In 1956, more than 10 000 women marched on the Union Buildings to protest against the violation of human dignity that was the pass law. Theirs was a highly disciplined, organised movement against the indignity enforced on black women by the apartheid regime. That march was one of the most iconic displays of resistance against a morally bankrupt regime. In itself the women’s march of 1956 is exemplary of the power of women against oppression.
And the images of that day, of women filling up the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings, are now hallowed in our history.
One person writing about that day described it like this: “Many of the African women wore traditional dress, others wore the Congress colours, green, black and gold; Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers’ children along with them. Throughout the demonstration the huge crowd displayed a discipline and dignity that was deeply impressive.”
On the day, neither then prime minister JG Strijdom nor his senior staff were present to receive the women’s petition. So, as they had done the previous year, the leaders of the march left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside Strijdom’s office door. The petitions were removed — Strijdom never even glanced at them. You would have to look hard for a more emphatic display of refusal to actually listen to women.
But the voices of those women carried further into the future and it remains a mantra for the present day: “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo [You strike a woman, you strike a rock].”
In honour of those women, August 9 is Women’s Day. Along with it, the month of August has been billed Women’s Month. So, for the past three weeks, big business, government and your garden-variety Instagram influencer have turned themselves into women’s rights activists. Much of it would be laudable if it also weren’t a barefaced attempt to turn the struggle for women’s rights into some kind of Valentine’s Day, complete with trite Hallmarkesque greetings. It is as though the commemoration of the 1956 march, and activism for women’s rights, is centred on the actions of individuals alone.
This is a betrayal of the thrust of resistance embodied in the women’s march. Although the celebration of individual triumph remains important, it cannot be at the expense of a concerted campaign against the continuing structural imbalances in society that continue to render women as the other.
Thank the ancestors that Women’s Month is almost over. Women must just take over now.