In 1956, about 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against discriminatory pass laws.
National Women's Day commemorates the anniversary of the great Women's March of 1956, where women marched to the Union Buildings to protest against carrying passbooks. The day is a way to respect those women and celebrate them for helping steer South Africa a step further towards democratic governance.
On 9 August 1956, about 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against legislation aimed at tightening the apartheid government's control over the movement of black women in urban areas.
Under the Population Registration Act of 1950, South Africans had to be classified and registered according to their racial characteristics (a person's hair, skin colour, facial features, socioeconomic status, etc., was taken into consideration). As a result, citizens were classified as Black, White, Coloured (mixed race), or Indian. These classifications determined the social and political rights and educational and job opportunities you received.
To maintain population segregation, govern urbanization, and manage migrant labor during the apartheid era, South Africans who were classed as "black" by The Population Registration Act were required to carry an internal passport known as a passbook or dompas (meaning 'dumb pass' or domestic pass). The passbook requirement fell under the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923. This act deemed urban areas in South Africa as "white"; therefore, all Black African men in cities and towns carried around permits and would have to produce them to prove that they were there legally for work to avoid arrest.
Action against the carrying of passbooks began in the 1910s. South Africa's current ruling party, the African National Congress, began the Defiance Campaign in 1951 to oppose pass laws, which led to the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 that claimed 69 lives and is commemorated today in South Africa on 21 March as Human Rights Day.
The Women's March took place on a Thursday, the day when black domestic employees typically took off to encourage a bigger gathering. Organised by the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), a group dedicated to ending apartheid for women from different organizations, such as the ANC Women's League, thousands of women of all races walked to the Union Buildings to protest and petition the introduction of passbooks for black women. The march was led by anti-apartheid activists Lillian Ngoyi (who also founded FEDSAW), Helen Joseph, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, and a member of the Transvaal Indian Congress, Rahima Moosa.
Fourteen thousand petitions were carried by representatives of each race group in South Africa and delivered to Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom. The petition read:
We, the women of South Africa, have come here today. We African women know too well the effect this law has upon our homes, our children. We, who are not African women, know how our sisters suffer. For to us, an insult to African women is an insult to all women.
* That homes will be broken up when women are arrested under pass laws.
* That women and young girls will be exposed to humiliation and degradation at the hands of pass-searching policemen.
* That women will lose their right to move freely from one place to another.
We, voters and voteless, call upon your government not to issue passes to African women. We shall not resist until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security.
— Presented to Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom, 9 August 1956.
The day of the march is remembered by the song "wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo, uza kufa!" ([When] you strike the women, you strike a rock, you will be crushed [you will die]!). This rallying call encompassed the strength and bravery of the women who risked their lives to fight for their rights and women's rights in the future. But unfortunately, gatherings of that nature and size were illegal and severely punishable at the hands of the law.
South Africa's anti-apartheid resistance may not have been put to an end without the help of the determined women. The march, triumphant without the use of violence, paved the way for the pass laws to be repealed officially, and South Africa as we know it today is a country governed by a democratic constitution.