For South African women, August 2006 commemorated a very crucial anniversary - 50 years since their march on Pretoria on August 9, 1956. On that day, 20,000 women, mostly Black, gathered before the government union buildings in Pretoria to protest against the extension of 'pass laws', which required that Black people buy and carry identification passes all the time. The proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950 required that black women carry passes like all non-white men.
"In those days, we had no money or transport. When women were thrown out of trains, they sat on top of lorries and came in busloads from all over South Africa. Some walked, carrying children on their back to flood the meticulously manicured garden surrounding the government buildings, breast feeding infants, sharing food and drink with each other. And we sang 'You have touched women, you have dislodged a boulder, you shall be crushed...'" recalls Ruth Mompati, describing the anti-apartheid mood half a century ago when women made a conscious decision to overcome their fear of authority and demand an end to racism, sexism and apartheid.
Mompati, now 81, is the Mayor of Vryburg Province, north Cape Town, South Africa. As a young woman in her early 30s, she had helped organize the march. "Women decided to collectively fight for freedom once we found that we had fallen in love with the future. And that made us determined not to rest until we had won fundamental human rights for our children," says Mompati.
Mompati participated in the re-enactment of the historic march on August 9, 2006 in Pretoria to celebrate the active role of women in South Africa's liberation struggle. She also visited Vienna recently to talk about the importance of the march before an international audience.
Vienna has a strong resonance for Mompati. In this, the 50th anniversary of the march, she wanted to thank the Austrian anti-apartheid movement, which had lobbied with its government and the people to take a bold stand against apartheid after the 1976 uprising in Soweto. Mompati did not have a passport those days. However, friends in Austria arranged documents for her and treated her with dignity, allowing her to travel all over the country to talk about injustices under apartheid and to demand respect from the international community for the Black population of South Africa.
"It is important not to forget the march that was the culmination of decades of planning. The march is important because it paved the way, not only for more marches, but also the very liberation of South Africa. At first we were helpless. Then we talked to each other, and asked ourselves what role women wanted in life, in society and in the future? The minute we agreed that nothing could be realized without emancipation, it became easy to make freedom our goal," Mompati says.
A former school teacher, Mompati moved to a law firm run by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo - two of Johannesburg's smartest, young Black lawyers and political activists of the 1950s. It was here that she became aware of the social and political issues of the day. The anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) was banned in 1960 and in 1962, after the arrest of Mandela, she escaped abroad to Tanzania and lived in exile in Morocco and Berlin for nearly three decades. All this while, she continued to work tirelessly for the Women's League of the ANC. She was the chief ANC representative to England and Ireland during the talks that finally led to majority rule in South Africa in 1994.
In post-apartheid South Africa, Mompati returned home and is happy to be the Mayor of Vryburg, where she sees the very high rate of illiteracy as the most immediate challenge. Mompati is responsible for getting important Bills, especially on the education policy, passed in Parliament. And she is glad to be alive to see the year 2006, which the South African government has declared 'Year of the Women in South Africa' to mark the 50th anniversary of the march.
The main objective of this year's celebration is to honor the icons of the liberation struggle and the sacrifices made by them, and above all to continue to demand that women be treated fairly.
"We don't want to be treated better than men. We want equal opportunities that will eventually emancipate us, and give us the chance to be an integral part of all political and economic activities in the new South Africa. The empowerment of women is fundamental to the strengthening of freedom and democracy," adds Gertrude Shope, also 81, also part of both the 1956 march and the South African delegation that visited Vienna in 2006 to commemorate the march.
Like Mompati, Shope also fled her country to seek sanctuary in Tanzania in 1966, from where she published the magazine 'Voice of Women', an anti-apartheid magazine informing the international community about the struggle of women in South Africa in 1971. Together with Mark, her trade unionist husband, she traveled as representatives of the ANC to Prague, Botswana, Zambia and Nigeria. Then, in 1991, she was chosen as head of the ANC Women's League (ANCWL), responsible for linking the struggles of women still living in South Africa with international organizations, including the United Nations. In the 1991 elections, she defeated Winnie Mandela (ex-wife of Nelson Mandela and a prominent activist and politician herself) to the presidency of the ANC Women's League.
Much has been achieved since the Women's Charter was written in 1955. When the ANC was launched in 1912, women were not allowed to become members. In 1955, the ANC asked women to help prepare a freedom charter to be introduced at the upcoming Congress of the People. Women like Mompati and Shope grabbed the opportunity to include the demands of women into the Freedom Charter. For four decades the ANC remained banned but work on the Women's Charter continued and in 1994 it was ready, introduced in parliament and included in the new Constitution of the country and in the Bill of Rights.
Today, the percentage of women in South African parliament is a high 33 per cent, 30 per cent of whom represent African National Congress, thanks to the quota that African National Congress has provided for women.
However, 80 per cent of the poor in South Africa are women. The highest incidents of rape are reported here, and a wide gap exists between South African women from different racial backgrounds. Every six hours, a woman is reported killed by a male member of the family and male children continue to enjoy relative privileges compared to female infants. Adding to the problem of rapid transformation and violence against women and children, is discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS, especially in rural areas.
"Women are tired of waiting and want to stand on their own feet. The strategy we adopted 50 years ago was a radical one. Now we are in a situation that demands endless negotiations. We continue to live up to the demands of today, to involve more rural women in the struggle that simply must go on...," concludes Shope.