9 August 1956. Filling the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, twenty thousand women stand in total silence, their fists raised in the Congress salute. Wearing traditional African dress; the green, black and gold of the ANC; neat dresses and coats; or dazzlingly white saris, they have come from all corners of South Africa. Many carry babies on their backs – their own children, or those they are employed to care for. To be here today, some have had to leave home at 2am, to take a train trip they have only been able to afford by selling precious items of household furniture.
They are here to deliver to Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom a petition bearing 100,000 signatures protesting the infamous pass laws – proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act, which will make it necessary for black women to carry passes to allow them to enter 'white' areas. These laws already severely restrict the movements of black men, but until now have had less impact on the lives of women.
Prime Minister Strijdom, who has been informed of their march, is conveniently 'unavailable' so the petition has been left outside his door. In a masterpiece of peaceful protest, the women stand absolutely silent for thirty minutes. They then begin singing freedom songs, including one specially composed for the occasion, Wathint' Abafazi. The refrain of this song expresses the essence of what they're here to say – 'you strike a woman, you strike a rock'.
And then they disperse with quiet dignity, having made their powerful mark on the pages of history.
For anyone growing up in post-1994 South Africa, it's almost impossible to fully grasp what a dangerous and forbidding place Pretoria was for black people at the time, or to understand the extraordinary courage it took to gather at the buildings that represented the very heart of the feared apartheid government. These heroic women risked beatings, arrest, detention and banning to stand up against exploitation and discrimination, and to speak out for basic human rights.
On Women's Day today, 56 years later, we remember, honour and celebrate those women.
Many of their dreams and aspirations have been realised. The dreaded pass laws have gone – South African women can freely travel the length and breadth of our country, we have the right to live wherever we like, and we enjoy freedom of speech unrivalled in the rest of Africa. Our Constitution guarantees the legal equality of women. Women make up a significant percentage of parliamentarians, ambassadors, provincial premiers, cabinet members and local councillors. We are a force to be reckoned with in the corporate world, in educational institutions, in the arts, science and medicine. In our homes we remain the 'rocks' upon which our families and communities are built.
There are, of course, further challenges. It's the women of our country who still bear the brunt of extreme poverty
, domestic abuse, violence, exploitation and oppression, and who continue to carry the heaviest load of daily suffering. Much remains to be done before all our girl-children are able to enjoy the power, the opportunities, the choices and the futures they deserve.
In 1994, 9 August was proclaimed a public holiday, to be observed annually as Women's Day. It's both a joyful celebration of how far we have come, and a solemn reminder of how far we still have to go to realise fully the vision expressed by those courageous women in 1956 – the dream of a prosperous, democratic South Africa, free of hunger, disease, ignorance and exclusion.
Every year the day is marked by political rallies, business conferences, government activities, networking groups, sports gatherings, theatre performances and other events to honour women and our achievements, contributions and advancement. However we choose to spend the holiday, Women's Day gives us the opportunity to unite, connect
, engage, and inspire. We can celebrate ourselves, our mothers, our grandmothers, our daughters and our sisters, and we can embrace what it means to be a woman in South Africa today. We can decide to live in a way that honours ourselves and those around us, and to choose actions and words that reflect respect, care and regard. As we do so, we'll be living the dreams of the 20,000.
Happy Women's Day
to us all!