Editor's noteOpinion

Lessons from the 1956 women’s march

NATIONAL Women's Day provides an opportuniy to reflect on what it means to be a woman in South Africa.

In appointing women to Cabinet in 2004 President Thabo Mbeki said: “No government in South Africa could ever claim to represent the will of the people if it failed to address the central task of emancipation of women in all its elements, and that includes the government we are privileged to lead.”

Since then, women have continued to make up a decent percentage of positions in government – a far cry from when Helen Suzman stood alone as MP openly opposing the policies of the National Party and urging the government to open discussion with the liberation movements.

Luli Callinicos in her book, A Place in the City: The Rand on the Eve of Apartheid, described how Afrikaaner women formed wives clubs to support the Afrikaner cause of Broederbond.

Back then, black women in traditional African societies and similarly, white women in settler society, were subordinate to men.

Men took all major decisions in society at large and within the home. Motherhood was women’s primary role.

Others took in laundry to provide extra income while some entered the labour market as domestic servants. In settler society too, it was not considered feminine to work outside the home, although some women did so to supplement the family income and help put food on the table.

If women featured at all it was as victims of man-made wars. Women were not expected to be assertive and take matters into their own hands. Even the ANC only accepted women as members in 1943.

That changed on 9 August 1956 when 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act (commonly known as the pass laws) of 1950.

The legislation required black people to carry the pass, special identification documents which curtailed freedom of movement during the apartheid era.

They left petitions containing more than 100 000 signatures at prime minister JG Strijdom’s office doors. Outside they stood silently for 30 minutes, many with their children on their backs.

The women sang a protest song that was composed for the occasion:Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’ imbokodo! (now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.).

The phrase or its latest incarnation “you strike a woman, you strike a rock” has come to represent women’s courage and strength in South Africa.

Since 1994, the day has been commemorated annually and is known as National Women’s Day, a public holiday.

The women of 2013 can draw some lessons and inspiration from the leaders of the 1956 march, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams. Some of these lessons are: women are brave, organised, united, fighters and leaders.

To all women out there, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, pull you down: you are the rocks on which South African democracy was built.

Happy Women’s Day South Africa.

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