So very often history is told from the perspective of men with the role of women minimised or removed all together. It goes without saying that, in reality, women featured prominently in the story of apartheid, whether raising children alone, organising mass resistance in the face of unjust laws that affected their livelihoods or limited their movements, as in the case of the historic 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria that we commemorate today.
In the 1980s, a group of women met every year in Durban to commemorate the events of the 9th August 1956. In 1983, the group decided that it was time to establish a formal structure that would continue the fight for women’s rights, and so the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW) was formed. An affiliate of the United Democratic Front (UDF), NOW was a community organisation specifically intended to safeguard women’s rights. The organisation’s activities focused on fighting against things such as rent increases, high transport costs, poor education, a lack of maternity benefits and child-care facilities, and of course, the dreaded pass laws.
One of the consequences of the formation of NOW was an increased role of women in political and civic organisations. When the UDF found its movements restricted by the 1986 State of Emergency, it was members of NOW who filled the vacuum, running campaigns that the UDF could no longer carry out, and doing their best to publicise the plights of political activists. In addition, the women provided shelter, food and legal support to victims of political violence, and actively participated in consumer and bus boycotts, with the result that a number of NOW members were subjected to detention and banning orders, and a good many of the women were eventually forced into exile.
What began as a membership-based organisation based only in Durban, grew quickly and by the second AGM membership of NOW had extended beyond the city’s borders. Members of NOW included the likes of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who would go on to be South Africa’s first female Deputy President, Pumzile Mlambo, Hersheela Narsee, Victoria Mxenge and Dorothy Nomzansi Nyembe, amongst other notable female activists. But with the unbanning of political organisations in 1990, it was decided that there was strength in numbers, and NOW was disbanded, with the majority of its members joining the ANC, and the ANC’s Women League.
Today on Women’s Day, we celebrate not only those who participated in the march of 1956, but the countless women who gave so much, often in return for very little, so that we could all enjoy the opportunities and rights that a democratic South Africa affords us.
Images courtesy of www.sahistory.org.za