Because a half an hour is a half an hour ... ". Jacobs continued: "So though the workers may say they don't want to have the Spring Queen one year, they may say: 'But what about the half-a-day he always give us [sic] ?' " (83)

As the 1980s came to a close, these kinds of small victories suggest some of the ways in which the contest fell short of its original goal of instilling a culture of subordination and docility among woefully underpaid and restive workers. The radicalization of the trade union movement--a critical force in the explosion of popular resistance against apartheid in the 1980s--played a major role in this process. Rut it is also important to recognize that, upon Nelson Mandela's release and the legalization of the liberation movements, the Spring Queen had already diverged from the original patriarchal script.

Negotiating the Script: Gender and Progressive Unionism in the 1990s

Political democratization and economic globalization defined South Africa's first decade of freedom. The founding of the large and progressive Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (SACTWU) in September 1989 consolidated the sector's previously splintered labor movement. However, the Spring Queen stagnated. 1989 stands out as a low point in the competition's history: there was no coverage of the event in Clothes Line (later renamed SACTWU News) or other regional print media, and no queen appears to have been crowned. "The late eighties and early nineties is when the whole thing changed, Ann Delport confirmed. "We weren't focused on the Spring Queen, we were more focused on the [SACTWU] merger." (84) As the National Party negotiated itself out of power and apartheid finally gave way to democracy in 1994, the contest resumed but with, the final held at the Union hall in Salt River rather than at the Good Hope Centre. Downsized and criticized, the Spring Queen endured.

Ironically, part of the reason for its decline was the orthodox feminist view of SACTWU's male leadership that the Spring Queen was sexist and unprogressive. Soon after taking over the reins of the newly formed union, radical union leaders attempted "to change the nature of the contest" by removing "certain objectionable parts . . . and the culture and the mindset of the members, albeit very subtly." (85) Regional differences probably sharpened the conflictual tone of the discussion because SACTWU's national office-holders from KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were blissfully unaware of this local cultural tradition. (86) Other scholars have pointed to the post-merger challenge of building nonracialism within SACTWU, "where [racial and] ethnic differences are often present as undercurrents." (87) It was in this context that Coloured women in the Western Cape, impatient with what they perceived as another example of male domination, decided to act. "We are nor going to allow you to take the Spring Queen away because it our thing," women bluntly told the leadership; "we will make the Spring Queen into the way we want it to be." (88) Crucially, the struggle to defend the Spring Queen was connected to broader attempts by SACTWU women to negotiate and redefine the meaning and practice of democratic trade unionism in the post-apartheid era.

The acrimonious debate over the future of the beauty competition in the 1990s brought to the surface unresolved gender tensions in the union. SACTWU's positive record on women's issues (compared with other South African labor unions) made matters more complicated. Conscious of the fact that 70% of its members were women, in 1990 the male-dominated union leadership negotiated its first collective bargaining agreement covering 56,000 members in the Western Cape. Remarkably, it included a three-month maternity leave at 75% pay, and a further three months at 45% pay. (89) Additional evidence of its progressivism comes from SACTWU's vanguard role among South African labor unions to provide transport and childcare for female members who wished to attend Saturday meetings. These were extraordinary achievements in South Africa's manufacturing sector. But many challenges remained. Job security, child-care provision, occupational mobility, and access to higher paying jobs ranked high on garment workers' list of preoccupations, as did male attitudes towards women. "We have not been able to change the patriarchal mindset of many of our members, and, to some extent, of our leaders," acknowledged the COSATU labor federation in its 1997 Secretariat report. (90) This candid statement about sexism and women's lower status in the union explained female members' realistic views of gender relations in the progressive labor movement: "Things are okay, but there is room for a lot of improvement." (91)

Female shop stewards were obviously cognizant of these problems, but this awareness only seemed to make them more determined to save the beauty contest. They coordinated organizing committees; circulated sign-up sheets in factories; encouraged women to participate; and acted as liaisons between workers and the union. (92) Some entered the competition. Shop stewards forcefully advocated for the rank-and-file's wish to keep the Spring Queen: "the clothing people knew that the Spring Queen they [the workers] don't want it to go. I mean they didn't want it to be scrapped." (93) Savvy shop stewards framed their demands to preserve the contest as a test of democratic procedures and accountability within SACTWU. "We wouldn't simply take a decision like that unless it's been with the thorough approval of the members. That might even require a ballot," admitted John Eagles, a regional SACTWU officer. Men came to appreciate the significance union women attached to this self-constructed tradition. "It would be a matter that would touch a very, very sensitive nerve with a lot of our members," Eagles said. "You go into any clothing factory and you try and persuade the members to cancel, you know, 'Let's not have the Spring Queen this year;' I think you'll have a riot on your hands." (94)

Rumors that private entrepreneurs threatened to stage a "privatized" Spring Queen if SACTWU dropped the pageant may have precipitated the resolution of the debate over its future. "The union's name is always the focus of the thing and I think that's what we decided in the 90s, that we must actually continue and hold it up. The bottom line, it's the union's function, everything that is promoted, it's union based." (95) Union sovereignty was a sine qua non: "so no matter what ideological views one holds against the Spring Queen," Eagles said, "I think it's necessary to seize and maintain center stage in terms of arranging the venue, where, with the ability to control, one can attack the ideological problems with the thing--sexism and so on." (96)

