On 9 August 1956, approximately 20’000 South African women of all races from the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), from as far away as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, gathered at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against pass laws for African women introduced in 1952. They carried approximately 100’000 signed petitions for Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom, but he was not available to receive the petitions, so the leaders left the petitions in front of his office door. It was later revealed that they were removed by staff before Strijdom arrived.
The petition stated:
We, the women of South Africa, have come here today. We African women know too well the effect this law 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 rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security.
Lilian Ngoyi suggested a silent protest, during which the women stood in absolute silence for 30 minutes. After the silent protest, the women sang “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika,” followed by “Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom!” and then dispersed peacefully and orderly.
Part of the lyrics of “Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom!” included the phrase “you strike the women, you strike a rock,” which has come to represent women’s courage and strength in South Africa.
Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi were arrested, along with 154 others – including Nelson Mandela, in December 1956 following their involvement at the Congress of the People on 25-26 June 1955, where they submitted a document called “What Women Demand” on behalf of FEDSAW, which addressed needs such as child care provisions, housing, education, equal pay, and equal rights with men in regard to property, marriage and guardianship of children. The Congress of the People was where the Freedom Charter was adopted.
The Freedom Charter is notable for its demand for, and commitment to, a non-racial South Africa. ANC members who held pro-African views, left the ANC to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) after it adopted the Freedom Charter. The preamble to the Freedom Charter states:
We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people; that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality; that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities; that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief; And therefore, we, the people of South Africa, black and white together – equals, countrymen and brothers – adopt this Freedom Charter. And we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.
I was recently reminded of this brave unity among South African women when four young women surprised the world with their silent protest as President Jacob Zuma addressed dignitaries and the media at the IEC operations centre in Pretoria. In stark contrast to recent protest action, theirs was dignified, non-violent and reminiscent of The Salt March of Gandhi in 1930 and the South African women in 1956. Women are still protesting for freedom, justice and security for their children in a country where 40% of women will be raped in their lifetime, only 1 in 9 cases of rape is reported, and only 14% of those reported cases lead to a conviction.
I live in the hope that South Africa can unite under the Freedom Charter’s ideals of “black and white together – equals, countrymen and brothers” and the principle of the 1956 petition, that an insult to one woman is an insult to all women, irrespective of race.