In Pretoria, on August 9, 1956, 20,000 women stood for a full thirty minutes in silence. It is said that even the babies on their mothers’ backs did not cry.
Called by the Federation of South African Women to fight apartheid (a system of official racial separation), they stood beneath a pale winter sun:
— black women in the green, black, and gold colors of the African National Congress
— Indian women in brightly colored saris
— Xhosa women wearing elaborate headscarves and ocher robes
— white women in quiet colors, beige and blue.
A LEGACY OF RESISTANCE
The women had come from across South Africa to see the prime minister, deliver a petition, and protest, once again, the extension of the pass laws to women.
Passes were identity booklets used by the government to control and track each carrier’s movements. They were essential to the smooth functioning of the South African police state and the rule of the white minority, but caused untold suffering to masses of people. It meant imprisonment, broken homes, unemployment, poverty.
The women had seen the men of their communities subjected to harassment and pass raids. They knew what they were up against.
Their mothers had resisted pass laws in 1913, and they were bound by honor to bestow the legacy of resistance upon their daughters and granddaughters.
Four women led the way: Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophie Williams. In their arms they carried the precious petitions with over 100,000 women’s signatures, each signature signifying courage.
FROM SILENCE TO SONG
Because the apartheid regime had officially banned all processions in Pretoria for the day, the women arranged themselves in careful groupings of two or three and walked slowly up the wide avenue to an amphitheater which was ringed with gardens and government buildings.
Silence grew as the assembly waited, while the four leaders, representing South Africa’s racial divisions (African, Asian, Colored, and White), delivered an anti-pass petition to the prime minister, who remained in hiding all day.
The women’s silence took on a life of its own — pulsing between them, solid beneath their feet, alive in their breathing together, raging through their veins.
Suddenly, the women began singing freedom songs, harmonizing with the familiar African anthems, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” and “Morena Boloka,” and another song with the words of an African proverb: “When you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.”
When the women dispersed, they kept singing for a long time, and their voices echoed over Pretoria.
Ever since that day, August 9 has been celebrated as South African Women’s Day in honor of the demonstration which was both a culmination of years of resistance to apartheid and a renewal of the women’s commitment to further struggle.
TO GO DEEPER
“Black History Month: Lilian Masediba Ngoyi (1911-1980), October, 2010 on Women’s History Network Blog
“South African Women’s Day” (3 mins.)