By choosing to rewrite rather than scrap the Spring Queen script, the SACTWU national body recognized women's growing power and prudently preserved a much-loved local cultural tradition. "The fact of the matter is that it can make the [SACTWU] merger negotiations a complete failure simply because you touch it," Eagles explained; "it was necessary to respect the traditions of the founding unions and to continue to honor them." (97) Another important consideration that was probably taken into account was that the sociability and pleasure associated with the Spring Queen built unity within SACTWU's Western Cape affiliates: it offered a "tremendous opportunity to build up spirit among its membership [and to] provide a link between the members and the union in tangible form." (98)

Emboldened by their successful preservation of the Spring Queen, SACTWU women continued to fight for greater representation and power in the union. By 1999, women represented 38% of national executive committee membership and roughly one-third of national and regional office bearers. (99) (COSATU's numbers were far lower.) Despite these noticeable gains, however, "the majority of rank and file men in the unions still hold on to fairly traditional attitudes towards women," a male unionist from Kwazulu-Natal noted; "men still expect women to stay in certain positions. For example, often in our locals the secretary is a woman whereas the chairperson is a man." (100) SACTWU women's struggles for fairness and equal rights in the workplace were inseparable from their quest to save the Spring Queen. This complex intersection of culture, labor, and power highlights that in contemporary southern Africa "conventional gender norms, and the male-female relations and public practices that construct and sustain them, are once again being severely tested. For good or ill, women's broad participation in public life is reshaping politics and society in southern Africa." (101) Most recently, union men and women in the South African clothing and textile industry have transformed the Spring Queen script into a vehicle for the promotion of patriotic capitalism to cope creatively with the harsh effects of economic liberalization and closer global integration. (102)

The Spring Queen's New Script: Promoting Patriotic Capitalism

The emergence of a new script for the Spring Queen must be contextual-tied within South Africa's deeper incorporation into a highly competitive world economy. The clothing, textile, and leather sectors plunged into crisis after the dismantling of apartheid-era protectionism. According to some analysts, the South African government worsened the effects of economic globalization because its "over-eager implementation of GATT--tariffs were to be reduced over eight years instead of twelve, and to lower levels than required--delivered a heavy blow to the clothing industry." (103) Between 199.3 and 2001, the average tariff in the clothing sector declined sharply from 59.5% to 22%. (104) As a result of this regulatory shift, imports from China rose by 480% between 2002 and 2005; at present, more than half of clothing sold in South Africa is imported, which accounts in large part for the nearly 70,000 jobs lost in the last four years. (105) In 2005 alone, 6,000 people were laid off in the Western Cape (out of 22,000 job losses nationally). (106) Domestic manufacturers compounded the problem by restructuring and outsourcing production to informal sector "Cut-Make-and-Trim" companies. (107) SACTWU pressured the government to help stop the hemorrhaging of jobs. In response, in June 2006 President Thabo Mbeki signed an agreement with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to impose substantial restrictions (until 2008) on Chinese clothing and textile exports to South Africa. (108)

In this bleak context, the union invested the Spring Queen with a new purpose: to promote consumption of South African-made goods in order to save local jobs. This turnabout had its origins in the 2001 launch of the "Proudly South African" campaign by the National Economic Development and Labor Council (NEDLAC). Founded in 1995, NEDLAC is a statutory neo-corporatist body that brings together government, business, labor, and community organizations "to try to reach consensus on issues of social and economic policy [and| to promote the goals of economic growth and social equity." (109) "Proudly South African" is a multi-million rand branding exercise with a highly visible trade-marked logo that aims "to promote South African companies, products and services which are helping to create jobs and economic growth in our country." (110) SACTWU General Secretary, Ebrahim Patel, NEDLAC's convener for Labor and executive council member, hatched the idea of a Cape Town Fashion Festival and agreed to include the Spring Queen in it. A partnership between organized labor, the Western Cape provincial government, manufacturers, and major retailers, the Fashion Festival has grown from a three-day affair in 2002 to a yearlong event. In 2006, for instance, it opened in March with a well-attended media launch at the Rex Trueform factory in Salt River--one of the oldest manufacturing plants in the Western Cape. This choice of venue was profoundly symbolic because the venerable factory had shut down in June 2005. It reopened seven months later, having rehired 175 of the 970 retrenched workers, thanks to a lease agreement with a different company to produce men's suits (i.e., high value-added goods). (111) Fashion shows in the Festival's calendar later in the year showcased local designers Bongiwe Walaza, Sonwabile Ndamase, Sun Gode'ss, Amanda Laird Cherry, Register 7, Ghetto Star and many others. These spectacles were staged at various venues across metropolitan Cape Town: the Cape of Good Hope Castle; the International Convention Centre; the V&A Waterfront and Cavendish Square shopping malls; and The Promenade in Mitchell's Plain township. (112) Without question, however, the Festival's most popular event and biggest media attraction was the "Spring Queen & Fashion Parade" held in November. (113) In his 2004 address the night before the pageant final, Ebrahim Patel outlined the purpose of the Spring Queen's present script: "Initiatives such as the Proudly South African campaign and the Cape Town Fashion Festival promote local products and build a culture of buying excellent quality South African products." (114)

