/ 27 July 2022

The women’s march of 1956 must inspire equality in our society

The crowd at the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. About 20 000 women marched to Pretoria to protest against passes for black women.
The crowd at the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. About 20 000 women marched to Pretoria to protest against passes for black women.

The win by Banyana Banyana in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, Wafcon 2022, is perfect timing as we draw close to the commemoration of Women’s Month in August. It is prudent that we constantly remember the contribution women made in the advent of our constitutional democracy as ratified 26 years ago. 

The historic march of 9 August 1956 was not only to protest the atrocious pass laws but a struggle waged against the patriarchal, classist and racist society brought to South Africa by colonialists as presented in the apartheid governance system. The march, led by the Federation of Women in South Africa, including the ANC’s Women’s league, brought together more than 20 000 women from across the country to converge on the Union Buildings. 

The solidarity exhibited by these women was one of the most remarkable occurrences during the apartheid regime and it triumphed by destabilising the system. The women of 1956 categorically posited that the pass laws not only affected their movements, but yielded humiliation, and the arrests of women were further destroying their already damaged families. These pass laws were internal passports that restricted black people’s movement, advances for new employment and limited urbanisation. 

The march was preceded by a series of petitions and demonstrations from the early 1900s. It was premised on the fact that women had borne the brunt of the pass laws. Their frustrations resulted in a coordinated effort, and motivation garnered through the various petitions, including the one presented in 1914, and they took to the streets of Pretoria to submit a petition against the pass laws. Today, we are appreciating the fruits of their spirit of their resilience and immense dedication to fight until the apartheid system was defeated. 

As we commemorate and reflect on history, we must refuse to forget the role women played in the struggle, including the adoption of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in 1955. The Freedom Charter is the manifesto that guided, propelled, and later reflected, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa of 1996. 

One of the most appalling phenomena we are constantly subjected to in South Africa is whether the country is ready to have its first female president. This question is fundamentally problematic as it seeks to divorce women from critical leadership positions and erase them from history. This march was an indication of women taking up space and showing the government of the time that the role of women is not only to raise children and coordinate homes – but to lead society, just like their male counterparts. This is reflected in the words of former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton: “When women participate in the economy, everyone benefits.” 

The roles we have seen women play in our everyday lives, even during the period when only men were forced to be migrant labourers, include managing their own farms, maintaining their households and leading communities. These are the skills that are often forgotten and used to undermine the role of women. 

The win for South Africa brought to us by our Banyana Banyana is a clear indication that the South African government must take a conscious decision to support women’s football, not only by broadcasting, but by financial backing, just like with the men’s football teams. 

Furthermore, the country must prioritise gender equality at all levels of our society. Yet, we don’t see gender equality being practised to its full extent. Our society consists mainly of women yet, in leadership positions, that demographic is not reflected – instead strategic leadership positions are largely occupied by men. 

It is factually incorrect to say that women do not support each other and choose to elect men to leadership positions. It has been proved that the current political terrain is not conducive and is hostile for women and, as a result, hinders the upward trajectory of women, particularly for critical leadership positions. 

It is believed that, over the years, women have lost trust in their ability to exude strength and to exercise leadership; it seems they have been conditioned to believe leadership roles are only for men. They themselves have taken a back seat due to society conditioning women to believe their roles are simply in the household and to raise children. However, we see with every political and community organisation that women tend to be present, but representation becomes a different story. 

Gender equality is a global challenge, however, the focus in this article is to navigate the South African context. In an attempt to address gender disparity, the government has established numerous policies and innovations which sought to empower women. Fair enough, in the cabinet, parliament and constitutional court, the three governance spheres, we have seen gender quotas and the presence of women. It would definitely be an injustice if we did not question the quality and power of the positions to which women are appointed. 

We are still very far from reaching total equality at all levels of society. The patriarchy still rears its ugly head in our society. We need to develop strategies which will address such challenges from the roots. Just like in the many years before 1956, society must be organised to root out the toxins that perpetuate patriarchy. Yes, women need to unite, show the selflessness, resilience and courage shown by the women of 1956. 

This should begin by establishing a society that sees women as human beings, just like men; that supports women’s organisations and football teams, such as Banyana Banyana, and acknowledges the role of women in this new South Africa. As the late Mama Albertina Sisulu posited: “Women are the people who are going to relieve us from all this oppression and depression.” This needs a united society, united for the single goal of an equal and equitable society.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.