On 9 August 1956, 20,000 women staged a march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act (commonly known as the pass laws) of 1950. They left bundles of petitions containing more than 100 000 signatures at prime minister J.G. Strijdom 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.). In the 54 years since, the phrase (or its latest incarnation: “you strike a woman, you strike a rock”) has come to represent women’s courage and strength in South Africa.
The day has such a special meaning to the many South Africans, many of whom benefited from a long history of the struggle of women worldwide to break out of the confines to take their place in the midst of society.
In South Africa, many sacrificed their lives so that we could all live in a free, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic country. Indeed, when we celebrate National Women’s Day, we honour, remember and salute all women from all generations who have been part of our struggle and have made significant contributions. We are proud today to say that owing to our mothers and sisters, South Africa is far better off today than she was some decades ago. We therefore use Women’s Day as a day of solemn reflection on how far we have come, and what else we must do to ensure the full emancipation of women in all spheres of life.
Apartheid ended in 1994 when the African National Congress came to power. Since 9 August 1994, the day has been commemorated as National Women’s Day in South Africa. It is a public holiday and that is why South Africans celebrate women’s day on a different day to the rest of the international community.
We have come to appreciate that greater participation by women in national agenda has become admirable and instrumental. It is indisputable that there is even greater consensus worldwide that women bring a unique element of success and a nation that excludes women in its developmental agenda runs a risk of losing its soul.