The trade union beauty contest has thus been transformed into a vehicle for the promotion of patriotic capitalism. Now it garners attention from established mainstream media. After years of disinterest, Cape Town's afternoon daily, The Cape Argus, has begun to publish front-page photographs and feature articles about the final; it even dispatches reporters to factory contests and occasionally runs human-interest stories about factory contestants, which raises workers' morale and winners' social honor. (115) Television, radio, and press coverage of the beauty contest has helped to recast the union's image in more positive terms. "The media doesn't usually talk about the labor movement, if they talk about the labor movement it's bad," said SACTWU's media officer. "It's only about strikes and the fact that there is mischief, and demands for money and those kinds of things. So it's a great thing that the Spring Queen has stolen the hearts of the Western Cape media." (116) Like most beauty contests globally, the Spring Queen today is a manufactured symbol of collective identity. The winner assumes the role of spokesperson for the union and for patriotic consumption: "if there is a May Day, then the queen plays a role in speaking at the rally, for example. If there is a big union event, then the queen comes and addresses the people ... talks to the media about why is it that we want you to save, talks to consumers about why she wants you to buy local. " (117) Befitting a racially diverse union, in the 1990s African women joined Coloured contestants in increasing numbers. Finally, in 2005 Lindiswa Ntinga, a 20-year-old line feeder at the Monviso factory with no previous modeling experience, became the first African (rather than Coloured) woman to claim the Spring Queen crown. (118) "I was very different from the other girls ... I like to be natural and 1 have my own style," she said proudly. Indeed, Ntinga's unstraightened hairdo and lack of make-up reflected a proud "African-ness," but it also seemed to suggest the increasingly broad acceptance of natural styles in South African popular culture. (119)

Even with these significant changes, the beauty competition's lifeblood continues to he the enjoyment that workers get out of organizing, participating, and watching it. Despite favorable media exposure and in 2006 the introduction of a corporate sponsor (Sanlam), commercialization remains minimal, as shown by the relatively modest prizes awarded to the top finishers: TVs, DVD players, cosmetics, clothing, gift certificates and the like. What has remained constant in the eyes of labor organizers is the Spring Queen's capacity to generate excitement among the membership. This quality underpins the union's ongoing efforts to promote patriotic consumption. Building on her personal experience as an ex-shop steward and Spring Queen contestant, Rachel Visser explained how the Spring Queen's popularity offers trade unionists an unusual opportunity to communicate with clothing workers in the Western Cape, whose weekly take-home pay averages about R400 {approximately $57).
  Remember you want to use it as an organizing tool, talk to people
  because it is 1 5,000 union people you have together. But it's also
  15,000 people that doesn't [sic] want to hear about, politics now, and
  doesn't want to hear about wages and all of that ... so what we do in
  the Atlantis one, we take the opportunity to talk to the people about
  the program for the next year. And we use about halt an hour to talk
  about that and mobilize for the next year. (120)

What the future holds in store for the beauty contest we cannot know, of course, but its rich history and deeply rooted culture suggests that it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Union women's production of the Spring Queen has demonstrated a remarkable ability to grapple creatively with shifting political, ideological, and economic circumstances by providing a venue for the pursuit of entertainment, women's empowerment, and trade union solidarity.


This study has attempted to demonstrate how the history of the popular culture of the Spring Queen has been defined by its coagulating power. In the first decade of its existence, the corrupt and conservative Garment Workers' Union of the Western Province, operating in tandem with factory owners and managers, crafted a patriarchal script to manufacture docility and defuse growing militancy among the mostly Coloured female workforce. The union, however, rather quickly lost control of a wildly popular female-controlled cultural production. Mass resistance against apartheid in the mid-1980s and the rise of progressive unionism led to changes in the Spring Queen. With the negotiated transition to democracy as a backdrop, the contest entered a period of decline brought about largely by gender tensions and organizational differences within the newly established Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union. The cultural arena of the Spring Queen then became a political terrain for women to contest individual and collective power in their union. In the 1990s SACTWU women waged a successful campaign to save the Spring Queen against the wishes of the male-dominated leadership. This struggle brought into stark relief garment women's unwillingness to remain second-class citizens in a democratic South Africa. With the Spring Queen assisting in the advancement of women's rights and the mainstreaming of gender issues in the union, women now hold about one-third of the national and regional leadership positions in SACTWU. Most recently, a new script for the beauty contest emerged in the gloomy economic scenario of massive layoffs and widespread plant closings. In 2002 male and female SACTWU officials incorporated the tradition of the Spring Queen into the Cape Town Fashion Festival in order to promote consumption of South African-made clothing and textiles.

By examining the continuities and changes in the production and reception of this fascinating annual ritual, this study revealed how black (mainly Coloured) working-class women in the clothing factories of the Western Cape developed a gendered form of popular culture that asserted their humanity and citizenship, and democratized their labor union. The Spring Queen's celebration of alternative notions of feminine beauty countered negative myths and stereotypes about African women as passive, subordinate, unattractive, and weak. The competition also helped to soften organized labor's militant public image in contemporary South Africa. In the end, this study questions the simplistic assumption that contestants, organizers, and audiences of a proletarian beauty pageant can be reduced to being unthinking pawns of patriarchal, capitalist interests. (121) Ultimately, the actions and memories of female and male trade unionists demonstrate the vital extent to which laboring women made their own history, though not, as the Marxian adage reminds us, in circumstances of their own choosing.

