An old African proverb reads: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”
Today, exactly 25 years ago in 1995, National Women’s Day was celebrated for the very first time in South Africa. While the nation, as a collective, celebrates this day, there are still many who are not familiar with the origins of the memorable occasion.
It was a historic day for the women of South Africa
On Thursday, 9 August 1956 as many as 20,000 women from all walks of life marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. That particular day was chosen as African domestic workers typically had the day off on a Thursday which ensured that enough women would be available to partake in the march.
The march, which was organized by the Federation of South African Women, had one purpose – to deliver a petition containing thousands of signatures to Prime Minister JG Strijdom. Under the Pass Laws Act of the time, the movement of African people was severely restricted. The petition aimed to abolish these abysmal laws.
Silence, followed by a song
At the forefront of the march were four astounding women: Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, and Sophie Williams. Although neither the prime minister nor any of his senior staff was at the Union Buildings, the crowd was not willing to leave before sharing a very impactful message with the public. For no less than 30 minutes, the crowd stood in absolute silence. They broke the hush with a protest song, ‘Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’Imbokodo’ which translates to ‘now you have touched a woman, you have struck a rock.’
Women are the people who are going to relieve us from all this oppression and depression – Albertina Sisulu
Hear our voices
It wasn’t until 30 years later, in 1986, that pass laws were repealed. Regardless of this, the march of 1956 was deemed a resounding success. The march forced the world to take notice of women. It displayed the immense strength, power, and determination that women possess – especially where the well-being of their families is concerned. At a time when women were still, for the most part, without a voice, the fearless women of what was to become our rainbow nation, stood up and demanded to be heard.
The march also saw the rise of many formidable women leaders. One of these figures was Albertina Sisulu who was married to activist Walter Sisulu. Albertina was one of the organizers of the march, planning the logistics involved in helping the women to bypass police barricades. She eventually earned the title of ‘mother of the nation’ for her immeasurable strength and grace which she used during her fight for human rights. Other women who toiled alongside Albertina included Amina Cachalia, who was six months pregnant at the time of the march, Bettie du Toit, and Annie Silinga.
The Women’s Day March of 1956 is still of great significance today as women of all races are faced with a plethora of issues including abuse, gender discrimination, and poverty. It is with these concerns in mind that women are once again uniting, seeking not only to be heard but to be valued and protected as well.
To all the brave, beautiful warrior women of our nation, we salute you!
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