News / Africa

South Africa Marks National Women’s Day

During Apartheid blacks and mixed race people were excluded from many places, for example, at the bayside like indicated on this sign-post. (06/23/76)(AP PHOTO)
During Apartheid blacks and mixed race people were excluded from many places, for example, at the bayside like indicated on this sign-post. (06/23/76)(AP PHOTO)

Multimedia

Audio
  • Listen to De Capua report on South Africa National Women's day

Joe DeCapua
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.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs