On August 9 1956, a crowd of about 20 000 South African women of all races flocked to Pretoriaâ€™s Union Buildings and their leaders delivered petitions to the government. This year, 50 years on, South Africans celebrate the massive womenâ€™s march.
“The situation on the day was very electrifying as everybody was looking forward to a serious confrontation,” Amina Cachalia recalls. “As a young person at the time, the march was a learning curve for a journey that finally came to the election of the new democratic government.”
Without exception, those who participated in the event described it as a moving and emotional experience. Women throughout the country put their names to the anti-pass petitions. They risked official reprisals, including arrest, detention and even banning, to make their voice heard. Many of them were tired of staying at home, powerless to make significant changes to a way of life that discriminated against them primarily because of their race, but also because of their class and their gender.
In the 1950s the governmentâ€™s increasingly repressive policies began to pose a direct threat to all people of colour, and there was a surge of mass political action by blacks in defiant response. The 1950s proved to be a turbulent decade. Women were prominent in virtually all these avenues of protest, but to none were they more committed than the anti-pass campaign.
Anti-pass campaign protests started as early as 1950 when rumours of the new “pass” legislation were leaked in the press. Meetings and demonstrations were held in a number of centres including Langa in Cape Town, Uitenhage, East London and Pietermaritzburg.
In the Durban protests in March 1950, Bertha Mkize of the African National Congress Womenâ€™s League was a leading figure, while in Port Elizabeth Florence Matomela, the provincial president of the womenâ€™s league, led a demonstration in which passes were burnt.
On January 4 1953, hundreds of African men and women assembled in the Langa township outside Cape Town to protest against the new laws.
Delivering a fiery speech to the crowd, Dora Tamana, a member of the ANC Womenâ€™s League and later a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw), declared: “We women will never carry these passes. These passes make the road even narrower for us. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for a small technical offence — not having a pass?”
In September 1955, the issue of passes burst into the public eye again when the government announced that it would start issuing reference books to black women from January 1956. But the resistance that had been building in the past year ensured that passes for women would not go unchallenged.
Fedsaw, which had been formed in 1954, organised a demonstration against passbooks at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on October 27 1955. But it was the second demonstration, which took place in 1956, that had the biggest impact.
By mid-1956, plans had been laid for the Pretoria march and Fedsaw had requested a meeting with then prime minister JG Strijdom. It was refused.
The ANC sent Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba on a tour of the main urban areas, accompanied by Robert Resha of the ANC and Norman Levy of the Congress of Democrats. The plan was to consult local leaders who would then make arrangements to send delegates to the mass gathering in August.
“Many people organised at their own branches,” remembers march veteran Caroline Motsoaledi. “We were using trains for transport to Pretoria.”
The Womenâ€™s March was a spectacular success. Fedsaw claimed it was the biggest demonstration yet held. Women from all parts of the country arrived in Pretoria in traditional dress, in green black and gold and in saris. The march was led by activists Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams and Lillian Ngoyi.
“We were all enthusiastic to get there and see this Boer baas and tell him that we are not going to carry those things,” another marcher, Dorothy Masenya, calls to mind. “So there were the ladies: Mrs Moodley, Helen, Lillian Ngoyi — oh, they were very many, I remember.”
She said the women were apprehensive about whether anyone was going to be arrested.
“Where would they find a prison to fill up this entire mob,” she laughs. “Nobody was arrested on that day.”
Some women had babies on their backs. Veteran marcher Rahaba Moeketsi recalls, “Some were carrying the white children with them, those who were working for whites.”
The women easily filled the Union Buildingsâ€™ entire amphitheatre.
“We walked to the Union Building, we sat in the garden,” said Motsoaledi. “Our leaders went inside the building to submit a memorandum to Strijdom, but they did not find him.”
Neither the prime minister nor any of his senior staff were there to see the women, as had happened the previous years.
Then, at Ngoyiâ€™s suggestion, a masterful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full half hour, their hands raised in the Congress salute. The women concluded their demonstration by singing freedom songs like Nkosi Sikelelâ€™ iAfrika and a new song that became not only the anthem of the march, but also the credo of South African women.
“We were singing the song, which says, ‘Verwoerd, the black people will kill you and we do not want Bantu Education,â€™” Magdalene Tsoane reminisces. “The song was saying: ‘If you strike a woman, you strike a rock.â€™”
Since the march, the phrase “Strike a woman, strike a rock” has come to represent womenâ€™s courage and strength. The march had finally shown that the stereotype of women as politically inept and immature, tied to the home, was outdated and inaccurate.
The Afrikaans press tried to give the impression that it was whites who had “run the show”, but ultimately Fedsaw and the ANC and its partners had gained great prestige from the obvious success of the venture. Fedsaw had come of age politically and could no longer be underestimated.
Today, 50 years later, the South Africa that the women of the 1956 march fought for has begun to be realised. Currently women make up 33% of the Cabinet — a far cry from when Helen Suzman stood alone as a woman MP in 1953. She made her presence felt by openly opposing the policies of the National Party and urging the government to open discussion with the liberation movements. Today, the contribution that women made in our history is not only visible in our society, but in the steps of the Union Buildings.
