Today marks a monumental day in the fabric of our country’s democracy. National Women’s Day is celebrated annually on August, 9th, commemorating a turning point in modern history, but despite its origins going back to 1956, the national South African holiday was only observed for the first time in 1995.
Let’s go back to the year 1956, where the political landscape was vastly different to how it is today. The National Party had been in power for eight years and were in the midst of proposing amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950, the ‘pass laws’ (an internal passport system used to segregate the population and manage urbanization).
The proposed amendment to the Act entailed the attempt to apply it to women – a tipping point which saw over 20 000 women of all races march in protest to Pretoria’s Union Buildings on August 9th, 1956. Organized by the Federation of South African Women and led by activists Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, Sophia Williams and Helen Joseph, more than 14 000 petitions were left at the office doors of Prime Minister J.G. Meiring – but not before 30 minutes of silence was observed and the now-famous “you strike a woman, you strike a rock” song was sung. This anthem has become synonymous with the courage and strength of women in South Africa.
Also present at the march was the late, renowned women’s rights activist, Amina Cachalia, who at the time was pregnant with son Ghaleb Cachalia – a present-day member of Parliament and Shadow Deputy Minister of Trade & Industry for the Democratic Alliance. We are fortunate enough to have received a direct response from Mr. Cachalia himself on this special day, a tribute to his mother:
My mother had always been a champion of women’s rights. From the early days of the late forties and early fifties, she was actively involved in the education and upliftment of women. She started the Women’s Progressive Union and went on to hold office in the Federation of Transvaal Women and later in the Federation of South African Women. Alongside stalwarts like Albertina Sisulu and Helen Joseph, she fought for the rights of women – both within the patriarchal political movements that she was part of and in society in general. She built an easy rapport with younger women, many of whom saw her as inspiration. I have two daughters and the impact of their grandmother on them is palpable. She was one of the leaders of the 1956 women’s march to Pretoria and I often quip that I was the only man on the march – she was pregnant with me at the time.
It wasn’t until 1995 when National Women’s Day was observed for the first time – a reminder of the struggle our women have endured to enjoy the same rights as their male counterparts. Twenty-two years later, the plight South African women face is still a major issue in South Africa. Domestic abuse, violence, unequal pay and harassment are still rife.
Let us not forget how far we’ve come as a nation, but in the same breath recognize the struggle South African women face every day.
Special thanks to Ghaleb Cachalia for the use of the featured image and for his valuable contribution to this article.