National Women’s Day in South Africa commemorates the national march of women in 1956 to petition against legislation that required African persons to carry the “pass” (a special identification document which curtailed an African’s freedom of movement during the apartheid era.)
On the 9th of August in 1956, 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950. They left piles of petitions with more than 100 000 signatures at prime minister J.G. Strijdom’s office doors. Outside they stood silently for 30 minutes, many with their children on their backs. The women sang a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.).
The march was led by Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn and Lillian Ngoyi.
Lillian Ngoyi was a South African anti-apartheid activist. She was the first woman elected to the executive committee of the African National Congress, and helped launch the Federation of South African Women.
Helen Joseph was also a South African anti-apartheid activist. She was born in Easebourne near Midhurst West Sussex, England. After working as a teacher in India for three years, Helen came to South Africa in 1931, where she met and married Billie Joseph. She served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II as an information and welfare officer, and later became a social worker.
Sophia Williams-De Bruyn rose from working in the Van Lane Textile factory to become an executive member of the Textile Workers Union in Port Elizabeth. She was a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Union (SACTU), the predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU).
Rahima Moosa became involved with the Transvaal Indian Congress and thereafter the African National Congress. In 1955 she played a significant role in the organisation of the Congress of the People, where the Freedom Charter was adopted. In 1956, while pregnant with her daughter, she helped organise the Women’s March, under the auspices of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW).