Today is Women’s Day in South Africa and too many lose sight of the reason why. It is not about pampered spa sessions or bubbly lunches (although let the choice be yours), but about commemorating a stand that woman took against the Apartheid government. It was on this day in 1956 that some 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against a law requiring black women to carry passes. Today is celebrated as a reminder of the contribution made by women to society, the achievements for women’s rights and to acknowledge the difficulties and prejudices many women still face. How it panned out …
‘You have tampered with the women. You have struck a rock.’
The 1956 Women’s March, Pretoria, 9 August.
By the middle of 1956 plans had been laid for the Pretoria march and the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) had written to request that JG Strijdom, the current prime minister, meet with their leaders so they could present their point of view. The request was refused. The ANC then sent Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba on a tour of the main urban areas, accompanied by Robert Resha of the African National Congress (ANC) and Norman Levy of the Congress of Democrats (COD). The plan was to consult with local leaders who would then make arrangements to send delegates to the mass gathering in August.
The Women’s March was a spectacular success. Women from all parts of the country arrived in Pretoria, some from as far afield as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They then flocked to the Union Buildings in a determined yet orderly manner. Estimates of the number of women delegates ranged from 10 000 to 20 000, with FSAW claiming that it was the biggest demonstration yet held. They filled the entire amphitheatre in the bow of the graceful Herbert Baker building. Walker describes the impressive scene:
‘Many of the African women wore traditional dress, others wore the Congress colours, green, black and gold; Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers’ children along with them. Throughout the demonstration, the huge crowd displayed a discipline and dignity that was deeply impressive.’
Neither the prime minister or any of his senior staff was there to see the women, so as they had done the previous year, the leaders left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside JG Strijdom’s office door. It later transpired that they were removed before he bothered to look at them. Then at Lilian Ngoyi’s suggestion, a masterful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full half hour. Before leaving the women sang ‘Nkosi sikeleli Afrika’.
Radima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Sophie Williams delivering a petition to Union Buildings that demanded the pass laws be abolished.
This photo from the day by DRUM, is cited as one of the most moving images of nonracial solidarity this country has produced.
The women’s anti-pass campaign lasted for seven years. By constant arrests and intimidation, the anti-apartheid government finally forced black women to carry the hated passes. In the early 1960s, it put a total ban on all rural women coming into urban areas. On National Women’s Day, we celebrate and honour women, recognising the important role of women in the transformation to a democratic South Africa. Women should be treated with dignity, recognised in their communities, their respective cultures, education and government. Happy Women’s Day beautiful goddesses of the world, that continue to pave the way to equality for all. Today and every day we honour the history of women’s resistance in South Africa.
What is a Pass Law
Pass laws were designed to control the movement of Africans under apartheid, evolving from regulations imposed by the Dutch and British in the 18th and 19th-century slave economy. In the 19th century, new pass laws were enacted for the purpose of ensuring a reliable supply of cheap, docile African labor for the gold and diamond mines. In 1952, the government enacted an even more rigid law that required all African males over the age of 16 to carry a “reference book” containing personal information and employment history.
Africans often were compelled to violate the pass laws to find work to support their families, so harassment, fines, and arrests under the pass laws were a constant threat to many urban Africans. Protest against these humiliating laws fuelled the anti-apartheid struggle – from the Defiance Campaign (1952-54), the massive women’s protest in Pretoria (1956), to burning of passes at the police station in Sharpeville where 69 protesters were massacred (1960). In the 1970s and 1980s, many Africans found in violation of pass laws were stripped of citizenship and deported to poverty-stricken rural “homelands.” By the time the increasingly expensive and ineffective pass laws were repealed in 1986, they had led to more than 17 million arrests.
Source of info and pics: SA History.