Joni Light, Javu Baloyi and Bridget Theron are researchers at South African History Online, a non-partisan peopleâ€™s history project, committed to the rewriting of South African history
Time of protest
Fifty years ago women from all over the country marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to burn their passes in protest against government regulations that forced African and coloured women to carry them.
Now, every year on National Womenâ€™s Day, South African women celebrate their struggle for empowerment, right to equality and the role they played in the transformation of South Africa. The motion, which was handed in by former African National Congress president Oliver Tamboâ€™s wife, Adelaide, which proposed that August 9 will be celebrated as National Womenâ€™s Day, was accepted in August 1994.
But it was only in 1955 that the minister of native affairs announced that all African women would be issued with passes starting in January 1956. Until then, mostly men had to carry passes when travelling. This announcement led to the first big anti-pass campaign for women in October 1955 with 2 000 women converging in Pretoria.
But although August 9 1956 will forever be remembered as the famous Womenâ€™s Day march, womenâ€™s struggles against passes had already started nearly half a century ago. African and coloured women already protested in 1913 after a petition with 5 000 signatures addressed to prime minister Louis Botha and later Henry Burton, the then Minister of Native Affairs, to protest against pass laws in the Orange Free State, was ignored.
The Orange Free State was the only province at that stage where women were forced to carry passes. In protest, 600 women invaded the centre of Bloemfontein, demanding to see the mayor. When they were asked to leave, they gave the deputy mayor a bag full of their passes.
The Bloemfontein marches were part of a campaign that lasted until early 1914. Women organised petitions, tore up their residential permits and met with ministers. Hundreds of women were arrested and spent time in prison. As punishment some women were beaten with sjamboks and molested and assaulted by policemen for not carrying their passes.
During the 1930s women had another setback when the Urban Areas Act was modified so that municipalities could prevent African or coloured women from entering towns.
The 1956 march was also followed by protests in the Zeerust area of the then Transvaal in 1957. Only 76 of the 4 000 women in the village accepted passes — the others were severely “punished”: assaulted, shot and their houses burnt to the ground. Gopane Village in the Baphutse Reserve, near the then Pietersburg, and the Johannesburg City Hall also became hotbeds in the womenâ€™s marches campaign.
Women remained involved in the major anti-pass protests until it all ended with the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960. — Surika van Schalkwyk
A black and white story
When the Constitution of the Union of South Africa was drafted in 1909, white men were immediately granted the right to vote. White women, like many of their counterparts in other countries, had to wait until 1930 for suffrage.
In South Africa the suffragette movement was headed by the 4 000 strong Womenâ€™s Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAU). But black women had to wait 66 years more for their right, with the 1994 election.
But it was not only in drawing a cross on ballot paper that black and white women had different rights, but in the workplace as well. White women were the first to start working in South Africaâ€™s factories at the turn of the century, only followed by black women in the 1930s and 1940s. By then, white women had already started getting better-paid positions as clerks, secretaries, teachers and nurses.
Women were finally allowed to study for degrees in science, law and medicine in 1923 after a campaign was launched by the WEAU.
Helen Suzman entered politics in 1953. She contributed a great deal to womenâ€™s rights in South Africa by fighting apartheid in Parliament. In 1975 she tackled gender discrimination, especially discrimination against black women.
But black women leaders such as Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela and the many other women who spent their time at institutions such as the Womenâ€™s Prison, opposed the government outside the formal structures that Suzman could use.
For the majority of women in South Africa, true political freedom and equality only happened in 1994 after the election, when the new government introduced the Bill of Rights that gave them the freedom they had desired for so long. — Surika van Schalkwyk
Your guide to the celebrations
The big celebration on Womenâ€™s Day, August 9, will be a public re-enactment commemorating the 1956 Womenâ€™s Anti-Pass March in Pretoria. The Department of Arts and Culture says it expects that thousands of people will converge at the Strijdom Square in the Pretoria central business district and then march to the Union Buildings.
At the Union Buildings Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and march veterans of 1956 will receive the marchers. In the spirit of 1956, marchers will again deliver a petition to Mlambo-Ngcuka. The government also hopes that President Thabo Mbeki will address the crowds later on in the day.
Most provinces have recognised that this is the main event and have arranged transport for women to attend the march. Some provinces have also organised smaller celebrations for women who will not be able to make the journey. KwaZulu-Natal celebrations take place at the Ulundi regional stadium, while the Northern Capeâ€™s activities will be held at the Kimberley legislature.
The government is also collaborating with tertiary institutions to host a series of lectures on the 1956 march, which will end in March next year. The lectures will focus on the lives and work of some of the veterans of the 1956 march such as Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Ruth First, Charlotte Maxeke, Winifred Kgoare and Ellen Khuzwayo, among others.
As part of the commemorations, the South African Post Office will issue a miniature sheet, a commemorative envelope and a special canceller on National Womenâ€™s Day this year.
The photograph used on the miniature sheet was taken by the prominent South African photographer, Peter Magubane, during the march and features some of the women who led the 1956 march.