On August 9th, 1956, over 20,000 South African women from all walks of life marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings to present a petition to the Prime Minister, JG Strijdom. Years later, in 1995, the country celebrated the first “National Women’s Day” to commemorate the women who marched.
The women were marching against the nation’s Pass Laws, otherwise known as the Natives Law, which were started with the Urban Areas Act. It recognized all urban areas in South Africa as “white” and required all black Africans to carry around permits, known as “passes.”
The Pass Laws required South African men to present their identification when in urban areas. Pass Laws were a facet of apartheid, the segregation system used on the grounds of race. Pass Laws, or the internal passport system was also used to further segregate the population, manage urbanization, and allow for migrant labor.
The Pass Laws limited the movements of not only black African citizens but all non-whites, requiring them to carry passports outside their homeland or designated areas. Before the 1950s, this largely applied only to South African men, but the government attempted to expand Pass Laws to women.
South African women decided not to put up with the Pass Laws. Instead, they marched.
The march to Pretoria was organized by the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, and Sophie Williams De Bruyn. Women of all races stood in solidarity with black African women and attended the march. The women left 14,000 petitions at the office doors of the Prime Minister, and sang a freedom song that translates to “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.”
It was a landmark moment in South African history that made it clear that a woman’s place is everywhere. In 2006, a reenactment of the march was done for its 50th anniversary.
Today, women speak proudly about their roles in South African culture and society.
“I’m a woman, and I play a big role in South Africa and in the whole world,” a South African woman told the News 24 station.
Since 1995, annual celebrations have taken place. The month of August has been declared National Women’s Month in South Africa. National Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1994 to further awareness of women’s issues that persist in South African culture, such as parenting, domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, unequal pay, and schooling for all girls.
This day also celebrates women in government. Before 1994, only 2.7 percent of parliament was comprised of women. As of 2015, according to the World Bank, representation of women in the National Assembly has reached 42 percent.
National Women’s Day is a reminder to South Africans everywhere of the plight that women took and the bravery they had on August 9th, 1956 to protest the government’s ruling.
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