National Women’s Day in South Africa is celebrated on the 9th of August every year. This public holiday serves as reminder of the crucial role that women play not only in our country, but in society as whole.
This day is not to be confused with International Women’s day which is celebrated globally on the 8th of March. Although an equally important day for women, it celebrates the overall contributions that women have made in cultural, political, social and economic environments all over the world.
However, South Africans have a far more specific reason for celebrating their National Women’s day.
Why Do We Celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa?
This day is not just another public holiday; it’s an opportunity to pay reverence to the South African women who stood together to fight against laws that not only affected women in South Africa, but all people of colour.
On the 9th of August 1956, 20 000 women from all over the country took to the streets in one of the biggest demonstrations in our county’s history, in protest against Pass laws for women.
A Pass was a document of permission which allowed people of colour to enter “restricted” areas during the apartheid regime.
The first attempt made by the South African government in 1913 to enforce pass laws on women was met with major backlash and resistance. These laws would have required women living in urban townships to purchase a new “pass” every month.
This, despite the fact that many of these women were not permitted to work, so affording a new pass each month would be impossible.
The civil unrest resulted in hundreds of women being sent to prison. Eventually, the pass requirements for African women were withdrawn, until the early 1950s when they were reintroduced.
What Happened in August 1956?
The Federation of South African women determined that these pass laws would further restrict their freedom of movement and continued to support the notion that women were not competent or mature enough to have any roles outside of the household.
4 brave women, together with 20 000 followers, marched towards the Parliament building in Pretoria to hand over a pile of petitions collectively containing about 100 000 signatures against the pass law amendments.
The prime minister at the time was not there to receive the petition, but the brave women sent a clear, public message that they refuse to be silenced or have their freedom taken from them by unjust laws.
The petitions were received by the prime minister’s secretary and after standing in absolute silence for 30 minutes, the women began to sing a song that was written for the occasion.
“Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom!” the message was clear: you strike a woman, you strike a rock! This song has become a key representative of the strength and courage of South African women.
The march was described as one of the most disciplined, dignified and emotional demonstrations the country had ever seen. They made a unanimous decision that if the police tried to stop them, every woman would go down onto her knees to pray, and that if one was arrested, they would all be arrested in the name of solidarity.
The women sang Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika at the very end of their courageous protest before walking away peacefully, and perhaps with the knowing that they had just made history.
Celebrate Women’s Day at Bocadillos
Women’s day gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to all the women who have stood up against an unjust society, paving the way for the freedom of future generations.