National Women’s Day commemorates the peaceful yet impactful Women’s March of 1956, which saw more than 20 000 women march to the Union Buildings in protest against the oppressive pass laws of the time.
Leading the march were Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn.
They had formed an organisation called “Federation of South African Women” (FSAW), which was an anti-apartheid organisation of women from various groups including the ANC Women’s League.
FSAW contributed to the Congress of the People in 1955, where the Freedom Charter was drawn up, by submitting a document called “What Women Demand”.
This document 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 to the apartheid government’s extension of unjust pass laws to black women.
The protest was organised to take place on a Thursday, the traditional day when black domestic workers had their day off, to ensure a larger gathering of women.
After arriving in Pretoria by train and bus, the women then walked in small groups of twos and threes, as large groups had been banned by the authorities.
These small groups then eventually met up at the gardens and amphitheatre of the Union Buildings.
According to SA History Online, many of the African women participating in the march wore traditional dress, while others wore the Congress colours of green, black and gold, and 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.
It is on this day that the famous slogan, “wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo” – translated as “when you strike a woman, you strike a rock” – was born.
The march was a resounding success that demonstrated the strength, resolve and courage of South African women in the fight for freedom.
That’s why August 9 is more than just a public holiday. It represents an important day in our country’s history, when women demanded that their voices be heard in the fight for equality and liberation.