August is Woman’s month in South Africa and it all began 60 years ago. On August 9 1956, 20,000 women marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to the prime minister of the apartheid government, J G Strijdom. The pass law required that Black South Africans carry an internal passport which will then allow the government to track their movement and especially limiting it in the country. The law first applied to Black men and was going to be extended to Black women in 1910s and 1950s, and it was highly protested. The March of the women was a big message to the government of the power that women can exercise.
In an event organized by the South African embassy commemorating Women’s month, there was a discussion on women empowerment in the 21st century. Women from different parts of the continent discussed their views and their work focusing on African women and the achievements of the continent. As the event was taking place, young girls in a Pretoria high school were protesting against racist hair regulations in their high school. The young girls were denouncing hair policies that required them to straighten their hair and prohibited them from having an Afro. The students were able to get the policy suspended, but it did not come easy.
There were many numbers mentioned as evidence of how far women have come in the continent such as percentage of Women Members of Parliament, land ownership by women and much more. But whenever I think of women in Africa, I always ponder on whether there has been a woman movement in the continent. And from what I am seeing and learned, that movement is yet to fully occur. Women have fought for their countries, their communities and their families but are yet to fight for themselves. In fact, it seems that they have delegated the fight for their rights to the governments they helped build and which in many instances has failed them.
In my opinion our biggest failings in the 21st century is not teaching our youth about what our foremothers have done for our countries in the 20th century. Stories of liberation, freedom fighters and African heroes dominate our textbooks and memories of the 1900s, however very few images of the women who fought for our rights and freedoms have emerged. Whether it is in the Mau Mau Liberation Front, the African National Congress and the many liberation fronts, the wars, the struggles, women were there front row and center. Yet, the expectation was that after they have survived and won the struggle, women had to go back and assume their “traditional” roles.
The timing of young girls protest in Pretoria is an indication of how far black women have gone in South Africa and how far they have to go. The protest of the young high school girls in Pretoria and many more young women movements in Africa is part of the events that will culminate into an African women-owned African Women’s movement, something that is long overdue and is built on the shoulders of our foremothers. As they say in South Africa, “wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo’” which translates into “You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock”!