Women march on Pretoria again

Fifty years after 20 000 women marched on Pretoria to protest against the pass laws, women are marching again. Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the women’s march on the Union Buildings to protest against the extension of pass laws to black women.

On Wednesday, marchers again headed for the Union Buildings to re-enact the march as part of the Department of Arts and Culture’s Women’s Day celebrations.

Thousands of people gathered at Strijdom Square on Wednesday morning.
Men and women joined the march, but the front of the march was dominated by cheering women who sang, “The women are going to get into Parliament.” They were being led by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela’s former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela—herself a leading light in the liberation struggle—and his current spouse, Graca Machel, as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma also took part in the march.

The marchers were due to leave from Strijdom Square and arrive mid-morning at the Union Buildings, where they would hand over a memorandum to Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Two veterans of the 1956 march, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, and President Thabo Mbeki were due to address the march.

Sisulu is a founder member of the Federation of South African Women, which organised the 1956 march, and Williams-De Bruyn is the only surviving leader of that march, according to SA History Online.

The 1956 marchers had intended to meet the prime minister at the time, JG Strijdom, who was not there. They sang, “Now you have touched the women, Strijdom! You have struck a rock. You will be crushed,” which has now become a catch-phrase for women’s movements across the country.

By the 1950s only African men were required to carry pass books, which restricted where people could live, work and travel, although the law had earlier applied to Chinese and Indian immigrants as well.

Despite the risk of being imprisoned by the state’s security forces, the activists fearlessly marched to the office of Strijdom to present a petition bearing thousands of signatures.

“I never thought, but only hoped, that one day the women of this country would be free,” Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, one of the organisers of the 1956 protest, recalled.

“This was the first time ever in the rule of the apartheid government that black people, worst of all women, ever set foot and walked on their ‘holy grail’, the forbidden soil—the Union Buildings,” the 68-year-old told the Mail & Guardian.

“After Lillian [Ngoyi, another of the four leaders] told the women that the prime minister had run away, the women instantly and spontaneously broke into singing the famous song that would become the women’s struggle anthem—Wathinta Abafazi Wathinta Imbokodo, which means [in Zulu] You Have Struck a Rock, You Have Struck a Woman.

“Now 50 years on, looking at the faces and complexions in our national Parliament ... and other sectors of our society, it surely does not need a rocket scientist to see that the long journey our women have travelled was the right one,” said Williams-De Bruyn.

The pass laws were only fully abolished in the 1980s.

Since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, August 9 has been a public holiday and the month celebrated as Women’s Month, with festivities including a women’s Parliament.—Sapa, AFP

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