A betrayal of our valiant history

In 1956, about 20?000 women marched to the Union Buildings. (Robben Island/Mayibuye archive)

In 1956, about 20?000 women marched to the Union Buildings. (Robben Island/Mayibuye archive)

August is my least favourite month. And, since 1994, the most miserable month of the year has a name: Women’s Month. Moreover, to add insult to winter misery, those of us unlucky to have been born with two X chromosomes are subjected to an unsolicited annual monthlong fiesta of vapid congratulatory messaging.

This year, 2014, will probably go down in history as the year that we didn’t just scrape the bottom of the barrel, but also scoured it down to paper-fine sawdust.

Every year we sink lower in our betrayal of those valiant women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956; each year we forget more of their just and revolutionary cause.

The 1956 women’s march is routinely remembered as a protest against the “introduction” of passes for African women.

This narrow remembrance of the march may favour the current predilection to peddle spa treatments and foot massages at reduced rates for Women’s Month or exhortations to women to participate in “doek Fridays” in August, but it does little to broaden our understanding of the women, the issues, the time, their opponents or the staggering revolutionary significance of their protest.

By the time Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams led 20?000 women to the Union Buildings in 1956, they had had enough.
In the coarse parlance of South African vernacular: they were gatvol.

The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, in a ground-breaking talk hosted by the nonprofit organisation TED, brilliantly lays out how reducing complex people, places and situations to a “single story” diminishes complexity and thwarts our capacity to connect as human equals. In repeatedly telling a single story, she says, in “showing people only as one thing, that is what they become”.

Stripped of the complexity of their histories, their contexts and their other struggles, the story of the courageous women of 1956 has been rendered incomplete.

In the four decades preceding the 1950s, “natives” had been in the cross hairs of successive colonial administrations’ attempts to keep them out of the country’s cities and towns. The migration of natives to towns had always been a burning colonial preoccupation.

The discovery of gold on the Reef – and the insatiable hunger for labour it caused – saw that preoccupation morph into obsessive discourses on how to recruit native men in large numbers while actively discouraging native women and children from “townward drift”.

Native men were actively recruited as “mine boys’” into the revolving system of migrant labour that brought them to Johannesburg’s gold mines for periods of 18 months and thereafter repatriated them to the “reserves” and neighbouring British protectorates.

Native women, on the other hand, were decidedly unwelcome in Johannesburg and the country’s other cities and towns. This feeling found expression in widespread and rancorous attacks on the integrity and personhood of these women.

From 1910 to 1950, newspaper articles, testimonies at commissions of inquiry, legislative debates, letters from concerned citizens, deliberations by well-intentioned missionary conferences, minutes of town-hall meetings and council minutes are littered with references to native women as prostitutes, beer brewers, carriers of disease, licentious threats to the purity of the white race, and as potential contaminants of “white” towns.

This discourse of sexual depravity and contamination, as applied to native women, is widespread in official records of the time. “The great majority of the native female population appear to earn their livelihood by prostitution and illicit liquor …The majority are not only a menace to health but a burden to the community by reason of their filthy, lazy, drunken and immoral habits,” noted a Johannesburg sanitary inspector in 1928.

Today, our annual August rhetoric presenting the 1956 march as a single-issue protest against the introduction of passes for women obscures the story of the decades of legislative harassment suffered by native women prior to 1956.

“Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story,” offers Adichie Ngozi. Broadening the scope of our focus on the 1956 march allows a very different story to emerge.

In 1924, Bloemfontein pushed for an amendment to the 1923 Natives Urban Areas Act, the aim being to get all native women entering the town to be tested for infectious diseases.  In 1925, Johannesburg introduced “night passes” for native women to curtail their “immorality”.

Twenty-six years before the 1956 march, an amendment to the Natives Urban Areas Act dictated that women who want to enter urban areas had to obtain a certificate from a magistrate to do so. A prerequisite was proof of accommodation and, if the woman was seeking to join her husband or father, proof that he had been employed in the urban area for at least two years.

In spite of all this, tens of thousands of native women migrated to Johannesburg and other towns and cities. These are the nameless, faceless women who marched behind Ngoyi, Joseph, Moosa and Williams in August 1956. These are the women whose mothers rose up against passes in Bloemfontein in 1913 and fought pitched battles with police officers; rather than carry passes, they willingly faced arrest and imprisonment with hard labour.

These are the women who migrated in ones, twos and threes between 1910 and 1950, and whose migration would rival the exodus of black Americans from the South in the first half of the 20th century. A leaderless mass movement much larger than the Great Trek, they escaped from the arid “reserves” allocated to natives after the wholesale colonial land grab of 1913, despite all efforts to stop them.

These are the women who, 58 years ago, took their confrontation to the very seat of power. Yet today we remember them – stripped of their revolutionary significance –without any depth, colour, context or individuation. They languish in official documents, historical papers, parliamentary debates and old newspapers, depicted as dirty, drunken, immoral and disease-ridden.

They are those we now “celebrate” in vacuous appeals to don fashionable headgear and avail ourselves of pedicures and foot massages at discounted prices for Women’s Month.

The best thing about my least favourite month is that it eventually does end.

Gail Smith is head of communications at Mistra, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection

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