National Women’s Day is a public holiday commemorating the famous 1956 march of 20,000 women on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The women marched in protest against the pass laws, which required people designated as “black” by the South African government to apply for a travel pass just for travel within South Africa. The purpose was to maintain segregation and control migrant labour, all part of the general apartheid policy of the time.
Women of all ethnic groups were outraged and indignant about these travel restrictions as well as about apartheid in general. They petitioned the government to change these policies, stood silently in protest for half an hour outside the capital complex, and sang a song that included the now-famous words, “You strike the women, you strike a rock!” Leaders of the movement included: Lilian Ngoyi, Sophia Williams, Rahima Moosa, and Helen Joseph. They bravely risked arrest to promote real change, and their efforts eventually paid off.
In 1994, after the democratic government came to South Africa, National Women’s Day was first celebrated. A reenactment was made on the march’s 50th anniversary, and many of the original “real marchers” were present.
Today, speeches abound on National Women’s Day, particularly noting the progress of women in all walks of life in South Africa. For example, in 1994, women constituted less than three percent of the South African parliament, while today, they make up over 40 percent of that body. Additionally, note that all of the months of August is used to celebrate South African women and their accomplishments, so the events are not strictly limited to National Women’s Day on August 9th.
Activities to consider taking part in if in South Africa on National Women’s Day include:
Attend or view on TV the South African government’s official National Women’s Day event, which takes place in 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.
South Africa was long a land of official discrimination, and part of the reason it changed was that its women stood up and protested injustices such as the infamous pass laws. Visiting South Africa for Women’s Day and Women’s Month will give you plenty of opportunities to appreciate this history of bravely standing against tyranny.