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

Cambodia Seeks Official UN Maps for Vietnam Border

Notice of request comes as 2 countries open border talks Tuesday after a clash last month More

From South Africa to Vietnam, Cyclists Deliver Message Against Rhino Horns

Appalled by poaching they saw firsthand, sisters embark on tour to raise awareness in countries where rhino horn products are in demand More

Uber Wants Johannesburg Police Protection

Request follows recent protests outside ride-hailing service's Johannesburg office More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Implant Could Help Restore Movement to Paralyzed Limbsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
Maia Pujara
July 07, 2015 10:01 PM
A half-million people suffer spinal cord injuries each year because of car accidents, serious falls and diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers are now working on a soft but strong spinal cord implant that could one day restore movement in paralyzed individuals. VOA’s Maia Pujara reports.
Video

Video New Implant Could Help Restore Movement to Paralyzed Limbs

A half-million people suffer spinal cord injuries each year because of car accidents, serious falls and diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers are now working on a soft but strong spinal cord implant that could one day restore movement in paralyzed individuals. VOA’s Maia Pujara reports.
Video

Video Getting it Done Beyond a Nuclear Deal

If a nuclear deal is reached between Iran and world powers in Vienna, it will be a highly technical road map to be used to monitor nuclear activity in Iran for years to come to ensure Tehran does not make nuclear weapons. Equally as complicated will be dismantling international sanctions that were originally intended to be ironclad. VOA’s Heather Murdock talks to experts about the key challenges any deal will present.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
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 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 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.

VOA Blogs