The 1956 Women’s March in Pretoria, South Africa constitutes an especially noteworthy moment in women’s history. On 9 August 1956, thousands of South Africa women – ranging from all backgrounds and cultures including Indians, Colored, Whites, and Blacks – staged a march on the Union Buildings of Pretoria to protest against the abusive pass laws. Estimates of over 20,000 women – some carrying young children on their backs, some wearing traditional dresses and sarees, and others clothed in their domestic work outfits – all showed up to take part in the resistance against apartheid. The 1956 Women’s March played a vital role in the women becoming more visible participants in the apartheid struggle.
Origin of the Women’s Movement Against Pass Laws
In South Africa, pass laws were a form of an internal passport system designed to segregate the population between Blacks from Whites in South Africans, and thereby, severely limit the movements of the black African populace, manage urbanization, and allot migrant labor. As early as 1893, pass laws originated in the capital of the Orange Free State of South Africa, Bloemfontein, requiring non-white women and men to carry documentation to validate their whereabouts. Pass laws were a means of trying to control South Africans of getting into the city, finding better work, and establishing themselves in the “white” part of town, which of course was desirable on account of employment opportunities and transportation. If non-Whites sought to enter the restricted areas destitute of their passes, they suffered imprisonment and worse. In 1912 the Free State women managed to collect five thousand signatures in protest against women passes. A delegation of six women presented their case to the Minister of Native Affairs, H. Burton, in which he responded that in the future “he would take action to eliminate pass regulations.” (Wells) A year later when no changes were made, women found their frustrations growing as the government continued to ignore their demands.On 29 March 1913, women “pledged to refuse to carry passes any longer and expressed their willingness to endure imprisonment.” (Wells) The escalation of pass laws continued and triggered growing irritation.
The Women’s Movement in Action
In 1955, government officials in the Orange Free State declared that women living in the urban townships would be required to buy new entry permits each month. In response to the government’s request, South African women decided to petition and create a document of their values in “The Demand of the Women of South Africa for the Withdrawal of Passes for Women and the Repeal of the Pass Laws," a document which was presented to the Prime Minister. It demanded that the government terminate pass laws. Unified they stood in saying “once the women have made up their minds that they will do it, the women will organize and fight, and you will never stop them.” (Brooks, 225) The petition exemplified their frustration with the government. They were tired of seeing their families “suffering under the bitterest law of all - the pass law which has brought untold suffering to every African family.” (ANC) The petition clearly exemplified their indignation towards the government’s stance on pass laws. Women were tired of the government insisting that the pass laws were abolished, but it is the wives, mothers, and “women that know this is not true, for [their] husbands, [their] brothers, and [their] sons are still being arrested, thousands every day, under these very pass laws.” (ANC) During that time “the husband would come to the house and tell his wife, “I’m going to jail now.” And then the wife says, “Well, I’m going to jail too.” (Brooks, 207) Their formidable courage exhibited the absence of gender roles in the sense of dominating activist ideals. Previously, men would often voice the opinions of the household, willing to take the consequences, but with the rise and works of the 1956 Women’s March, women were eager and ready for every and any repercussions. And perhaps in retrospect, the rise to political prominence of women was inevitable given that they arguably possessed acute senses as to the destructive repercussions that the pass laws imposed upon families. Women thoroughly comprehended the destruction and detrimental services that the pass laws served within the dynamics of the family setting. The women of South Africa started to realize the tearing away of their family due to the pass laws: it was confining the man, inherent to embrace freedom in his own land, while also destroying the gentle aura, yet protective presence of the motherly woman. With the addition of pass laws, the typical person could not feel as if they were truly inhibiting their character when pushed amongst a wall of confinement and complete control, of course mixed with the ever-so-present ubiquity of apartheid.
In laying out what the pass laws meant to them, the women of South Africa further explained “that homes will be broken up when women are arrested under pass laws.” (ANC) With their frustrations high and their immense dedication, the women of South Africa promised that they “shall not rest until ALL pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedom have been abolished” and “shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice, and security.” (ANC) The immense amount of passion and determination to make a change is what brought these women together to make history and show the important role of women engaging in activism. These activists “were a big force,” and according to Dorothy Masenya, one of the many women who participated in the 1956 March, no one could stop them – “if they arrest one we all walk in [to jail] and no turning back.” (SAHO-women’s interviews) The women realized that there is strength and power in numbers; that together they can make a difference, and that the government might struggle to stop a unit. The participants accepted significant risks such as arrest or imprisonment, in order to pursue their goal.
Their unified determination established their role in the anti-resistance movement with their use of media, particularly in songs and in photographs. The photograph “Women’s March”, taken by Peter Magubane the day of the march, clearly depicts the unification and strength of women across the country. Several women have their right arm raised high with a clenched fist, a common symbol of power. Whilst marching, the women of the 1956 march sang the now infamous ‘Wathint’ abafazi Strijdom, wathint’ imbokodo, uza kufa”, translated, “you strike the women Strijdom you strike a rock, you will be crushed, you will die” The song was repeatedly sang and dispersed as their freedom anthem amongst the city, in hopes it would echo across the country. The amalgam of women further exhibits the unifying ideals of the feminist empowerment and movement distributed through South Africa in hopes of diminishing pass laws.
Influential Actors in the Conception of the 1956 Women’s March
The march also made several female leaders visible in the struggle against apartheid, particularly Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph. There cannot be change and reconstruction without leaders who are willing to run risks, making a lasting effect. Leaders such as Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph were essential to the brainstorming, organization, and execution of the remarkable event of the 1956 Women’s March.
