The day that rock beat paper

The day that rock beat paper

Other than vague memories from high school history classes, I’m not all that clued up on the meaning behind South Africa’s Women’s Day, which takes place every year on 9 August. (I know that much.)

Embarrassingly, my response is often, “Well, isn’t that nice? Hooray, for us women! Now can I take a nap/go shopping/read my book?”

So this year I decided to do some research before the day, so that on the public holiday I’d be able to appreciate what all the fuss was about.

I googled, I scrolled, and I may have even pulled a dusty book off my shelf.

I quickly found myself awed by the courage and determination of the thousands of South African women who took a stand against the apartheid government so many decades ago.

The event that Women’s Day commemorates is the kind of rare moment in history that induces goosebumps and tears when told even today. But sadly, we have a habit of forgetting. I think it’s time for a reminder. I know I was in need of one.

On 9 August 1956, between 10 000 to 20 000 women from all parts of South Africa marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the pass laws, which would require “black” South Africans to carry a “pass”, restricting their movements.

As they walked, they sang the protest song composed for the event: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.)

The women, led by Lilian NgoyiHelen JosephRahima Moosa and Sophie Williams, left huge piles of petitions, containing more than 100 000 signatures, outside prime minister JG Strijdom’s office door.

But the next part is what really takes my breath away. Then the women stood for a full half hour in absolute silence.

Can you imagine the scene?

Women with babies strapped to their backs, women wearing traditional dress, women in white saris, women carrying their employers’ children; black women, white women, Indian women, coloured women. All standing together in silent solidarity against the evil of the apartheid government.

This event reminds me of the important role that women have to play in bringing social justice to our country.

Yes, the march was deeply political, but it was also deeply personal.

Although it’s impossible to put myself in their shoes, I can imagine that many of those women would’ve thought of their children as they stood in silence, some still babies on their backs, others in the front-line fight against apartheid, many who’d already fallen victim to the abuse and injustice of the system.

As well as the political implications, I can also imagine that there would’ve been many very practical concerns running through their minds: safety, dignity, food security, access to adequate health care, access to proper education, and opportunities for employment.

The political situation in South Africa may have changed, partly due to the bravery of these women, but these are still very real concerns for the majority of South African women today.

All you have to do is read a newspaper to realise that we still have a long way to go towards equality, security and access to basic services for all South Africans.

So the question I’m going to be asking myself this coming Saturday, as we celebrate Women’s Day, is: what can we do about these issues today?

I don’t claim to have the solutions, but maybe we can start the discussion?

For some practical ways you can get involved in improving Education, Early Childhood Development and Employment (EEE) through Common Good, click here.


This post was written by
Sam is a freelance writer based in Cape Town. She is a member of the Common Ground Rondebosch PM congregation.

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