Department of History

East Lansing, MI 48824


I am indebted to Rachel Visser of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union, for her help and guidance. I wish to thank the Department of History at Michigan State University for providing research funds and James Leiby, Jeanne Bailey, Leslie Hadfield, and Mona Jackson for their research assistance. Sean Field, Director of the Centre for Popular Memory or University of Cape Town, kindly gave permission to use oral history interviews. Adam Ashforth, Lynn Thomas, Emine Evered, Peter Beattie, Benjamin Smith, and Peter Limb shared articles, essays, and ideas. I have also benefited from feedback received during presentations of earlier versions of this work at the "Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives" Seminar Series, Michigan State University School of Industrial Relations, November 2006; and at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association, San Francisco, November 2006. Of course, all interpretations are mine.

(1.) New York Times, 16 September 1993. On race, identity, and beauty in South Africa, see Nakedi Ribane, Beauty--A Black Perspective (Pietermaritzburg, 2006); Lynn Thomas, "The Modern Girl and Racial Respectability in 1930s South Africa," Journal of African History 46 (2006): 461-490; and Rita Barnard, "Contesting Beauty," in Sarah Nuttall and Cheryl-Ann Michael (eds.), .Senses of Culture: South African Culture Studies (Oxford, 2000), pp. 344-362.

(2.) The term "black" in this paper refers to people classified African, Coloured, and Indian under the Population Registration Act of 1950. The collective racial terms are used only where appropriate. While "race" is a historical and social construction bound up with apartheid history, it is acknowledged that racial boundaries and identities were (and continue to he) relevant to South Africans themselves.

(3.) Karen Daniels interview with Josie Arendse, 9 February 1992, "Interviews with Clothing and Textile Workers," (hereafter IWC) Centre for Popular Memory, University of Cape Town, tape IWC 02.

(4.) Iris Berger, Threads of Solidarity: Women in South African Industry 1900-1980 (Bloomington, 1992), 278-80; and Paul Johnson " Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk': The Spring Queen Festival and the Eroding Family Cult in the Western Cape Garment Industry," (Oral History Project Seminar Paper, University of Cape Town, 1993), 17. Johnson's paper was the first academic study of the Spring Queen. It focused on the contest's first decade.

(5.) African women domestic workers, on the other hand, have been examined far more thoroughly; see, for example, Jacklyn Cock, Maids and Madams: A Study in the Politics of Exploitation (Johannesburg, 1980); Deborah Gaitskell, "Housewives, Maids or Mothers: Some Contradictions of Domesticity for Christian Women in Johannesburg, 1903-39," journal of African History 24, 2 (1983): 241-256; and Belinda Bozzoli, Women of Phokeng: Consciousness, Life Strategy and Migrancy in South Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 1991).

(6.) Berger, Threads of Solidarity; Solly Sachs, Rebels Daughters (London, 1957); Emma Mashinini, Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life: A South African Autobiography (London, 1989); Ray Alexander Simons, All My Life and All My Strength (Johannesburg, 2004); Elizabeth Abrahams, Married to the Struggle: "Nanna" Liz Abrahams Tells Her Life Story (Bellville, 2005); Kally Forrest, Asijiki: A History of the South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) (Johannesburg, 2005). For recent studies of labor organizing among South Africa's working poor, see Annie Deverish and Caroline Skinner, "Collective Action in the Informal Economy: The Case of the Self-Employed Women's Union, 1994-2004," in Ballard et al (eds.), Voices of Protest (2006), pp. 255277; and " 'Union Boys in Caps Leading Factory Girls Astray'? The Politics of Labour Reform in Lesotho's 'Feminised' Garment Industry," Journal of Southern African Studies 31, 1 (2005): 95-115. For the most useful university studies, see Martin Nicol, "A History of Garment and Tailoring Workers in Cape Town, 1900 .39," (PhD. thesis, University of Cape Town, 1984); Katherine L. Angier, "Patterns of Production: Women Industrial Workers in Cape Town, 1918-1939," (PhD. thesis, University of London, 1993); and Paul Johnson, "Talking the Talk."

(7.) Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, "Gender Biases in African Historiography," in A. M. Imam, A. Mama, and Fatou Sow (eds.), Engendering African Social Sciences (Dakar, 1999), pp. 110-111. Zeleza's assertion is strongly supported in Jean Allman, Susan Geiger and Nakanyike Musisi, "Women in African Colonial Histories: An Introduction," in Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi (eds.), Women in African Colonial Histories (Bloomington, 2002), 1-15; Andrea Cornwall, "Introduction: Perspectives on Gender in Africa," in Cornwall (ed.), Readings in Gender in Africa (Bloomington, 2005), pp. 1-19. In southern Africa gender history is no longer synonymous with women's history; see, for example, Robert Morrell (ed.), Changing Men in Southern Africa (Pietermaritzburg and London and New York, 2001); Peter Delius and Clive Glaser, "Sexual Socialisation in South Africa: A Historical Perspective," African Studies 61, 1 (2002): 27-54; Graeme Reid and Liz Walker, "Sex Then and Now: Exploring South Africa's Sexual Histories," South African Historical Journal 50 (2004): 77-83; and Marc Epprecht, Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa (Montreal and Kingston, 2004).

