A statue of Mandela, a police memorial, a statue of 1924-1939 Prime Minister Hertzog, among others, grace the Union Building’s public area, but the Women’s Day memorial is not on public display.
On 9 August 1956, the streets of Pretoria saw 20 000 women of all races marching together towards the Union Buildings. The women marching were from the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). FEDSAW was founded in Johannesburg two years before the march. It was the first attempt to establish a broad-based women’s organisation in South Africa and was formed of delegates around the country. The group’s founders and leaders included Amina Cachalia, Sophia Williams, Lillian Ngoyi, Ray Simons and Helen Joseph. FEDSAW described themselves as “working women and housewives, African, Indian, European, and Coloured.”
At the Federation’s first congress in 1954, they wrote the Women’s Charter, which defined the rights and privileges of all women in South Africa. This included the right to vote, the right to full opportunities to work with equal pay and the possibility of promotion and, most importantly at the time, the removal of laws that restrict free movement. In other words, the removal of the pass laws that required women of colour to have a passport to move or work within their own country. To protest pass laws, FEDSAW marched on the Union Buildings, and stood in silence for 30 minutes after presenting a petition. The then prime minister, JG Strydom, refused to meet with them, and was not at the Union Buildings. The event was the largest feminist march in South Africa. This event is remembered today as National Women’s Day.
The women made famous the phrase “You strike a woman you strike a rock” on the 9 August march. This was because the
march symbolised that the women of South Africa are as strong, determined, and capable as the men. FEDSAW’s charter showed that they believed in equality and freedom. This is a fight that women in South Africa are still fighting today. Although all women gained the right to vote in 1994 (white women could vote in 1933), which was one of the goals of the charter, women still do not have equal pay (on average, South African women earn 25% less than men), and women are overwhelmingly primary caregivers, and even sole breadwinners in their families. The 1954 charter recognised that many women were single mothers and breadwinners, often due to the migrant labour laws that still affected South Africa, yet South African law still treated women as minors by being denied the right to vote, own property, and enter into contracts. Today, women of all races in South Africa are able to operate as adults, in part thanks to these women. Although National Women’s Day is celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa, it seems that the defiant activists of the 1950s
and 60s are not afforded their due honour.
In 2016 (60 years after the march), a memorial to the four women who led the march, Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams, was unveiled at the Lilian Ngoyi Square. It was created to remind and inspire the women of South Africa of the power they displayed in the past, and also give them the strength to continue to fight for women’s rights in South Africa. Today, that memorial is inaccessible to the public except at yearly events for Women’s Day. Unlike the many monuments to various male heroes scattered around government and public areas in South Africa, monuments to the amazing women of South Africa are either non-existent, or inaccessible to the public. Although a women’s memorial site was unveiled along with the statues, it is still unused and inaccessible. The women who formed such a large part of South Africa’s cultural history are not celebrated the way they should be.
As South Africans, what we can do to make a change is to follow in the footsteps of the 1956 marchers, and the many other brave women in South Africa’s history, and make our voices heard.