Friday, August 9th, is National Women’s Day in South Africa. It commemorates the 1956 march by 20-thousand women against the country’s apartheid era pass laws. The laws severely restricted travel by non-whites and segregated society. The only surviving leader of that march remembers the struggle for equality not only for people of color, but for women.
Sophie Williams-de Bruyn was 19 years old when efforts to stage the march began.
“Well, South Africa in 1956 was a very polarized country and a very oppressive place to live in. And as you know the laws didn’t allow race groups to live together. We had all sorts of laws keeping us apart. We were all grouped into our own places of abode,” she said.
Whites, blacks, coloreds – these were official government designations to classify South Africa’s population. She was classified as colored.
“We were not allowed to mix with one another that much. We had our own buses. They had their own buses. We had our own schools. They had their own schools, white schools. And that kind of thing. So that was the way in which we grew up, in which we lived,” she said.
But Williams-de Bruyn said that among all the discriminatory laws, the pass laws were the worst.
“The men were supposed to carry a pass and produce it when the police asked them for it. So if you don’t have it you get cast into jail as a man. And this law was now being extended to women. And that was where the women just revolted.”
She said women feared the same treatment and humiliation that the men had faced for many years. If the proper documents were not produced quickly enough when demanded by police, a man’s very life was endangered.
“Many of the men disappeared and they were taken from jail to the Afrikaner farms. They had these huge tracts of farmland and these men would be taken to the farms to dig the potatoes, sometimes with their bare hands. A study was made into the disappearance of prisoners and that is where they were discovered,” she said.
The various segregated groups had formed their own political organizations known as congresses and they were joined by whites sympathetic to their cause. The women began to organize the march to the Prime Minister’s office in Pretoria. They planned to present stacks of petitions protesting the pass laws. The efforts came to the attention of famed activist Walter Sisulu, who was then secretary-general of the African National Congress.
He expressed his concerns for their safety to the leaders, including Helen Joseph, Rahina Moosa and Lillian Ngoyi.
She said, “Walter Sisulu asked them – and he was a little bit annoyed – and he said, you women, do you know what you are doing? And Helen and Lillian were nonplused and he says don’t you think you are putting the women to danger? And Helen and Lillian said no, we’re not putting them to danger. And Walter insisted: But what will you do if you are all arrested? Lillian said if we are arrested we know what we will do. We have other leaders in our place. We have a second contingent of leaders.”
However, women did not tell Sisulu all of their contingency plans.
“The truth is Lillian didn’t tell him the real plan that we had. The real plan was that if the police come for us to arrest us women will all be kneeling down on top of us and they will not be able to arrest everybody. And they will sing and pray. She didn’t tell Walter that part,” she said.
The march of 20,000 women made its way to Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom’s office. The four leaders were ready to present their petitions.
“Lillian knocked on the door. The door was opened by a white clerk. And when Lillian asked to see Strijdom this clerk said that Strijdom wasn’t there. And she said but he should be here because he knew that we were coming. So Lillian took her bundle and she pushed it on top of this clerk. And he was reluctant to take hold of it and so Helen also pushed her bundle on him. So he was flooded with all these bundles and some of them dropped on the floor and the rest of us dumped it on the table and we left. Lillian said this you can give to your boss,” she said.
Williams-de Bruyn said the courage showed by the protesters paved the way for women to hold positions of authority.
Ten years after the march, anti-apartheid leaders urged her to leave the country for her own safety. She and her two children went to Zambia where her husband, Benny, a target of the South African government, had already been living in exile. While they didn’t return until 1990, both continued their anti-apartheid efforts and had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison. Her husband died in 1999 after a distinguished career.
Williams-de Bruyn has received many honors and awards over the years and has held many prominent positions. She was presented with the Mahatma Gandhi Award by President Mbeki in October 2001.
She said that it is time now to pass the torch to the younger generation of women.
“Women’s emancipation has not become a reality yet. There are all sorts of good things that have come to women because of what we started and what women before us started. Because there were marches in the early 1913s – hundred years ago.”
She added it’s vital for girls and young women to complete their education.
“You can say to them the sky is the limit, but from what I know there are more things beyond the skies that they can reach for.”
To honor those who took part in the 1956 march, thousands of women recreated the event this year with a three and a half kilometer walk to city hall.