Today we celebrate National Women’s Day in South Africa, where women are recognised for their contribution in society, the workplace and at home. Many businesses offer mani/pedi specials and spa days, while in the home some husbands are washing dishes and cooking dinner tonight.
Today we honor the four women who bravely stood up for women’s rights, and human rights, on 9 August 1956, while at the same time we remember the women and girls in South Africa today who still need our support.
Led by four women, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams and Lilian Ngoyi, the 9 August 1956 women’s march at the Union Buildings was an historic and unprecedented gathering of over 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria and protested the 1950 Urban Areas Act legislation of women having to carry passes. At the time, women were not allowed to enter an area outside of those designated for their race without a legal document stating permission.
Lilian Ngoyi presented a petition with over 100,000 signatures outside Prime Minister J.G Strijdom’s office door, as thousands of women sang struggle songs in front of the Union Buildings. The petition requested that the Prime Minister meet with the women to discuss amendments to the pass-laws.
It was during their wait outside the Union Buildings that the women created the song “Wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbhokodo” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock). The song was originally directed to Prime Minister J.G Strijdom, but the phrase is now used in instances where a woman (and at times a child) is abused or victimised in the workplace, society or at home. The significance of the phrase then and now is to give women strength and honor their position as nurturers in South African society. If a woman is abused or victimised, one may as well be abusing the nation.
Although we have come so far in South Africa since the time of Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams and Lilian Ngoyi, there is still so much to be done. Gender-based violence is rampant in this country and millions of women live in fear, many within their own homes.
Abuses against women and girls ranges from verbal cat-calling at taxi stands, to sugar daddies taking advantage of school girls, domestic violence and worse. In all of these instances, the attackers assume positions of power to control and abuse women, and are seen by other men – and by society – as “manly” and “virile”. South Africa has far to travel before achieving equal rights for women and girls.
Violence against women knows no race, culture or class; it spreads across all communities in South Africa, and the world. We must stand together, against gender-based violence, and do something. We must reach boys at a young age to dispel the myth, and tradition, that power over a woman makes a man. We must stand up against domestic violence instead of covering our eyes and turning up the music. Dr. Mamphela Ramphele writes, “Violence against women and children is emblematic of a society at war with itself.”
Since this historic day in 1956, South African women have made their mark, particularly after the country was freed of apartheid in 1994 and our first African president was elected, Mr. Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela. This mark has remained, but there is still so much further to go. The South African constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, and it enshrines the right of women to live free from violence, but we are not living up to its ideals in reality. Basic human rights of women and children are neglected and abused on a daily basis, all over South Africa.
Nelson Mandela said at the 1996 Women’s Day address in Pretoria, “The legacy of oppression weighs heavily on women. As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”
CC&DW would like to say to all South African women, Halala kuni bafazi bamaAfrika, ugqatso nilufezile, abafazi eMzantsi Afrika bakhululekile. Wathinta umfazi, wathinta imbhokodo. (We celebrate all African women. You have played your part, South African women are free. But if you strike a woman, you strike a rock.)
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