OPINION | Remembering 1956 women’s march is just not enough

todayAugust 31, 2023 125

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As South Africa wraps up SA’s Women’s Month – we need to reflect on the atrocities that black families experienced for the past 263 years (1760-2023) to bring it home what the month, Women’s Day and International Women’s Day (August 9 and March 8) means to the entire black experience in general and the black family in particular.

The days are a reminder of the struggles of women as integral members for the aspired liberated human race, where there is no cause for anyone to be high or low or in between but equal.

Doing away with white superiority and black inferiority stands revealed as integral duty to shoulder in the total scheme of things to decolonialise the minds of the colonised from the false gods that ordained whiteness as all things bright, beautiful and God’s chosen and blackness as the polar opposite that God frowned upon dim, ugly and forsaken.

Confronted with these derogatory falsehoods, the women’s struggle has been mutating, but ceaseless with every twist and turn of manufactured black suffering in the hands of a dehumanising colonising power.

The attack of this colonising power has consistently been trained at dismantling the black family. To wage this attack on the black family, an instrument of control had to be devised.

The dompass book was such an instrument. The dompass had to be carried all the time, to be produced on demand by any police officer. This standing operating measure dates to 1760 with a view to control the movement of slaves from farms and urban areas.

This was 188 years before the Nationalist Party (NP) government took power on 26 May 1948.

Since then, history has been told through the voice and eyes of white male conquerors. The black pain that the dompass brought started long before the NP government swept into power in 1948.

This is consistent with the history as told from the perspective of the man arriving on a ship and landing on a supposedly population-free zone to claim discovery of South Africa. Christopher Columbus, too, is reputedly known for his ‘discovery’ of a ‘new world’ of the Americas on board his ship Santa Maria in 1492. The Columbus claim is even immortalised in a song made popular by jazz singer Diane Schuur, How Long Has This Been Going On?

One of the lines to that song states: ‘I know how Columbus felt discovering another world’.

The religiosity with which the naming of Columbus ship was crowned implies a civilising mission that is gospel drilled to believability.

In the history books used to teach unsuspecting classrooms, the voices of men, women and children seeing colonial encounter on board a docking ship, did not matter precisely to justify claims of discovery.

The invader was significantly a man. If there were women, they were assuredly part of a trip of beneficiaries bearing the yet to come fruits of invasion.

The purpose of the invasion was to conquer, divide, co-opt, rule and write.

The first Europeans to set foot on African soil were the Portuguese on February 3, 1488. The second wave of arrivals was that of the Dutch on April 6, 1652.

By some curious point of history, it is not without reason that Robert Mangaliso’s Pan Congress of Azania’s (PAC) establishment shares the same date of Jan van Riebeeck’s ship landing on Table Bay. The English 1820 Settlers belatedly realised how insisting on that name would invalidate their claims of being indigenous.

What successive invaders wrote was the history they taught the subjugated, divided and the misruled.

The conquerors were “the civilisers”; the conquered were savages, guilty as sin to find salvation in the religion of the conquerors, to baptised, change their names, obey laws of subjugators, faithfully live their lives as ordered and indexed in their dompasses; earn just enough for next pay cheque, and wish for nothing more for the days of their living on earth as everlasting reward awaited them in the hereafter.

This was the gospel according to the colonisers until the black theology of liberation came with a counter as espoused by black consciousness as powered by the establishment of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in 1968.

Spurred by the black liberation theology propounded, SASO turned the tables on the spiritual thuggery to reclaim relationship with the Supreme Being outside white subjugating tutelage.

The invaders notably started with black men. Black men were separated from their families, wives, and children. Allied to this separation was land dispossession; imposing of taxes; conscription into mining labour camps; single sex men’s hostels.

The consequent degradation of black men finds expression in legendary jazz artist Hugh Masekela’s song ‘Stimela’ as is in the musical Songs of Migration. Engendering this systematic humiliation of black men were the pass laws. For Masekela, the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960, to suppress the anti-pass campaign was the deciding factor in going to exile.

The purpose of the pass system was to control, patrol and regiment black life according to a strict system of separate development. The system made a clear distinction between the victim, whose development was to be arrested. Equally, the system had its mind made up about a beneficiary whose development was to be advanced.

Taking from that dichotomy of victim versus the perpetrator, the dispossessed had no lives of their own. They lived for others and not themselves. The decisions impacting on them were not theirs to make. They made no choice where to be born, live, attend school, work to go to, where to die and be buried.

It was in this institutionalised discriminatory setting that the discovery of diamonds (December 1866) in Kimberly and gold (June 1866) came to inform the migratory labour system to find firm footing to thrive with the backing of favourable legislation for the mining industry to which mine owners were not innocent bystanders.

