Wathinta abafazi wathinta imbogodo (Zulu proverb) You strike a woman you strike a rock
Everyone has a story, a story of pain or of joy. But whatever the story, it can help to transform us, especially if each person enters into their story and makes it alive time and again in reflection. Our stories are unique. Each person has something beautiful to share with others. Some of us might have found an opportunity to share our stories with others. The gift of sharing a story is tremendous and it is beyond us in most times. The same applies with our countries; countries lay claim to stories, often ‘mythologized’ in the telling but nonetheless true. And, in a similar way to individuals, this could be a painful or a joyous story.
Today in the year 2014 we once again come to celebrate an event that took place on the 9th of August 1956. The event has become iconic to the history of the struggle for non-racial democracy. South African women of all races went to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against pass laws. The then government’s law discriminated black people, forcing them to carry Identity documents at all times, excluded them from certain parts of town and country, and separated migrant workers from their families.
The apartheid master plan of systematic discrimination had already begun, after the National Party electoral victory in 1948. We all know that back then not everyone could vote. The handful of black people who had the vote asked: Why these evil laws? The unfair laws perpetuated divisions amongst the people. That was the plan – divide and rule. The women – mostly black, but with a significant minority of coloured, Indian and white women among them – carefully planned the march. It was highly organised, everything well-ordered.
They were peaceful, even when no one was willing to accept their petition. Prime Minister Strydom pretended to be too busy. The women stood in silence for 30 minutes silence, breaking it with Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika, our national anthem. They were women from all backgrounds, nurses, social workers, domestic workers and teachers. That many were mothers, carrying babies with them, was undeniable. They stood with one voice and the message was: turn around Mr Prime Minister, listen to us, and recognise that we are human too.
I and many other generations that followed them, I think, find greatness in these many, mostly forgotten; heroines. They were not afraid to challenge a hostile unreasonable situation. How do we today applaud all these women, whose witness in part means we are no longer obliged to carry our identity documents at all times. This story truly reminds us of something about discipline, love, care and commitment to justice. What are the challenges for us in the 21st century that we need to address like the women of 1956? They are many. Let me mention just a few: high unemployment, women abuse and rape. Women even in this day have found ways to support one another in these situations. This I hope will not speak to us only in difficult times but also in moments of joy, celebration of hope and new life – like when we read of Mary visiting Elizabeth.