The 1956 women's march in South Africa. Leading women are, front from left, Sophie Williams, Raheema Moosa, Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi. Picture: Ex-QDMS

Cape Town - On August 9, 1956, 20 000 women gathered at the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings. It was an incredible sight. Among the crowd were women who had never before left their rural villages. Others carried their white employers’ babies on their backs.

Some wore the green and black uniform of the ANC Women’s League. Others wore black skirts and wide collars. Still others wore saris. Some wore their Sunday best, while others were dressed in their everyday clothes.

The marchers carried about 100 000 signatures against the pass laws.

Lilian Ngoyi had a way with words and a personality that drew people to her, and made them want to do things with her.

She was an activist in many parts: a clothing factory worker, a trade unionist, a member of the ANC Women’s League and a founder member of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW).

And she expressed her views eloquently and fearlessly. In the 1950s, African women in South Africa had much to be concerned about.

One of these concerns centred on education. The implications of Bantu Education, as set out in the Bantu Education Act of 1953, were becoming increasingly clear to concerned parents throughout the country. The act confirmed their worst fears.

Native Affairs Minister Hendrik Verwoerd had fine-tuned it to serve one purpose only: to train black children for a lifetime of servitude.

With astounding arrogance, Verwoerd said: “There is no place for (the Bantu) in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

Ngoyi’s response to the plans and utterances of Verwoerd was famously captured in an an interview with the Bantu World newspaper in 1955: “My womb is shaken when they speak of Bantu 

Long before he wrote the award-winning Down Second Avenue, Es’kia Mphahlele described Ngoyi as “the most talked of woman in politics” in an article in Drum magazine.

“Who is Lilian Ngoyi?” he asked. The woman factory worker who is tough granite on the outside, but soft and compassionate deep down. The woman who three years ago was hardly known in non-European politics. The woman whose rise to fame has been phenomenal.

“Her words always teems with with vivid figures of speech. Mrs Ngoyi will say: ‘We don’t want men who wear skirts under their trousers. If they don’t want to act, let us women exchange garments with them,” Mpahahlele wrote.

As horrific as Bantu Education was a more immediate, and some would say an even bigger, threat to the rights of the dispossessed centred on the news that the National Party intended introducing changes to the pass laws, to bring black women within their ambit.

The response by African women throughout the country was immediate. They instinctively opposed any further tightening of already hated legislation. But, in the main, opposition was uneven.

The various forms of protest action badly needed to be pulled together. The women were well aware of the implications of legislation aimed specifically at them. They knew that passes would prevent them from moving around freely to sell their labour. They knew (from past experience) they would be exposed to sexual abuse at the hands of officials who believed themselves to be untouchable. Most of all, they believed pass arrests would have a devastating effect on their children and their homes.

A leaflet about the pass laws distributed by the ANC in Port Elizabeth echoed these fears…

“It means that no husband can ever be sure any day that his wife is his wife; nor can he be sure that his child may not be taken away from him and sold to farmers under the pretext of failing to comply with the pass regulation… How can any decent home be built for the proper upbringing of the children?… A man has only to come into any home or stop a woman on the street and say he is a policeman or detective and the law of the country empowers him to take away that woman and to touch any part of her body as they can do with men under the pretext they are searching for a pass.

“Even in the days of slavery there was nothing like this. This is the basest method of humiliating people and destroying the honour of its womanhood.”

In his landmark book Black Politics in South Africa since 1945, Tom Lodge noted: “The reference to farm labour was significant. It was commonly believed with some justification that the introduction of passes was partly motivated by a labour shortage in the badly-paid sectors of agriculture and domestic service.

“One of the most interesting petitions recorded was in Bethlehem in the Free State."

“We the mothers have contributed enough to the uplifting of South Africa by producing strong sons and daughters who go underground and sweat to bring to the earth’s surface the wealth of our country.

“People who clean your houses and are the caretakers of your children. People who provide you with the necessary cheap labour. We are sorry for the government. We are not at all convinced these documents are necessary. We wish to remind the government we want freedom from serfdom.”

The mass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria occurred almost by accident.

In 1955, Federation of SA Women members had travelled the country to canvas the views of a broad cross-section of women for inclusion in the Freedom Charter. In August 1955, the Transvaal FSAW decided on a follow-up meeting to popularise the Freedom Charter. But what they heard shocked them…

Life for the women they’d interviewed just a year earlier had become infinitely worse. Harassment by police and local authorities had increased, they said. The housing shortage had rocketed. Residents of Sophiatown were being driven out of their homes, housing officials were tearing off roofs of houses and backyard structures were being destroyed.

Something had to be done. And what was decided on was a mass march to the Union Buildings – to prime minister Strijdom himself.

The organisers, and these included FSAW, the ANC Women’s League, the Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress, sought to involve women from throughout the country, from the smallest rural towns to the country’s biggest cities.

FSAW officials Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba worked indefatigably to drum up support. More than 20 000 women promised to be part of the march. Many of them could not afford the cost of travelling to Pretoria, but they were prepared to make a plan.

Participants worked feverishly on fund-raising efforts. In the Eastern Cape, women sold scones and cupcakes to cover travelling costs. In Port Elizabeth, 70 delegates chartered a railway coach at a cost of 700 pounds to ferry them to the nation’s capital city. Some of them sold their furniture to pay for their tickets.

The odds were heavily stacked against them. Key activists such as Ray Simons were banned. But, as Simons said: “I used to sneak to Langa township for meetings in unexpected places in disguise and our preparations 

Ngoyi headed a delegation of protesters to the office of Strijdom. A throng of photographers pointed out Strijdom’s office to the delegation. When Ngoyi knocked, a voice from behind the door told her she had been sent a letter prohibiting her from coming to the prime minister’s office.

Ngoyi answered: “The women of Africa are outside. They built this place. Their husbands died for this.”

They dropped their petitions, went back to the marchers and waited in silence

Eventually, Ngoyi said: “Strijdom is too much of a coward to meet with us.” The crowd then sang Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika, followed by “Wathint’abafazi, wathint’imbokodo. Strij-
dom uzakufa” (You touch the women, you touch the rock) and left quietly, but with a sense of moral victory.