National Women’s Day is a public holiday celebrated annually on August 9. The day commemorates the famous 1956 march of approximately 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the country’s pass laws that required South Africans defined as “black” under The Population Registration Act to carry an internal passport, known as a pass. This travel pass was used to maintain population segregation, control urbanisation, and manage migrant labour during the apartheid era. The first National Women’s Day was celebrated on 9 August 1994. In 2006, a reenactment of the march was staged for its 50th anniversary, with many of the 1956 march veterans.
National Women’s Day History
The 1956 protest began when some 20,000 women from all over the country took to the streets of Pretoria – many carrying the children of their white bosses on their backs – to stage a peaceful march to the Union Buildings. They were protesting against certain proposed amendments to the pass laws or Urban Areas Act of 1950. This eventful march on 9 August 1956 was led by Sophia Williams-De Bruyn (she presently serves as a provincial legislator in the Gauteng Province), Lilian Ngoyi (Strijdom Square was renamed Lilian Ngoyi Square in her honor during the 2006 Women’s Day celebrations), Rahima Moosa and Helen Joseph (born in England, she was a major anti-apartheid activist).
Over 100 000 signatures marked a number of petitions which were left with the prime minister at the time, J.G. Stijdom. After handing in these documents at his office they stood quietly outside for about 30 minutes. Soon the women began to sing a protest song with words which translated into “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock”. Indeed, these words show the immense courage and strength of these women.
Significance of National Women’s Day
National Women’s Day draws attention to significant issues African women still face, such as parenting, domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, pornography, unequal pay, and schooling for all girls. It can be used as a day to fight for or protest these ideas. Due to this public holiday, there have been many significant advances. Before 1994, women had low representation in the Parliament, only at 2.7%. Women in the national assembly were at 27.7%. This number has nearly doubled, being at 48% representation throughout the country’s government. National Women’s Day is based around much of the same principles as International Women’s Day, and strives for much of the same freedoms and rights.
National Women’s Day: Things to Do
- Attend or view on TV the South African government’s official National Women’s Day event, which takes place different places in different years. The president will attend the celebration and release the most recent “Status of Women Report.” There will be speeches on various themes to do with women in work, politics, humanitarian causes, education, and all other walks of life.
- Tour the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the very buildings the 1956 march was directed against. It is an imposing example of neoclassical, Italian architecture with elements of Edwardian and Cape Dutch style worked in here and there. It dates from 1913 and is an instantly recognizable symbol, to South Africans, of their nation. The building is also symbolic of unity in that the two wings and their domed towers stand for two languages, English and Afrikaans, while the central court represents the union. “The Gardens,” which surround the capital building are well worth seeing as well.
- For a fun and educational getaway in the midst of the serious Women’s Day tone, peruse the Ditsong Museum of Natural History, also known as “the Transvaal Museum.” It is located in Pretoria just across from City Hall. It focuses on the natural history of South Africa by presenting fossil collections of humans, animals, and supposed “ape-men.” You will see the skeleton of the unusual, extinct creatures called “karoos,” along with bones of various mammals, reptiles, birds, and of course, dinosaurs.
National Women’s Day: The Role of Women in Shaping the Future
South Africa was long a land of official discrimination, and part of the reason it changed was that its women stood up and protested against injustices such as the infamous pass laws. Visiting South Africa for Women’s Day and Women’s Month will give you plenty of opportunity to appreciate this history of bravely standing against tyranny.
The march on August 9, 1956 was not only an inspiring display of political strength, but of female solidarity and inner fortitude. It serves as a reminder of the Great Women who helped mold South Africa and the trailblazing women who continue to lead the country forward today.