(8.) Kathleen Canning, Gender History in Practice: Historical Perspectives on Bodies, Class, and Citizenship (Ithaca, NY, 2006), 62.

(9.) Some of the southern African social-cum-labor historians who influenced my work were: Ari Sitas, "Traditions of Poetry in Natal," in Liz Gunner (ed.), Poetry and Performance: Theatre, Poetry and Song in Southern Africa (Johannesburg, 1994), pp. 139-161; Helen Bradford, A Taste of Freedom: The ICU in Rural South Africa, 1924-1930 (New Haven, 1987); Keletso E. Atkins, The Moon is Dead! Give Us Our Money! The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843-1900 (Portsmouth, NH, 1993); and Dunbar Moodie with Vivienne Ndatshe, Going for Gold: Men, Mines, and Migration (Berkeley and Johannesburg 1994). Some of the ideas in this paragraph draw on Jon Lewis, "South African Labor History: A Historiographical Assessment," in Joshua Brown et al. (eds.), History from South Africa: Alternative Visions and Practices (Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 165-182; and Penelope Hetherington, "Women in South Africa: The Historiography in English," International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, 2 (1993): 241-269.

(10.) Colleen Ballerino Cohen and Richard Wilk, with Beverly Stoeltje, "Introduction: Beauty Queens on the Global Stage," in Ballerino Cohen, Wilk, and Stoeltje (eds.), Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power (New York, 1996), p. 2. For a North American comparison, see Mary Margaret Fonow, Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America (Minneapolis, 2003).

(11.) Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia, 1986), 8.

(12.) A. Holly Shissler, "Beauty is Nothing to Be Ashamed Of: Beauty Contests As Tools of Women's Liberation in Early Republican Turkey," Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, 1 (2004), 107-122.

(13.) Natasha B. Barnes, "Face the Nation: Race, Nationalisms, and Identities in Jamaican Beauty Pageants," in Jennifer Scanlon (ed.), The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader (New York, 2000), pp. 355-371; Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain't I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (Oxford and New York, 2002); and Sarah Banet-Weiser, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (Berkeley, 1999).

(14.) Rick A. Lopez, "The India Bonita Contest of 1921 and the Ethnicization of Mexican National Culture," 1 Hispanic American Historical Review 82, 2 (2002): 291 - 328; Jon Schackt, "Mayahood Through Beauty: Indian Beauty Pageants in Guatemala," Bulletin of Latin American Research 24, 3 (2005): 269-287; and Carlota McAllister, "Authenticity and Guatemala's Maya Queen," in Ballerino Cohen, Wilk, and Stoeltje (eds.), Beauty Querns on the Global Stage: Gander, Contests, and Power. 105-124.

(15.) Susan K. Besse, "Defining a 'National Type': Brazilian Beauty Contests in the 1920s," Estudios Interdisciplinarios De America Latina V El Caribe 16, 1 (2005); Jennifer Robertson, "Japan's First Cyborg:' Miss Nippon, Eugenics and Wartime Technologies of Beauty, Body and Blood," Body and Society 7, 1 (2001): 1- 34. Studies of beauty contests in contemporary India tackle similar themes and raise new ones as well; see Shoma Munshi, "A Perfect 10--'modern and Indian': Representations of the Body in Beauty Pageants and the Visual Media in Contemporary India," in James H. Mills and Satadru Sen (eds,), Confronting the Body: the Politics of Physicality in Colonial and Post-Colonial India (London, 2004), pp. 162-182; and Rupal Oza, "Showcasing India: Gender, Geography, and Globalization," Signs 26, 4 (2001): 1067-1095.

(16.) I borrowed the concept of "strategic engagement" from Heidi Gengenbach, " 'What My Heart Wanted': Gendered Stories of Early Colonial Encounters in Southern Mozambique," in All man, Geiger, and Musisi (eds.), Women in African Colonial Histories, 19- 47.

(17.) For further discussion of the press in South African history, sec Les Switzer and Mohamed Adhikari (eds.), South Africa's Resistance Press: Alternative Voices in the Last Generation under Apartheid (Athens, OH, 2000); South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880-1960 (Cambridge, 1997); and Keyan Tomaselli, Ruth Tomaselli, and Johan Muller (eds.), The Press in South Africa (London, 1989).

(18.) Inspired in particular by Roy Rosenzweig's Eight Hours Par What We Will: Workers & Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge, 1983), and Tony Mason's Association Football and English Society: 1863-1915 (London, 1980), I employed a similar approach in researching my first book; see Peter Alegi, Laduma! Soccer, Politics, and Society in South Africa (Pietermaritzburg, 2004).

(19.) See Jeremy Baskin, .Striking Back: A History of Cosatu (Johannesburg, 1991); Berger, Threads of Solidarity; and Shireen Singh, "Garment Workers: A Huge New Union," Work In Progress, 59 (June/July 1989): 24-29; online at: (accessed December 27, 2006).

(20.) For further details, see Sachs, Rebels Daughters; and Berger, Threads of Solidarity.

(21.) See, Baskin, Striking Back, pp. 17-29.

(22.) ACTWUSA was formed in November 1987 by a merger of the National Union of Textile Workers, the Textile Workers Industrial Union, and the National Union of Garment Workers. GAWU was the product of a merger in December 1987 between the Garment Workers' Union-Western Province and the Natal-based Garment Workers' Industrial Union.

