Address by Alliance Partner – Judy Mulqueeny, SACPS at the SADTU National Women`s Day Celebrations
9 August 2012, Durban
“Strijdom, you have tampered with the women, You have struck a rock, You have unleashed a boulder, You will be crushed!” – An anthem that came out of the 1956 Women`s March
Today is the 56th anniversary of the women`s march that took place on 9 August 1956. On this day over 20,000 women of all races and all ages marched to the Union Building in Pretoria against passes.
Let`s remember some of the leaders – Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophie Williams and Amina Cachalia. Some of the organisers of the march, such as Ray Alexander, could not be present because they were banned. The march was organized by the South African Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW).
It was made up of the organisations of the Congress Alliance and trade unions largely.
Our struggle is not only about leaders. Let us also take notice of the people that were present. Many of the African women wore traditional dress. Many of the Indian women present wore white saris. Many marched with babies on their backs or brought their small children. Many of the marchers were domestic workers. Some came with the children of their employers.
The women stood in silence for 30 minutes. Throughout the demonstration the huge crowd showed a discipline and dignity that was very impressive (Walker, 1991). The women expected to get arrested, or were prepared to go to jail with those who would be arrested.
Why was the march so significant? It has been said that FEDSAW challenged the idea that a women`s place is in the kitchen. It also challenged discrimination based on race, class and gender.
The march is significant now because we must see how to rebuild the mass movement, mass struggle or working class struggle. This is imperative given the challenges facing most of the black poor and working women – unemployment, poverty, HIV/AIDS and gender based violence. It seems that we are being forced to return to the kitchen and even to the bedroom.
According to many indicators of the advance of women, South Africa is a world leader. Yet the picture is a mixed one. The economy remains highly engendered. Global growth slowed down from 2008. Women who were already the face of global poverty were the first to suffer from the global economic crisis (Cronje, 2009). As informal, casualised or temporary workers, as single mothers, as primary caregivers, especially in the rural areas, they bore the brunt of restricted cash flow and high food, electricity and transport prices.
The rate of gender based violence is among the highest in the world, with the courts and health systems battling to cope. On the other side, young black men remain more likely than any other demographic group to be victims of homicide.
This brings into renewed focus that women`s rights are human rights. The products of the great struggles and suffering of the masses of the people, human rights have been institutionalised. Yet especially black working and poor women have faced immense obstacles in exercising them.
Lenin said; “Capitalism combines formal equality with economic and consequently, social inequality. That is one of the principle features of capitalism. The most glaring manifestation of this inconsistency is the inequality of women It is the chief task of the working women`s movement to fight for economic and social equality and not only formal equality of women (Pravda, 4 March, 1920)”.
Where is the women`s movement now?
(Most of the information on the 1956 women`s march was drawn from the website of South African History Online).