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

Ebola Brings Sickness, Fear, Anger

Cornell University Professor Stacey Langwick considers cultural, social aspects of outbreak More

British Fighters On Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign Jihadists More

Violent Quarantine Clashes Hamper Liberia's Struggle to Contain Ebola

Anger, misinformation and mistrust of government hampering efforts to contain the deadly virus More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid