Women's Day in South Africa: The incredible March that started it all in 1956!

National Women’s Day is a South African public holiday celebrated annually on 9 August, the day commemorates the 1956 march of approximately 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

 

Pretoria, South Africa – The march took place on 9 August 1956 with an estimated 20,000 women of all races descending on Pretoria.

The organisation behind the march was Federation of South African Women (FSAW), an anti-apartheid organisation for women of various groups including the ANC Women’s League with the aim of strengthening female voice in the movement. They contributed to the Congress of the People in 1955, where the Freedom Charter was drawn up, by submitting a document called What Women Demand which addressed needs such as childcare provisions, housing, education, equal pay, and equal rights with men regarding property, marriage and guardianship of children. By 1956 their focus had shifted towards a protest concerning the introduction of passes for black women

The day of the protest was called for on a Thursday, the traditional day when black domestic workers had their day off, to ensure a larger gathering of women. As the women arrived by train and other means, they walked to the Union Buildings, the centre of the South African Government, in small groups of twos and threes – large groups were banned by the authorities – and met at the building’s gardens and amphitheatre.

Leading the march were Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn.

The Women’s March was a spectacular success. Women from all parts of the country arrived in Pretoria, some from as far afield as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They then flocked to the Union Buildings in a determined yet orderly manner. Estimates of the number of women delegates ranged from 10 000 to 20 000, with FSAW claiming that it was the biggest demonstration yet held. They filled the entire amphitheatre in the bow of the graceful Herbert Baker building.

“Many of the African women wore traditional dresses; 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.” 

The petition had been created by the Federation of South African Women and printed by the Indian Youth Congress. The petition read:

We, the women of South Africa, have come here today. We African women know too well the effect this law upon our homes, our children. We, who are not African women, know how our sisters suffer. For to us, an insult to African women is an insult to all women.

  • That homes will be broken up when women are arrested under pass laws.
  • That women and young girls will be exposed to humiliation and degradation at the hands of pass-searching policemen.
  • That women will lose their right to move freely from one place to another.

We, voters and voteless, call upon your government not to issue passes to African women. We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security.

— Presented to Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom, 9 August 1956.

Neither the prime minister or any of his senior staff was there to see the women, so as they had done the previous year, the leaders left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside JG Strijdom’s office door.

It later transpired that they were removed before he bothered to look at them. Then at Lilian Ngoyi’s suggestion, a masterful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full half-hour. Before leaving (again in exemplary fashion), the women sang ‘Nkosi sikeleli Afrika’. Without exception, those who participated in the event described it as a moving and emotional experience. The FSAW declared that it was a ‘monumental achievement’.

The significance of the Women’s March that year was one that will be forever remembered in History.

Women had once again shown that the stereotype of women as politically inept and immature, tied to the home, was outdated and inaccurate. And as they had done the previous year, the Afrikaans press tried to give the impression that it was whites who had ‘run the show’. This was blatantly untrue. The FSAW and the Congress Alliance gained great prestige from the obvious success of the venture. The FSAW had come of age politically and could no longer be underrated as a recognised organisation – a remarkable achievement for a body that was barely 2 years old.

The Alliance decided that 9 August would henceforth be celebrated as Women’s Day, and it is now, in the new South Africa, commemorated each year as a national holiday.

National Women’s Day draws attention to significant issues African women still face, such as parenting, domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, pornography, unequal pay, and schooling for all girls. It can be used as a day to fight for or protest these ideas.

Due to this public holiday, there have been many significant advances.

Before 1994, women had low representation in the Parliament, only at 2.7%. Women in the national assembly were at 27.7%. This number has nearly doubled, being at 48% representation throughout the country’s government. National Women’s Day is based around much of the same principles as International Women’s Day, and strives for much of the same freedoms and rights.


Sources: South African History Online 
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