August 9th is commemorated as National Women’s Day in South Africa, first celebrated in 1995 following the end of Apartheid. It is now 52 years since 20,000 women marched to the Pretoria Union Buildings, organized by the Federation of South African women, to protest against the discriminatory regime. Specifically, these courageous women from all races presented a petition against the Pass Laws. Such laws were designed to discriminate against black South Africans by requiring them by law to carry a range of documents, including photograph, employment records and tax payments to enable the government to restrict their movements.
Whilst the march reminds us of the harsh reality of life for black South Africans in Apartheid South Africa, it also highlights the incredible unity and defiance of South African women as a collective force to challenge the regime. When it appeared that Prime Minister J. G. Strijdom was not in his offices, the women began singing ‘Wathint Abafazi, Strijdom’ from which the phrase ‘You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock’ emerged to characterize the future defiance of women fighting the regime.
For too long such women have not had the recognition they deserve, overshadowed by their male Anti-Apartheid activists. Women such as Helen Joseph, co-founder of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), Albertina Sisulu, nurse and Anti-Apartheid activist in her own right even before her marriage to Walter Sisulu, Rahima Moosa, who led the initial march to the Union buildings in 1955 prior to leading 20,000 others, and Lillian Ngoyi, President of the African National Congress Women’s League have all been recently celebrated by BAFTA-award winning filmmaker Xoliswa Sithole. Her film ‘Standing On Their Shoulders’ aims to centralize the activism and inspiring leadership of the many women who were resolute in defiance against Apartheid. The film also serves as a touching tribute to the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The Canon Collins Trust is supporting efforts for gender equality in the southern African region by funding many inspiring women committed to female empowerment. The Trust provided a platform for scholars to share their research at our Scholars’ Conference in Cape Town in June, where they also had the opportunity to hear from esteemed advocate and former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
Distinguished alumni working towards gender equality include Naadiya Moosajee. Naadiya has created ‘LaunchPad’ in her organization WomEng, as a response to the 1 million girls in STEM campaign launched at the UN headquarters in 2017. The project has run 15 workshops in countries including South Africa, Malawi, Swaziland and the UK and developed a toolkit for would-be female engineers from school-level through to university.
Naadiya, and fellow founder of WomEng, Hema Vallabh, have recently been involved in protecting the rights of women and girls to get involved in engineering by speaking out against the CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering who claimed that women and girls were not suited to engineering. Read WomenEng’s response to the SAICE’s decision to retain their CEO here. Naadiya will be speaking at the UCT school of business this Women’s month, so please follow the Canon Collins Trust and WomeEng on social media for more updates.