Sixty years ago, women of this country marched to the Union Buildings, the seat of one of the most repressive regimes. They took their lives in their hands.
Although the leaders and the crowd were a powerful example of non-racialism in practice, many of the protesters against the apartheid state and its racist policies were triply oppressed: black, poor and women.
But still, they came, from all parts by bus and foot to protest the pass laws. August 9, 1956, is a day of iconic moments that remains revered six decades later.
Sixty hours ago, four women also took a risk. Unbeknownst to most people beforehand, they stood up during the announcement of one of the watershed moments in post-apartheid South Africa, to protest about the plight of women in this country in the 21st century.
Women might be free, constitutionally. But socially and economically, there is still a long road to go. In particular, as those women reminded us at the Electoral Commission’s results centre on Saturday, one in three women will get raped or sexually assaulted, probably by people they know.
This was the key point throughout their silent demonstration, an enormous embarrassment to President Zuma, who was making his address at the podium and could not read the placards held in front of him.
Their message was as much about the horrendous rape statistics as it was about Zuma’s rape accuser, “Khwezi”, who saw her matter taken to trial in 2006. The president was found not to be a rapist, but he did not show the judgment expected of him.
Judge Willem van der Merwe went so far as to paraphrase the 1895 poem, If: “Had Kipling known of this case at the time he wrote his poem.. he might have added the following: ‘And if you can control your body and your sexual urges, then you are a man, my son’.”
But it is not Zuma and his propriety that concerns us on this, the 60th anniversary of the march. It is the high level of sexual assault and our continuing war against it – which will go on long after the president has retired.
What is concerning, indeed truly disheartening, is the fact that the most vociferous critics of those four women exercising their civil liberties were women who happen to be Cabinet ministers.
At a time South Africa was again stunning the world with our ability to regenerate and buck the narrative of the continent by accepting political results with a grace and a maturity that far belies the actual age of this new nation, those women ministers returned to an antediluvian knee-jerk reaction that can have no place in our country.
Worse, however, is that the heroines of ‘56 will forever be scorned when this generation’s young women are punished for speaking truth to power.