The spirit of women

2010-08-02 00:00

IT’S that time of the year when I find myself clutching a fistfull of invitations to Women’s Day breakfasts, half-price spa treatments and pamper-yourself packages.

There’ a belief that Women’s Day next Monday is about celebrating the spirit of women.

After listening to Chilean author Ariel Dorfman, who delivered the eighth annual Nelson Mandela Lecture, I recognise that this day is about much more. Yes, it is about women, but it is also about memory and justice.

August 9 commemorates the march organised by the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) in 1956 that saw 20 000 women of all races protest the extension of the compulsory carrying of passes to women. The triumph in this event was that women took a stand against an injustice regardless of personal suffering.

Struggle veteran Ruth Mompati spoke of women selling their furniture in order to pay for transport to take part in the protest.

At the heart of the march was the invidious pass law system that sought to control the movement of African people.

In so doing, it entrenched inequality and robbed people of their dignity. Every black South African over the age of 16 had to carry a pass book, referred to as a “dompas”.

Failure to do so resulted in arrest and imprisonment.

A year ago, the Greater Edendale Development Initiative (Gedi) ran a project in which local school pupils researched the pass system. Surprisingly, 23 years after the laws were repealed in 1986, pupils whose parents were forced to carry dompasses admitted to not knowing much about the system.

Vumo Dlamini said in his group they took pass laws as a joke. “We didn’t believe that it happened. Doing this project, we met people who used to carry the dompasses — that is when we learnt the real experiences of apartheid.”

Another factor that emerged from the research was the anger against the pass system that remained bottled up in the hearts of many of those interviewed.

Some responses:

Mrs Ngcobo: “In my community people were very angry because they felt they were being identified by pieces of paper. They felt worthless. A large number of women, especially the married ones, could not take it anymore. We stood up and fought against this law because it disadvantaged us when it came to us going to visit our husbands who worked far away from home. We had a lot of things to worry about.

Mr Gwala: “The system was brutal because they would stop buses and beat up people who did not produce their passes.

They also put those without these documents into a big yellow van the people called umeleko. People who were locked up would lose their jobs because they spent days or weeks in jail.”

Jabulile Zulu, who was beaten and jailed for not having her pass book, thanked the pupils for the interview, saying it helped release the pain of the past and gave her the opportunity to be able to talk about something that had been bothering her for years.

An former police officer, Mr Majozi, said, “It was not an easy task at all to arrest your own people and take them to prison and to make them sign documents that they did not understand, to see them shoved around and treated like animals. I had to watch people beaten so badly that they could barely walk.

“The white police gave them their own names as they could not spell the Zulu names. When family members came looking for the person, they were unable to find them as the name of the person who was taken away was incorrectly documented by the police.”

Next Monday is about the fight against inequality and injustice. How can we feel empowered when 80% of the poor in South Africa are women, when we continue to have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and when surviving children will go on to struggle in the pursuit of decent education and jobs?

August 9 is also about remembering that the struggle for freedom was sustained by volunteerism and service. Former Robben Island Prisoner Indres Naidoo, whose mother was one of the women to march to the Union Buildings and who was involved in organising the event, recalls in the book Men of Dynamite: Pen Portraits of MK Pioneers how he was roped in by his mother to help.

“I was part of the reception group; our task was to receive the delegations from all over the country … women started coming in by the hundreds from all over, from Transkei, from Ciskei, from Pondoland … ja, the women were coming in from all over. It was incredible … first of all we started making sandwiches and sandwiches and sandwiches.

“We were making coffee and tea for the women as they were coming, and as they were coming in we were sending them off to the various accommodations and, you know, in those days there were no hotels and no accommodation for black people, so it was a question of sending them to various homes …”

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