The 1950s marked a turbulent period in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
At the beginning of the decade, the apartheid regime banned the South African Communist Party, a longtime, militant foe of racism and inequality. Nonetheless, its struggles and the struggles of others continued in many different forms.
New alliances between Black Africans and progressive Europeans were formed. The Women’s League of the African National Congress founded the multiracial Federation of South African Women. Multiple expressions of resistance emerged.
The primary struggle of the decade centered on the hated “pass laws.” African men were forced to carry these identity documents at all times. Each year an average of more than 339,000 men were imprisoned because of pass laws.
When the regime announced its intention to extend them to African women, it was confronted by a series of militant protests and an upsurge of defiance that carried the anti-apartheid struggle to a new level of resistance.
Aware of the level of organization of the ANC in urban areas, the government’s strategy was to begin delivering passbooks in rural areas. They expected little resistance but found instead a range of spontaneous defiance: deserted villages, burned books, outright refusal. Women threatened with imprisonment simply sat down and were joined by many others. In village after village, women responded with anger and determination.
The height of the women’s resistance came on Aug. 9, 1956. Thousands of women demonstrated in towns and cities throughout the country. Twenty thousand women from all over South Africa converged on Pretoria. They walked, they came by bus and train, they carried 100,000 petitions protesting the pass laws.
The streets were filled with women wearing the colors of the ANC and traditional dress. Since all public processions were banned in Pretoria that day, they marched on the Union Buildings (Congress) in groups of three. Although they had notified the prime minister in advance of their intent, they were refused an audience. So they deposited the petitions in his office, and then inside and outside the building, thousands of women stood in silence for 30 minutes, arms raised in the ANC salute.
Dorothy Zihlangu, recalling the event almost 20 years later, told the South African newspaper Argus, “The only noise in the whole amphitheatre was the cry of babies. Then we went home and organized in our communities.”
As women dispersed to their homes singing, a new freedom song was born: “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed.”
Following the march, Chief Albert Luthuli, president-general of the African National Congress and recipient of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, said, “When the women begin to take an active part in the struggle as they are doing now, no power on earth can stop us from achieving freedom in our lifetime.”
Although the repression and violence escalated in the following years, and the ANC was soon banned, the liberation struggle still celebrates Aug. 6 as South African Women’s Day, and Chief Luthuli’s words still ring true.