Remembering the remarkably resilient women who marched in 1956
by Chelsea Cohen
“Wathint' abafazi, Wathint’ imbokodo! Now you have touched the woman, you have struck a rock.” These are the words I sat with in writing this article, for some who do not know the significance of that phrase, it is from the famous resistance song that has come to symbolise the courage and strength expressed at the Women's March on Pretoria on 9 August 1956 which is being commemorated this month.
In order for me to comprehend what it means for a woman to be a rock, I had to imagine what it was like being a woman 64 years ago and what bravery it must have taken to stand up to an entire infrastructure of oppression.
In so doing, I have come to realise the immense challenges that black women had to face in apartheid South Africa. Everyday a continuous struggle for survival against a ruthless apartheid regime. Each day bringing new challenges and the promise of further humiliation and suffering. Stripped of their rights and facing constant harassment, women often bore the brunt of apartheid brutality.
It is this reality that led Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams alongside thousands of courageous South African women of all races to march in August 1956.
While Women’s Day may be seen as a biased holiday, it is a necessary bias in a patriarchal world which seeks to commemorate the women who participated in a march petition against draconian “pass laws.”
Like many young women, I am inspired by their stories and how they have shaped the very idea of who a woman is. For years, women have often been portrayed in the role of victims: the weaker sex and home maker - never at the forefront of formidable change despite the efforts of women stalwarts in the anti-apartheid struggle such as Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu.
The women of 1956 changed all that, as they contested the perverted and racist notion of politics of the apartheid government and took to the streets to demand equality and freedom for all South Africans.
It is this level of courage that awards women the title of rock, not because we do not bleed or feel pain, but in the face of adversity, we continuously progress, we have the innate ability to use our peacefulness and voices to stand tall and command attention because when we stand together, we are sturdy and strong.
I am very proud to be a woman and a beneficiary of this legacy. Today, as young women, we are not voiceless, our voices can be heard through the many channels these brave women opened up for us six decades ago, and we can now say that we have some means and access to justice.
I take pride knowing that not only are we wives, sisters, daughters and mothers, we have access to be politicians, doctors, lawyers, business owners, and so much more, because of the selfless brave acts of the women of 1956 that allow us to defy the odds with our rights protected by a progressive constitution - at least in theory. In reality, however, some women still lack the right to move freely, and young women and children - in particular girls - are often degraded, humiliated, and raped, while a societal divide grows with regard to eruptions of violence against this group.
It is essential in remembering the efforts of these courageous matriarchs that this month be used to honour the women that came before us. We must also remember the many brave women that have fallen victim to patriarchal violence.
We further use this public holiday to celebrate the remarkable achievements and the tenacious spirits of the fearless females who continue to advocate for change, defy norms and stand up for what they believe in, by drawing attention to the significant human rights issues that South African women still confront, particularly gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment and unequal pay.
South African women must remind themselves that the fight for human rights - especially women’s rights – continues unabated. Although today our realities may seem different, there are aspects that still remain the same.
Changing these realities must be our common goal. Those fearless women of 1956 that we celebrate this month have shown us that nothing is impossible, and that peaceful resistance can change the lives of millions of people.
We are indebted to their sacrifices, and it is our turn to continue to fight injustices as a collective. The women of 1956 knew that without equality, there is no justice, personal development, and social freedom. They also knew that without peace, there could be no security.
This year, women’s day occurs in the midst of a Covid-19 global pandemic which has forced us into a national lockdown with far-reaching socio-economic effects. In some cases, women have had to remain at home with their abusers, partly as a result of not having the means to leave. Increasingly, they have become victims in their own homes.
We therefore urge the men of South Africa to stand next to all women, and use their voices to effect change so that the struggles of 1956 to liberate their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters have not been waged in vain. We can no longer turn a blind eye to increased abuses against women.
The end to this ghastly scourge must be achieved together. Women’s month is the perfect opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, how far we still have to travel, and to celebrate the women who stood as rocks and built the foundation for us to access the post-1994 “freedom” that we all now take for granted.
May the triumph of the women of 1956 remind us that when women come together for a bigger cause, a cause that affects their very existence, they find strength within each other. In an era in which African women could not find a voice, the women of 1956 made it possible for them to roar.
* Cohen is a Zimbabwean-South African independent consultant, with a Master’s degree in Criminology, Law and Society. She recently worked in the Office of the Public Protector.