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The 1956 pathway to a socially cohesive society

Women’s Day has its roots in the political activism by women during the struggle for liberation against colonization and apartheid which culminated in the Women’s march on 9 August 1956. About 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings on this day to protest against the inclusion of women in the pass laws that served to control the movements of Blacks. File photo.

Women’s Day has its roots in the political activism by women during the struggle for liberation against colonization and apartheid which culminated in the Women’s march on 9 August 1956. About 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings on this day to protest against the inclusion of women in the pass laws that served to control the movements of Blacks. File photo.

Published Aug 8, 2021

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August is Women’s Month in our country and it is important that we take stock of the role women have played in its development, be it political, social, economic or cultural.

While we cannot live in the past, as we trace women’s involvement, particularly from the 1950’s, a pattern emerges that tells us a story we dare not ignore in modern day South Africa.

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The 1950 era is singled out because that is when women became restless and defiant against the injustices they were experiencing in their daily lives. Even more important, those women organised themselves across racial, socio-economic standing and geographic location across South Africa. There was a realisation that as women, regardless of whether they lived in urban or rural areas, there were hardships they were experiencing.

To name a few hardships; women had no legal standing in law; married women were the same legal person as their husbands; women had to fight to be enfranchised and they did not have automatic access to education.

That awareness began to draw women together on a platform of solidarity.

The 1956 March to Pretoria was not an overnight haphazard event. It was a culmination of grass roots organising and having established trust in working together. When the Pass Laws were introduced and the women witnessed and experienced men being arrested, they mobilised against the unjust Pass Laws. The 20 000 women’s march from all corners of South Africa was built on a principled foundation of challenging an injustice from a united front.

The women who led the march were Lillian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams. South Africa is fortunate that Aunty Sophie de Bruyn is still alive and has featured in numerous interviews. These women were aware of the power of standing together, regardless of race and geographic location. Sadly, today we seem to have regressed from that principled stand of non-racialism.

Today, the slogan ‘Wathint’abafazi. Wathint’imbokodo’ is just that, a slogan. There are many challenges that women face in modern day South Africa. Challenges of poverty, poor education, joblessness, discrimination, patriarchy, gender-based violence, corruption, drugs etc.

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However, looking back at the response of women in the 1950’s, present day women seem to have dropped the ball. Apart from women in government who represent their political parties, there is no movement that is open to women in civil society. Women have regressed from deliberately creating spaces to freely associate, and have a conversation on what unites, than what divides. Women have become strangers to each other.

The recent events of the past three weeks are an indictment for omission and commission. Under the glare of the media and the world, women, and children for that matter, did not look good. Challenging economic situations need not lead to a sub-culture of looting, violence and destruction.

Women in particular, need to contribute to addressing the prevailing socio-economic conditions, in a manner that will withstand the test of time.

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Just as the 1956 women marched in solidarity for freedom and justice, modern day South African women need to take charge and organise or work towards a socially transformed and cohesive society. There are missing voices that need to be heard outside parliament.

While it is easy to organise events, what our country needs urgently are sustainable programmes by civil society to build communities we would like to live in. We owe it to ourselves, and our children, to lift the banner that was lifted by women in the 50s for our country to be saved.

* Advocate Linda Zama is special advisor to the Office of the KZN Premier. She writes in her personal capacity.

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** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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