Flag of the Nation of South Africa
While most of the world’s countries celebrate Women’s Day on March 8th with public holidays, South Africa is one of the few nations that does not. Instead, August 9th the country commemorates women’s day on a day when nearly 20,000 women came together in the country’s executive capitol, Pretoria, to protest against the ‘Pass Laws’ of the time. What they started on this day would show the nation and the Apartheid government that women were not second-class citizens and were more than capable of making independent choices for themselves.
Early on during the time of the National Party’s apartheid government in South Africa from 1948 – 1994, Pass Laws required black men to carry various types of documentation, stating that they had permission to be in a township, or urban area, for certain purposes if staying for longer than 72 hours. Black women, however, were able to continue to live and move about freely in the townships without the documentations if they were unmarried or wives of black men who were working in the township. Eventually, with the pass of the Natives Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act in 1952, laws tightened and all black women were brought under the same category as the men and they too were required to carry a single pass book, known as a reference book, with the name of the person’s employer, tax records, and living permission. This book would need to be authorized by the employer each month.
Women’s Day Protest in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa on August 9, 2006 during the 50th anniversary of the event. Courtesy of Robert Tyabji via Flickr
Women across many regions of South Africa were outraged at the threat to their freedom of mobility, and in 1954, as the Act became law, women coordinated protest efforts across the country to show their opposition. By 1956, the amount of women showing support for the Anti-Pass movement was strong and continuing to grow. Eventually, they would collect thousands of signatures to give to the then prime minister, JG Strijdom. It was not until August 9th of the same year that their work seemed to come to full fruition when nearly 20,000 women of all colors arrived to Pretoria to march to the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South Africa government, to deliver the collected signatures. The Prime Minister, however, had purposely arranged to be away for the protest and the signatures were delivered to his secretary. However, the women did not want to be silenced by the Prime Minister’s cold shoulder and continued to congregate outside the government buildings for the entire day. At one point, the nearly 20,000 women stood in complete silence for an hour, but the most recognizable event to emerge from the day was the singing of ‘Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom!’, which has come to be known as the anthem of the march:
Segregated South Africa during the Apartheid era. Women’s Day in 1956 saw a backlash against the government’s attempts to further segregate the races by encroaching upon the freedom of movement for black women. Courtesy of the United Nations
When you strike the women,
you strike a rock,
you will be crushed [you will die]!
While the pass laws were not removed until 1984, women, especially colored women in South Africa, made a statement that they would no longer settle for the second class citizenry they had previously known. They were now a mature political force demanding to be heard, and wanting equality. The day is now an official public holiday in South Africa after the African National Congress (ANC) declared it so in 1994. The day is commemorated with small gatherings around the country to reflect upon the significance of the day for women’s rights. In recent years, the date and entire month of August have been used to bring attention to the plight of women living in poverty in the rural areas.
South Africa’s National Women’s Day is one of the many international holidays found in Culture Coach International’s (CCI) 2013 Multi Cultural – Diversity Calendar. For more information on the features of the calendar, please visit our website.