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A thousand miles from home

Frances Baard is 70 years old. She lives in a small house in Mabopane. When Learn and Teach visited her, she was not very happy. She showed us holes in her roof – from a strong hail storm the week before. Some windows were also broken. Frances does not have money for these things.

Frances believes people must share problems. And they must fight problems together. Frances Baard has worked hard to bring people together. And she has paid the price. She has suffered because she cares. The story of her life is the story of a brave, kind woman.

Then Frances pointed to her neighbours’ roofs. “Look, they also have holes. They also have rubbish roofs.”

That’s Frances. She always did care about the people around her. She hasn’t changed. She will never change.

Frances Baard was born in Beaconsfield near Kimberley. She went to school until standard six. Then she went to training school for teachers. She left this school when her father died.

Frances went to teach at a primary school. She taught there for a year. Then the school told her to go. They wanted a man for the job. So Frances left the school. She went to Kimberley. She got a job doing domestic work.

In 1939 Frances got a letter from a friend in Port Elizabeth. Her friend told her to come to Port Elizabeth. Frances liked the idea so she packed her bags and went to Port Elizabeth.

In Port Elizabeth Frances got a job at a new factory. The factory made jam, canned fruit and fruit juices. Most of the workers in the factory were women. The pay was low. And the hours were long and hard.

“We started work at six o’clock in the morning, “says Frances. “We finished at nine o’clock at night. After work we went home to cook and clean. Some of us had little children. When we got home, they were always asleep.”

The work was also dangerous. “The juices from the fruit have a lot of acid,” says Frances. “This acid can burn the skin. They gave us plastic gloves, aprons and boots. But when the factory had more work, more workers came. And they did not have enough boots, aprons and gloves for all the workers.”

In 1948 a brave young woman visited Port Elizabeth. She worked for the Food and Canning Workers Union in Cape Town. She came to organize the fruit workers in Port Elizabeth.

“Her name was Ray Alexander,” says Frances. “We organized the workers with her help. She told us how trade unions work. She told us how to get more money. And she told us how to make life better in the factory. Then she left and went back to Cape Town. After she left, we organized the workers ourselves.”

“We organized the workers at lunch time,” says Frances. “We had small meetings because the workers had lunch at different times. After a while we called a big meeting.”

At the meeting the workers chose Frances to work for the union. The union opened an office in Korsten. Korsten was a ‘coloured’ area. Frances worked in the office with two other women.

“Every lunch hour we went to the factory,” says Frances. “We organized the workers. And we spoke to the bosses about workers problems. The bosses listened to us in the busy times. But when the factory was not busy, the bosses did not listen. And they always fired the committee workers first. They wanted to break our union.”

Frances had many problems as a trade union organizer. The police said she must not work with coloured women in the same office. And they told her not to go into the fruit factories.

But Frances did not stop working. She still organized the workers. She spoke to the workers outside the factory. They came to the gate to talk to her at lunch time. And Frances had meetings with the workers at night.

Frances worked very hard in the union. But she also worried about the other people around her. She worried about the people in the community.

Frances joined a women’s organization. She believed women had the power to change things. She still believes women have the power to change things.

Frances went from door to door. She spoke to the women. She spoke to them about their problems. She told them to fight problems together.

In 1956 the government made a new law. They said black women must carry passes. The law made women angry. Women organizations from all over South Africa decided to fight the law.

On the 9th August, 20 thousand women from all over South Africa met in Pretoria. They marched to the government buildings. They wanted to see the Prime Minister. They wanted to give him a paper they all signed.

The women chose 12 leaders to see the Prime Minister. One of the leaders was Frances Baard. The Prime Minister did not meet the women. The women stood still. They did not move. Twenty thousand women kept quiet. They kept quiet for 30 minutes. Then they sang.

The government did not change the law. Black women in South Africa still carry passes. But women will never forget that day in August 1956 – the day twenty thousand women came together and spoke with one voice.

Frances worked on. She never stopped working. Then the government banned her in early 1962. And they arrested her later that year. She remembers the day the police came and took her away from her children. “You know, they were all so nervous – the little children. They stood at the gate there. And I got into the car. When we drove off, I looked at them. My heart was really sore.”

Frances stayed in jail for six years. When she came out of jail, they did not let her go back to Port Elizabeth. They sent her to Mabopane – a thousand miles from her home in Port Elizabeth.

“They gave me a little house in Mabopane,” says Frances. I found nothing in the house. I had just left jail. So I had nothing with me. I had a coat, a box and a suitcase. They promised to bring me blankets in the afternoon. But they didn’t. I slept on the things I had from jail. I was very cold. And the place was very dirty. I saw mice running around.”

The people of Mabopane were scared of Frances. The people thought she was an ‘impimpi’ because the police took her there. The people didn’t trust her for a long time.

Frances had to stay in Mabopane for two years. Then she went back to Port Elizabeth.

But the police did not let her stay in Port Elizabeth for long. So she took her children back to Mabopane. And they stayed there.

Frances Baard is a great South African. She is a leader of the people. But she lives in a house with holes in the roof—a thousand miles from home.

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