In the beginning stages, Lillian Ngoyi “went around addressing meetings and rallies all over the country; she called on women to be in the forefront of the struggle, in order to secure a better future for [their] children.” (Brooks, 206) Lillian Ngoyi joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1952, along with political pioneers Kate Mxaktho, Ida Mtwana and Charlotte Mxeke, who co-founded the Women’s League within the ANC. Ngyoi advised that“only direct mass action will deter the Government and stop it from proceeding with its cruel laws.” (Brooks, 223) With that being said, Lilian Ngoyi, as well as other influential leaders, led 20,000 women to protest the inclusion of women in the pass laws controlling the movements of blacks. Holding thousands of petitions in one hand, Lilian Ngoyi personally knocked on Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom’s door to give him the petitions. Lilian Ngoyi did not stop her work in Africa, she soon realized and “recognized the potential influence that international support could have on the struggle against apartheid and the emancipation of black women.” (Grant) Lilian realized that she needed global support from women of diverse backgrounds in order to strengthen freedom and democracy in South Africa. As the National Chairman of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), Ngoyi questioned her audience as to why they “have heard of men shaking in their trousers, but who ever heard of a woman shaking in her skirt?” at the inaugural conference. (Grant) Ngoyi’s several positions in leadership have led her to be one of the strongest, black women in politics of South Africa. Because of her great efforts and intense involvement with the ANC and the liberation movement, Ngoyi was arrested and tried for treason; despite that, she remained outspoken on issues regarding Africans and women.
Another influential woman was Helen Joseph, a white anti-apartheid activist. Though there were few white activist against apartheid, Helen Joseph believed that they “shall not rest until the pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedom has been abolished.” (Joseph, 1) Helen Joseph, though a white woman, believed it was intolerant to watch the suffrage and separation of South Africa due to pass laws. As part of the Women’s League in the African National Congress she noted that, “she was not a woman doing things for black people but a member of a mixed committee headed by lack women.” (Joseph, 5) Helen Joseph’s values were those of justice and fair treatment, race or color was not a factor in her involvement to a better South Africa. When joining the movement, she “looked at those many faces until they became only one face, the face of suffering black people.” (Joseph, 5) The images of those whose land and freedom have been taken away from them inspired Joseph to make a difference.
The Broader Significance of the 1956 Women’s March
The legacies of the 1956 Women’s March include the rise of several strong female leaders, now visible in the greater struggle against apartheid, as well as the presence of women in mass media that called upon the march to inspire others. Helen Joseph mentions that “it is a story that continues every day.” The women of South Africa joined in forces all for one cause, showing the immense amount of unification and influence that women have in wanting to make a vital change in the entire continent. Several different groups inclined toward fostering women’s empowerment about within the same time period as the initiation of women’s involvement in resistance politics.
Without the force of frustrated and determined women, South Africa’s anti-apartheid resistance may not have been abolished without the assistance of women. During the march, the women sang “wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo,uza kufa! – translating that [when] you strike the women, you strike a rock, you will be crushed [you will die]! (AfricanOnline) The phrase is “so powerful that it has locked into our minds.” (Miller) It is constantly repeated to remind the historic moment when “woman managed to create a public voice for themselves.” (Miller) The song represented their courage, strength, and confidence that there will be changes and an end to the pass laws. The song is still recalled today, over the several years after the abandonment of pass laws. South Africans continue to remember the song in tribute of the power that women had. They constantly refer to themselves as a rock to symbolize themselves as a weapon to be feared.
Additionally, one of the most common images of this movement was reproduced in posters such as that shown below, entitled: “Now that you have touched the women, you have a struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed.” The poster was re-created by Judy Seidman, an artist in the Medu Art Ensemble in Botswana, South Africa. Dated in 1981, the poster shows that even after 25 years, the march was still being called upon. The poster shows a black woman with a strong, stout face raising her right arm, which has a broken chain on her wrist.
Seidman's poster reflects the strength, tenacity, and frustration that the South African woman faced, clearly seen by the expressions on her face. The image shows the revelation and freedom that women commanded in order to repeal the pass laws. In some cases, the women further established that “once you have touched the women, you are going to die” further establishing their prevalence in the means of the death of the pass laws. (Brooks, 204) The poster highlighted the anthem of the anti-apartheid women struggle. When women come together for a bigger cause, a cause that affects their very kin and being, they find strength within each other to further push them towards the goal. In an era when black women did not and –in some cases, could not have a voice, the woman of South Africa shouted, screamed, and yelled in order to get what they rightly deserved, freedom. The involvement of women in activist pursuits has become an authoritative historical point.
In 1998, the Department of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology (DASCT), created the monument of the Women of South Africa. The monument “allows the voices of the past to an ever present reminder of the power of women.” (Miller, 305) The monument strongly represented women’s political activism and empowerment in times of struggle. On several cases, women see the monument as a “claim for women in centre of political power,” as well as a “visual reminder of how women once asserted themselves here, crowding their bodies in to the otherwise masculine space” (Miller, 310) Men were overshadowed by the strong, dominant presence of the colossal and impactful movement that the women embraced. The feminist site acts as a remembrance, a memoir to the women of South Africa – their struggles their fights, but mostly their voice, without their voice there would be nothing to remember. The walk of 1956 was one of the introductory steps to the feminist movement in South Africa; it laid the groundwork, the outline and the works in order of South Africa to be where it is in current day.
The significance of this march still reigns today in South Africa’s annual celebration of National Women’s Day in regards and respect to that very day 58 years ago on August 9th. The peacefully aggressive nature characterized the women’s march: they did not stop until pass laws were repealed, but they never used violence to progress in their movement. This event illustrated the strength, determination and power that women possess when come across a situation that puts fear of the wellbeing of their children’s future and their kin. In an era where women’s voices were not always heard, the women of South Africa demanded attention for their freedom.
This article was written by Idara Akpan and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project