Having spent 9 August doing very little, bar overeating and binge-watching Netflix series, I realized I had no idea why Women’s Day in South Africa was celebrated (shame on me!). A couple of days later and better informed, I take my hat off to the women that led the march, and those that followed them – what a remarkable, dignified, and inspirational show of strength!
A Brief History
National Women’s Day is a South African public holiday celebrated annually on 9 August to commemorate the march of 1956, when approximately 20 000 women of all races marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest of legislation aimed at tightening the apartheid government’s control over the movement of black women in urban areas. During the apartheid era, the country’s law required South Africans defined as “black” under The Population Registration Act to carry an internal passbook to maintain population segregation, control urbanisation, and manage migrant labour.
The petition had been created by the Federation of South African Women and 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 resist until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice, and security.
The march was scheduled for a Thursday, the traditional day when black domestic workers had their day off, to ensure a larger gathering of women. Led by Rahima Moosa, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, and Sophie Williams, they stood in silent protest with 20,000 arms raised in the Congress salute for thirty minutes.
The march was concluded by singing freedom songs such as ‘Nkosi Sikelele’ and another that had been especially composed for that day: Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom!
Wathint’ imbokodo uzo kufa!
Now you have touched the women, Strijdom!
You have struck a rock
(You have dislodged a boulder!)
You will be crushed!
A pregnant Rahima Moosa, left, with Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Sophie Williams at the Union Buildings
It was reported:
“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.”
To commemorate the march of 1956, a monument was unveiled on 9 August 2000 at the Malibongwe Embokodweni, the amphitheatre at Union Buildings in Pretoria.
The monument starts on the steps of the amphitheatre with the keywords of the petition inscribed in metal on the risers. As you climb the stairs a sound message is triggered in eleven official languages, “you strike the woman, you strike the rock”. In the centre of the vestibule is an imbokodo, which is a small grinding stone on top of a larger grinding stone. The stones sit on a polished circular bronze stone surrounded by a darker bronze octagon plate. The stones symbolise women’s labour and nurture, and the bronze plates symbolise the earth and stone they sit on.
Wednesday, 9 August 2023 marked the 67th anniversary of National Women’s Day. The movement continues to focus on significant issues such as domestic violence, discrimination in the workplace, and equal pay and, after 67 years of constant attention, I can’t help but wonder why these issues continue to exist.
While significant progress has been made over the years, gender inequality in South Africa remains a complex and multifaceted issue that has historical, political, cultural, and socio-economic roots. Gaps persist due to a combination of factors that include, but are not limited to, the following:
Firstly, South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid entrenched discriminatory practices and social norms, and these inequalities continue to influence societal structures and attitudes, including those related to gender. These historical injustices have had a long-lasting effect on society, contributing to ongoing disparities.
Secondly, although great strides have been made to enact progressive legislation to address gender inequality, implementation and enforcement of these laws are inconsistent, and legal measures are often undermined by cultural beliefs and resistance. Traditional gender norms and patriarchal attitudes persist in many South African communities, and these norms limit women’s agency, decision-making power, and freedom, reinforcing unequal power dynamics.
Thirdly, disparities in education still exist, with girls and women often having less access to quality education, especially in the rural areas. This limits their opportunities for personal and professional growth. Add to that the often-limited access to economic resources and opportunities, women in South Africa are more likely to be employed in low-paying jobs and informal sectors. This leads to lower income levels and reduces economic empowerment, (again) perpetuating gender inequality and making it very difficult for women to escape the cycle of poverty.
Next, one of the biggest challenges, and probably the most pervasive and serious issues South African women face, is gender-based violence. With high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, and femicide, the physical safety and overall well-being of women is under threat. This contributes to women’s vulnerability and limits their ability to participate in society fully and freely. Efforts to address this issue requires a comprehensive approach through the collective efforts of government, civil society organisations, and the public, but the low representation of women in politics, business, and other decision-making positions hinders efforts to address gender-specific concerns and formulate policies.
Lastly, women often bear the brunt of unpaid work, such as taking care of children and household chores. The substantial time and energy required for unpaid care work limits women’s ability to engage in paid employment or engage in income-generating activities. Furthermore, when women work fewer hours or have gaps in their careers, it affects their long-term earning potential and financial stability. Deep-rooted gender norms often assign caregiving roles to women based on traditional perceptions of their roles as nurturers and caregivers. This reinforces the notion that caregiving is solely a woman’s responsibility. Yes, in 2023, despite the progress, the notion still exists.
What is the Solution?
Narrowing the gender gap and achieving gender equality is, clearly, a long-term process. In South Africa, different societies may even require tailored approaches based on their specific cultural and social contexts.
The solution includes a show of strength from all South African women as we do everything we can to ensure equal education opportunities, support women in leadership positions, challenge and change gender stereotypes in media and advertising, and enforce laws that prohibit gender-based discrimination and violence.
You don’t need to be part of a historical march or carry banners in protest – as individual women we have the strength to motivate change. Indeed, the African proverbs, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito”, and “Little by little becomes a lot”, suggest that the power of one (individual) will become The Power of One (all).
Here’s to all the strong women:
May we be them.
May we know them.
May we raise them.
Until next time.