To this setting, the 1905 Bambatha Rebellion was a tragic logical consequence. The factors to the rebellion included loss of land, added costs of the new tax and the difficulty African farmers in finding the cash to pay it. All these factors piled on long-standing grievances between white settlers and Africans over control of the best farm and grazing land in Natal and Zululand. Because of high caliber weaponry, 4 000 deaths were sustained on anti-colonial warriors, including King Cetshwayo.

In these, is an untold story with respect to the warriors’ next of kin. Women were impacted the most.

When foreign invaders forged peace amongst themselves to unite to form the Union of South Africa in 1910, Africans were excluded. The South African Native Congress (SANC) established January 08, 1912, sprang into action to raise what was referred to as African Claims. The SANC was later renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923.

World War I (1914-1918) saw 607 voteless African troops perished with the sinking of SS Mendi ship on the English Channel  on 21 February 1917. No record took interest in the plight of women widowed in a war for a country in which black lives were political absentees without a vote to matter.

To add salt to injury, the Land Act of 1913 designated 87% of the land to whites, leaving 13% to blacks and subdivided further into ethnic-based ‘native reserves’ called homelands.

The Native (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 segregated urban residential space and created “influx controls” to reduce access to cities by blacks to prohibit their stay in most developed areas. The right to be in a white (urban) area was tied to employment at the end of which the employee, so affected, would have to return to the applicable homeland.

In World War II (1939-1945), black troops involved in war remained untrusted to be furnished with weapons.

The returnees from World War II saw black life return to the status quo of separate development reinforced by 1936 Land Act for the promotion of ‘native reserves’.

Racism gained ascendancy with the Nationalist Party (NP) sweeping into power in 1948 to officially declare apartheid government policy.

The NP’s first order of business, in the many harsh laws it added to the Statute Book, was to tighten the Pass Laws on men and to extend them to include the women.

It is at this point of having endured unassisted husbandless lives that the women said ‘enough is enough’. The women’s level of tolerance could go no further.

Then PM JG Strijdom had touched the rock of the black family. “We shall resist until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security,” the women’s petition to Strijdom stated in part on August 9, 1956.

The women literally took a stand on the sharper side of the knife, shredding the black family to pieces since 1760. The extension of the Apartheid pass laws introduced in 1952 was the last straw.

Men had been emasculated, scarred, scorned, battered, and dispirited. The repeat of that picture extending to their lives was too ghastly for the women to contemplate. What had initially affected their husbands directly was demonstrably evident in their lives too. As Myles Munroe states ‘you cannot change what you tolerate’.

Women were not only intolerant to dompasses, but also for something loftier. This was a fight for the love of their husbands, defense for their children and the pursuit for freedom.

The burden women carried was inextricably linked to the plight of their husbands as Mirriam Makeba had warned NP PM HF Verwoerd in song that men would rise again: Nans’ indod’ emnyana Velevoed’ referring to Verwoerd.

Makeba left for exile waging the struggle of the oppressed. To the pain of black souls, Makeba was on hand to capture in songs like ‘Gauteng’  ‘Piece of Land’ and ‘Bahleli Bonke Etilongweni’ in which she mentions names of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Robert Sobukwe.

So, the battle was not limited to the fight against restrictions that the pass laws brought with them. It essentially was about the restoration of the dignity and humanity of black people. The essence of that fight now and into the future is what Steve Biko described as the quest for true humanity.

The atrocities women continue to face day after day, are evidence enough that true humanity is not yet within reach.

On this 67th anniversary of the women’s march of August 9, 1956, can the country truly tell what it sees?

Could this really be a democracy where children are born to poor parents fated to call rickety structures home and children made to dream dreams that know nothing beyond the nightmare of shack dwelling.

Tiny tots, oblivious of the danger, also live and just die there. The survivors of intermittent shack fires are forever a tearful sight regularly seeing neighbours reduced to smoldering ashes. Tell me what human rights do you see where life is made to dance with death for habitation?

When fathers are mowed down for crying out loud for a living wage, and women widowed in the process, what promise does South Africa hold that a day shall dawn for the sunlight of equality to caress the land with the warmth of empathy to touch icy cruelty of power to melt with human compassion?

Has the celebration of South Africa’s Women’s Day for the past 11 years ever thought of walking in the shoes of women widowed on Marikana massacre on August 16, 2012?

On that day, it was as if the Creator had turned his back on the poor giving a nod to the bullet to have final say to end it all on South Africa’s women’s month.

Remembering the brave acts of the women’s march of 9 August 1956 is just not enough. The demons of self-hate that have eaten away the souls of black folks, to be mongrel beasts they have now become since the introduction of the dompass in 1760,  must be exercised with all the cleansing that can be mustered for black people to love themselves again.

And to heal the wounds that have been inflicted for the past 263 years, the black family must come back to itself to reclaim its personality, voice, history, culture, and humanness to write home about. Piece written by Corporate Strategist, Writer and Freelance Journalist, Oupa Ngwenya.



Written by: Lindiwe Mabena

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