Nelson Mandela Foundation

26  March 1960   Burning Passbook

Nelson Mandela burns his "dompas" in a 1960 protest against "passbooks".

Earlier this month, we received a donation of an Apartheid-era passbook or “dompas” from Tenjiwe Christina Kaba née Nyushu – Mama Christina. This made me research what this was since I was born in 1999 and had never encountered a dompas before.

My research found that all adult African men over the age of 16 had to carry the dompas according to the 1952 Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents Act more commonly known as the Pass Laws Act. This Act required an official book colloquially known as the dompas (or passbook) to be carried at all times which served as a kind of passport system between the government-determined 'homelands" and the city.

Personal information such as employment status was recorded in the passbook. It also had to include permission from the government for you to work or look for work in a specific region of the country. If employment was the only reason you were in a certain location, losing your job could jeopardise your ability to remain there, forcing you and your family to leave and be relocated to one of the Bantustans. Any police officer could inspect your dompas at any time or place. Forgetting to carry the pass, losing it, or having it stolen was a serious infraction that might result in arrest and jail.

In 1955 the government decided that the dompas was to be extended to all African women over the age of 16. The women were troubled by this because they saw how the Pass Law badly affected the men around them. In some cases, they were the ones who had to go and bail out their husbands from police custody for forgetting their dompas at home.

The women, under the banner of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) decided to march.  On 9 August 1956 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria demanding that the pass laws be scrapped. This however fell on deaf ears.

This had a devastating consequence for family life when both parents were arrested for not having the dompas or it not being endorsed to be in a certain area and had to spend the night or weekend in jail, and the children had to cope on their own. The dompas created untold hardship and were deeply hated.

On 21 March 1960, the police opened fire on protestors demonstrating peacefully against the dompas in Sharpeville. 69 people were killed and, soon after, a state of emergency was declared. We commemorate this day as Human Rights Day in South Africa today.

The Pass Laws were eventually scrapped in 1986 by the apartheid government. They had come to realise that it was very difficult and costly to enforce.

Tenjiwe Christina Kaba née Nyushu donated her old dompas, which depicts the various regions she was allowed to reside in, to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Ma Christina’s dompas has a section where her permanent or home address is listed and is signed by the Chief/Headman. This is because the government needed to know where to take you if your permission to stay in a particular area had been revoked. The preservation of her dompas will aid those who have never seen it and would love to truly see/show their children a real dompas in the future and allow them to understand more about its ramifications.