(23.) Clothes Line, 22 September 1989.

(24.) Baskin, Striking Back, p. 394.

(25.) Mohamed Adhikari, Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community (Athens, OH, 2005), 2. For an evocative biographical study of Coloured identity, see Jonny Steinberg, The Number: One Man's Search for Identity in. the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs (Johannesburg, 2005).

(26.) Adhikari, Not White Enough, Not Black Enough, 2 S. Of course, not all Coloureds were poor, spoke Afrikaans as a first language, or joined the Dutch Reformed Church. The Muslim "Malays," for instance, have been among the most important Coloured subgroups.

(27.) John Western, Outcast Cape Town (Minneapolis, 1981); Martin West, "From Pass Courts to Deportation: Changing Patterns of Influx Control in Cape Town," African Affairs 81 (1982): 463-477.

(28.) Daniela Gasale and Dorrit Posel. "The Continued Feminisation of the Labour Force in South Africa," South African journal of Economies 70, 1 (2002): 156-184. It is interesting to compare the Cape clothing industry's history of heavy dependence on women's labor (90% of the workforce) with the increase in the percentage of women in the South African labor force as a whole: 23% in 1960; 36% in 1985; and 41% in 1991.

(29.) Baskin, Striking Back, p. 377. In the Cape food processing sector, white supervisors conducted strip searches of Coloured women at shifts' end--a most humiliating treatment that continued as late as 1989; see Forrest, Asijiki, p. 21.

(30.) Baskin, Striking Back, pp. 354-357, .369-384; and Naidoo (ed.). Unions in Transition: Cosatu into the New Millennium (Johannesburg, 1999), pp. 75-79.

(31.) Baskin, Striking Back, p. 371.

(32.) Berger, Threads of Solidarity, p. .276.

(33.) Cf. Robert Davies and Dan O'Meara, "Total Strategy in Southern Africa: An Analysis of South African Regional Policy Since 1978," Journal

of Southern African Studies 11, 2(1985): 183-211.

(34.) Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa (New York, 1990), p. 337.

(35.) Devandiren Pillay, "Trade Union and Alliance Politics in Cape Town, 1979-85," (unpublished PhD. dissertation, University of Essex, 1989), chapters 3-4.

(36.) William Finnegan, Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid (New York, 1986), p. 174. A brief overview of these dramatic events is found in Vivian BickfordSmith, Elizabeth van Heyningen, and Nigel Worden, Cape Town in the Twentieth Century: An Illustrated Social History (Cape Town, 1999), pp. 207-211. Gillian Hart reminds us that in the 1980s "struggles in the factories and the townships intensified, although they assumed locally specific forms that reflected far more complex and varied dynamics than the simple linking of township and workplace protests." Gillian Hart, Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Berkeley, 2002), p. 1 52.

(37.) "How to Enter Yourself for our Spring Show," Clothes Line, 22 August 1980, p. 3.

(38.) Berger, Threads of Solidarity, fn. 60, p. 351.

(39.) Author interview with Rachel Visser, 23 May 2006, Salt River, Cape Town.

(40.) Author interview with Felicity Andrews, 7 June 2006, Salt River, Cape Town. Johnson, "Talking the Talk," 13.

(41.) Interview with Visser.

(42.) Clothes Line, 22 August 1980, and 29 August 1980. Launched in 1979, Clothes Line was edited by Peterson's son Cedric.

(43.) Les Switzer and Mohamed Adhikari (eds.), South Africa's Resistance Press: Alternative Voices in the Last Generation wider Apartheid (Athens, OH, 2000). On media discourses and pageants in the United States, sec Bonnie J. Dow, "Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology," Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6, 1 (2003): 127-160.

(44.) Ruth Fredricks and Edith Adams, members of the National Union of Clothing Workers, both employed at Jaff & Company, won the 1965 July Queen and 1967 "Miss Garment Worker" titles respectively. Cited in The Garment Worker. 8 October 1965, p. 1, and 10 February 1967, p. 1. For more evidence on "Miss Garment Worker" at the Kimberley NUCW branch, see The Garment Worker, 8 November 1968, p. 1.

(45.) The Garment Worker, 26 October 1973, p. 1, reported that Anna Ramagaga was crowned the 1973 "Miss South Africa of the NUCW." See also a brief article on the 1975 contest, won by Cecelia Zikalala, in The. Garment Worker, 30 January 1976, p. 1; and on competitions in the 1980s: The Garment Worker, 21 February 1986, p. 1.

(46.) The Garment Worker, 12 November 1965, p. 1. The Miss Black South Africa contest has not yet received full scholarly treatment, but for an introduction see Ribane, Beauty, pp. 92-96.

(47.) My thanks to Anton Fillers, Stellenbosch University, for bringing this information to my attention.

(48.) Cf. Thomas, "The Modern Girl"; Rita Barnard, "Contesting Beauty"; Timothy Burke, lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modem Zimbabwe (Durham, 1996), esp. pp. 181-193. For insights on indigenous conceptions of beauty in the pre-colonial period, see Ribane, Beauty, pp. 19-22; and Thomas, "Modern Girl," 469.

(49.) Interview with Visser.

(50.) Craig, Ain't I A Beauty Queen?, p. 12.

