On 9 August 1956, more than 20 000 women gathered to protest against the carrying of passbooks, now, more than 60 years later, this protest is to be mirrored by the Total Shutdown March which calls for an end to gender-based violence.
That day in 1956 marked a historic occasion in South Africa when women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to hand over a petition with more than 100 000 signatures to the Prime Minister JG Strijdom.
At the time, the Urban Areas Act required that black South Africans carry a passbook with them to allow them into areas specifically for white people. The apartheid government had previously attempted to require black people to carry a passbook in 1913, however, massive demonstrations eventually led to the requirement being dropped.
However, in 1952 the law was once again enacted and in 1954 permits were issued and two years later many were required to carry passbooks. The law severely restricted the areas in which black people were allowed to travel in and displaced many people who were living in these restricted areas.
Leading up to the march, the Federation of South African Women had sent a request to Strijdom to meet and discuss their point of view. This request was denied.
The African National Congress then sent Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba around the country to meet with various of its leaders so that they could send representatives to the planned march in August. The march was considered a huge success and women travelled from all over the country to participate.
Strijdom was not in his office at the time to take note of the thousands of pieces of paper which had been signed. Rather than simply leaving, Lilian Ngoyi, who was the president of the ANC’s Women’s League, suggested the huge crowd stand in absolute silence for a full half hour.
The petition stated, “We, the women of South Africa, have come here today. We African women know too well the effect of this law on our homes, our children. We, who are not African women, know how our sisters suffer. For to us, an insult to African women is an insult to all women.”
The women also sang a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion, Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo which means, ‘now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.’
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