On 9 August, 1956 South Africa saw the staging of a huge peaceful march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria by 20 000 women in opposition to the extension of the pass laws to women. This was done at a time when the country had declared a state of emergency. This meant that no meetings could be held, people’s movement were restricted. People were subjected to blockages in terms of traffic and could be sent back home and political activities were not allowed.
In these circumstances women gathered, in groups of three from different sides of the City and assembled in this huge gathering that made it difficult for the authorities to act against them. They were also peaceful and silent. They only burst out into song after the petitions were delivered.
The march was multi racial and even the delegation was chosen carefully to include each race group to go to the Prime Minister with the petitions.
The whole demonstration was carefully organised and strategically orchestrated. The skills and discipline of the women was demonstrated in this march and so impressive was the whole organising and the demonstration that 9th August was declared initially by the ANC as women’s day but later it was recognised as women’s day in other African countries and in 1994 it received official recognition by the South African democratic government.
The importance of this day is in studying the detail with which the march was organised. The strategy they used to overcome the restrictions placed on them and the care they took to be inclusive and disciplined. These are important lessons for future generations. When we learn from past success stories we can build on their attention to detail to ensure that we are not destructive , we are not violent and we are not leaving a legacy of failed and futile attempts.
When we review a decade or so later the demonstrations where schools are burnt down, where libraries are destroyed , where important heritage sites such as the Fort Hare University is not respected than one begins to wonder what are we learning from our heritage and what heritage are these people leaving for future generations.
Children of those who have destroyed the schools will no doubt have a story to tell. The generation deprived of education and of their heritage will have a story to tell. The unknown faces behind that destruction will surely have to be identified and held accountable for these deeds which will go down in our annals as tales of destruction and pillage.
Indeed in these stories the real need of the people will not be the focus. It will be overshadowed by the destruction and pillage as it is now. People will remember the 30 schools burnt, the Fort Hare University which should be treated as a temple desecrated.
What were the grievances? That will become secondary.
This is not the case with the Women’s march. The pass laws take the centre stage. It was a march against the pass laws. It was well organised and a great demonstration.
Let us not repeat these unsavoury stories but rather learn from our women. The women taught us the value of unity, of discipline and of nonviolence.