(51.) Monica Wilson and Archie Mafeje, Langa: A Study of Social Groups in an African Township (Cape Town, 1963), 145.

(52.) I borrowed the concept of "cultural sovereignty" from Marissa Moorman, "Feel Angolan With This Music: Music and Nation in Colonial Luanda, Angola, 1945-75," (PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2004).

(53.) My thanks to Adam Ashforth for sharing with me his field notes on the "Little Miss I.ekoka Street" pageant--the source for the quote above.

(54.) Clothes Line, 22 August 1980, p. 2.

(55.) Clothes Line, 21 November 1980.

(56.) According to Valerie Jacobs, younger clothing workers were more defiant than older ones (interview with V. Jacobs, 1WC tape 7). On generational tensions and their political ramifications in the 1980s, see C. Bundy, "Street Sociology and Pavement Politics: Aspects of Youth and Student Resistance in Cape Town, 1985," Journal of Southern African Studies 13, 3 (1987): 303-330.

(57.). Cf. Berger, Threads of Solidarity, pp. 276, 278-80; Johnson, "Talking the Talk," 17.

(58.) Anne Emmett and Msokoli Qotole interview with Reinhardt, 16 May 1992, quoted in Johnson, "Talking the Talk," p. 25.

(59.) Quoted in Johnson, "Talking the Talk," 25.

(60.) Johnson, "Talking the Talk," 33.

(61.) Karen Daniels interview with Awal-Tief Jacobs, July 1992, LWC tape 4.

(62.) Robert Edelman, Serious Fun: Soviet Spectator Sports (New York, 1993).

(63.) Karin Barber, The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theater (Bloomington, 2000), p. 7.

(64.) Author interviews with Jane Kennedy, Woodstock, 22 May 2006; with Ann Delport, 7 June 2006, Salt River; and with Visser and Andrews. Daniels interview with Arendse; Emmett and Qotole interview with Reinardt; Emmett interview with Pinto; Paul Johnson interview with John Eagles, 21 May 199.3, 1.WC tape 17.

(65.) Ballerino Cohen and Wilk, with Stoeltje, "Introduction: Beauty Queens on the Global Stage," p. II.

(66.) A comprehensive list of the growing literature on the historiography and history of leisure and popular culture in Africa is not possible here, but see Emmanuel Akyeampong and Charles Ambler, "Leisure in African History," International Journal of African Historical Studies 35, 1 (2002): 1-16; Karin Barber, "Introduction" in K. Barber (ed.), Readings in African Popular Culture (Bloomington, 1997), pp. 1-12; Alegi, Laduma! Soccer, Politics, and Society in South Africa; Laura Fair, Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community, and Identity in Post-Abolition Urhan Zanzibar (Athens, OH, 2001); Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge, 1995); Christopher Waterman, Juju: A Social. History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music (Chicago, 1990); and David Coplan, In Township Tonight! South Africa's Black City Music and Theater (New York, 1985).

(67.) Sunday Times, 10 November 2002, p. 24.

(68.) See, for example, Clothes Line, 23 October 1987, 1-6; and the documentary film Cinderella of the Cape hints. Workers had fond memories of employers who served last food at the event. See interview with Awal-Tief Jacobs; Anne Emmett interview with Gladys Pinto, Cape Town, 1 July 1992, IWC tape 10; Karen Daniels interview with Bernice Calvert, 10 August 1992, IWC tape 11.

(69.) The relationship between dress and power is investigated in detail in Jean Allman (ed.), Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress (Bloomington, 2004).

(70.) Western, Outcast Cape Town, p. 64.

(71). Interview with Visser.

(72.) 1987 Spring Queen Shariefa Abrahams, a practicing Muslim, recalled how a modeling agency called her repeatedly after she won the title: "They wanted me Co model a bikini, but I can't do that, because I'm Muslim. I can't model that. They kept on phoning ... for the bikini not for the dresses. I said I could do it in any other clothes, but not that." Anne Emmett interview with Shariefa Benjamin (nee Abrahams), 20 July 1992, Cape Town, IWC rape 8. I wish to thank Corvell and Faith Cranfield for translating the interview from Afrikaans into English.

(73.) Emmett interview with Pinto. Since the early 1990s, transvestite men also participate, but only at factory level and they cannot progress to the semifinals. "It wouldn't be fair" to the women I was told.

(74.) Interview with Delport.

(75.) Interview with Andrews.

(76.) Interview with Visser.

(77.) Karin Barber, "Preliminary Notes on Audiences in Africa," Africa 67, 3 (1997): 347362.

(78.) Karen Daniels interview with June Hendrickse, 6 August 1992, IWC tape 1 2.

(79.) Daniels interview with Hendrickse. Jansen had won the 1970 Miss Africa South crown, an apartheid pageant for African, Indian, and Coloured women excluded from the whites-only Miss South Africa contest. Between 1970-76 South Africa sent two representatives to the Miss Universe competition: one black, one white. As a result of international protests against apartheid, South Africa was banned from. Miss World in 1977 and from Miss Universe in 1985.

(80.) Emmett interview with Abrahams.

(81.) Emmett interview with Abrahams.

(82.) Quoted in Cinderella of the Cape Fiats, directed by Jane Kennedy (SABC, 2004).

