1956 march was to give women the right to the city

2015-08-27 06:01



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THIS article was inspired by a conversation with friends on Women’s Day. It contains reflections and comparison between the living conditions of the poor urban women of 1956 and the current situation for poor women in the city.

One of the aims of the infamous Influx Control system was to limit the freedom of blacks to South African cities. These laws were to ensure that the only contribution blacks could have in the city was to be mainly unskilled labour.

The people who were most affected were those coming from rural areas, and women.

By marching to the Union Buildings, the women were saying they also want freedom of the city.

“We want to decide for ourselves when and where we want to work and live within the city”, was one of their demands. They said they no longer wanted to be caged in women’s hostels, backyard shacks and servants quarters of their employers. They demanded the full right to the city.

A full right to the city would have meant a right to adequate housing, which would have meant they had the right to live in properties with a security of tenure, access to amenities and economic opportunities.

The march took place amid forced removals in Sophiatown and Cato Manor when blacks were moved to the periphery of the city to make way for expansion of the white-dominated economies.

Part of the work the organisation I work for does, is support people in informal settlements in their struggle for adequate housing.

I am therefor exposed to the conditions that some of the women from the rural areas live under when they come to the city for economic opportunities.

Similar to those who lived in the Alexandra and Cato Manor around 1956, these women are victims of a cruel informal rental arrangements, the lack of privacy, the lack of child-care facilities and crime and inadequate services.If any of the children of the women in informal settlements have to leave school early due to the distance they have to travel to the nearest school or their toddlers continue to suffer from malnutrition. If some of the women from the informal settlements resort to prostitution as one of the few income-generating activities available to them, then the women’s march to the Union Buildings would have been in vain.

When we fail to sensitise government about the unjust policies that reduce women’s dignity in the city we render the Freedom Charter toothless. If we continue to personally benefit from development work aimed at ensuring the right to the city for women we are insulting Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophie Williams for their tireless work in organising the women’s march in 1956. Ensuring the right to the city for women calls for an integration of effort by government, civil society, academics, trade unions and employers.

It calls for prioritisation of women-headed households for housing support, directing resources for women in informal settlements to self-organise and for the provision of innovative credit schemes that allow women to extend their houses. And above all, it calls for us to give attention to, and act in solidarity, with the women in the struggle for dignity in the city

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