This holiday commemorates the national march of women on 9th August 1956 to petition against legislation that required African persons to carry the ‘pass’. The first National Women’s Day was celebrated on 9 August 1995. In 2006, a reenactment of the march was staged for its 50th anniversary, with many of the 1956 march veterans.
The ‘pass’ was an identification document which restricted a black South African’s freedom of movement under apartheid. the pass allowed them to enter ‘white’ areas. The ‘pass’ had come into force under the Urban Areas Act (commonly known as the pass laws) of 1950.
On 9 August 1956, 20,000 women staged a march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against proposed amendments to the act. They left petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at prime minister J.G. Strijdom’s office door. They stood silently outside his door for 30 minutes.
The women then sang a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion:
Strijdom, you have tampered with the women, You have struck a rock.’
So runs the song composed to mark this historic occasion. By the middle of 1956 plans had been laid for the Pretoria march and the FSAW had written to request that JG Strijdom, the current prime minister, meet with their leaders so they could present their point of view. The request was refused.
The ANC then sent Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba on a tour of the main urban areas, accompanied by Robert Resha of the ANC and Norman Levy of the Congress of Democrats (COD). The plan was to consult with local leaders who would then make arrangements to send delegates to the mass gathering in August.
The Women’s March was a spectacular success. Women from all parts of the country arrived in Pretoria, some from as far afield as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They then flocked to the Union Buildings in a determined yet orderly manner. Estimates of the number of women delegates ranged from 10 000 to 20 000, with FSAW claiming that it was the biggest demonstration yet held. They filled the entire amphitheatre in the bow of the graceful Herbert Baker building. Walker describes the impressive scene:
Many of the African women wore traditional dress, others wore the Congress colours, green, black and gold; Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers’ children along with them. Throughout the demonstration the huge crowd displayed a discipline and dignity that was deeply impressive (Walker 1991:195).
Neither the prime minister or any of his senior staff was there to see the women, so as they had done the previous year, the leaders left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside JG Strijdom’s office door. It later transpired that they were removed before he bothered to look at them. Then at Lilian Ngoyi’s suggestion, a masterful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full half hour. Before leaving (again in exemplary fashion) the women sang ‘Nkosi sikeleli Afrika‘. Without exception, those who participated in the event described it as a moving and emotional experience. The FSAW declared that it was a ‘monumental achievement’.
The significance of the Women’s March must be analysed. Women had once again shown that the stereotype of women as politically inept and immature, tied to the home, was outdated and inaccurate. And as they had done the previous year, the Afrikaans press tried to give the impression that it was whites who had ‘run the show’. This was blatantly untrue. The FSAW and the Congress Alliance gained great prestige form the obvious success of the venture. The FSAW had come of age politically and could no longer be underrated as a recognised organisation – a remarkable achievement for a body that was barely 2 years old. The Alliance decided that 9 August would henceforth be celebrated as Women’s Day, and it is now, in the new South Africa, commemorated each year as a national holiday.
History on Passes for African Women
The Government`s first attempts to force women to carry passes and permits had been a major fiasco. In 1913, government officials in the Orange Free State declared that women living in the urban townships would be required to buy new entry permits each month. In response, the women sent deputations to the Government, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, and organised massive demonstrations to protest the permit requirement.
Unrest spread throughout the province and hundreds of women were sent to prison. Civil disobedience and demonstrations continued sporadically for several years. Ultimately the permit requirement was withdrawn.
No further attempts were made to require permits or passes for African women until the 1950s. Although laws requiring such documents were enacted in 1952, the Government did not begin issuing permits to women until 1954 and reference books until 1956. The issuing of permits began in the Western Cape, which the Government had designated a “Coloured preference area”. Within the boundaries established by the Government, no African workers could be hired unless the Department of Labour determined that Coloured workers were not available. Foreign Africans were to be removed from the area altogether. No new families would be allowed to enter, and women and children who did not qualify to remain would be sent back to the reserves. The entrance of the migrant labourers would henceforth be strictly controlled. Male heads of households, whose families had been endorsed out or prevented from entering the area, were housed with migrant workers in single-sex hostels. The availability of family accommodations was so limited that the number of units built lagged far behind the natural increase in population.
South African History Online; The 1956 Women’s March, Pretoria, 9 August.