(83.) Karen Daniels Interview with Awal-Tief Jacobs, July 1992, IWC tape 3. Daniels interview with Arendse.

(84.) Interview with Delport. In an interview with Anne Emmett, Isahelle Patience, a long-time shop steward in the GWU, also linked the Spring Queen's decline in the late 1 980s with the arrival of progressive unionism: "When COSATU came in it sort of died out," Cited in Emmett interview with Isabelle Patience, 11 September 1992, IWC tape 14.

(85.) Johnson interview with Eagles.

(86.) Anecdotal evidence seems to support this view; SACTWU members from KwaZuluNatal, whom I met on a flight from Durban to Cape Town in June 2006, were amazed to learn from me about the existence of the Spring Queen.

(87.) Baskin, Striking Back, p. 395.

(88.) Interview with Visser.

(89.) Baskin, Striking Back, p. 376.

(90.) Naidoo, Unions in Transition, p. 75.

(91.) Daniels interview with Awal-Tief Jacobs.

(92.) Interview with Visser. Emmett interview with Pinto. Emmett interview with Patience.

(93.) Interview with Delport.

(94.) Johnson interview with Eagles.

(95.) Interview with Delport.

(96.) Johnson interview with Eagles.

(97.) Johnson interview with Eagles.

(98.) Johnson interview with Eagles. Confirmed by my interview with Delport.

(99.) Naidoo, Unions in Transition, p. 76.

(100.) Jeremy Daphne quoted in Forrest, Asijiki, p. 81.

(101.) Denise Walsh and Pamela Scully, "Altering Politics, Contesting Gender," Journal of Southern African Studies 32, 1 (2006): 8.

(102.) Adam Habib and Imraan Valodia, "Reconstructing a Social Movement in an Era of Globalisation," in R. Ballard, A. Habib, and I. Valodia (eds.), Voices of Protest: Social Movements in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Pietermaritzburg, 2006), p. 232. For insights on how this process unfolded in areas of KwaZulu-Natal, see Hart, Disabling Globalization.

(103.) Christi Van der Westhuizen, "Women and Work Restructuring in the Cape Town Clothing Industry," in Edward Webster and Karl Von Holdt (eds.), Beyond the Apartheid Workplace: Studies in Transition (Pietermaritzburg, 2005), p. 339.

(104.) Alan Hirsch, Season of Hope: Economic Reform under Mandela and Mbeki (Pietermaritzburg, 2005), p. 129.

(105.) "China's Cutting Back on Clothing and Textile Exports," Cosatu Weekly, 2 3 June 2006; online at: (accessed 10 October 2006); and "SA Trade with China Flits Textiles Hard," Cape Times, 17 March 2006, p. 4.

(106.) "A Festival of Fashion," Mail & Guardian, 26 May-June 1 2006, p. 30.

(107.) For insights of CMTs in the Western Cape, see Van der Westhuizen, "Women and Work"; on Taiwanese companies in KwaZulu-Natal, see Hart, Disabling Globalization.

(108.) People's Daily Online, 5 September 2006, online at: (accessed January 2, 2007)

(109.) (accessed 3 January 2007).

(110.) (accessed 3 January 2007).

(111.) "Rex Trueform Factory Reopens," Mail & Guardian Online, 25 January 2006, on line at: (accessed February 26, 2006). Rex Trueform is the site of the documentary film Cinderella of the Cape Flats. The 2003 factory Spring Queen, Beverly Julius, the main protagonist in Cinderella lost her job and was not among those Rex workers who were rehired to make suits for House of Monatic; interview with Kennedy.

(112.) "Cape Town Fashion Festival 2006; Events," online at: (accessed January 3, 2007).

(113). Interview with Visser.

(114.) Ebrahim Patel, "Address at Cape Town Fashion Festival," Cape Town, November 2004, online at: (accessed 6 October 2006).

(115.) For example, see "Crowning Glory for Rag Trade Queens," Cape Argus, 8 August 2005, p. l; "Race Heats Up for Spring Queen title," Cape Argus, 12 September 2005, p. 5; and ''Dancing Debs Step Up for Spring Queen final." Cape Argus 9 November 2005, p. 9.

(116.) Interview with Visser.

(117). Interviews with Visser (quoted) and Delport.

(118.) "Spring Queen Sets Her Sights on Miss SA Title," Cape Argus, 23 November 2005, P. 10.

(119.) Nakedi Ribane's account of race and the beauty industry in South Africa appears to support this conclusion; see Ribane, Beauty, chapters 4 6. For comparisons with African-American cultural history, see Craig, Ain't I a Beauty Queen, esp. pp. 73-74, 104-108; Noliwe M. Rooks, Hair Raising Beauty. (Culture. and African-American Women (New Brunswick, NJ, 1996).

(120.) Interview with Visser.

(121.) For a similar interpretation in an American context, see Robert H. Lavenda, "It's Not a Beauty Pageant! Hybrid Ideology in Minnesota Community Queen Pageants," in Beauty Queens on the. Global Stage, p. 45.

By Peter Alegi

Michigan State University
COPYRIGHT 2008 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Alegi, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Previous Article:Perils of degeneration: reform, the savage immigrant, and the survival of the unfit.
Next Article:The political work of leisure: class, recreation, and African American Commemoration at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 1881-1931.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters