South African Women's Day 2009
The struggle against the Pass Law
Today we celebrated South African Women's Day and I was going to write about the 20000 women who went to knock on the door of then Prime Minister of South Africa Strydom, but I thought instead of my grandmother McGregor, and remembered how she was so strong, so very dignified as she grew older, how she took a nap every afternoon and woke up to put the kettle on in the house she shared with her daughter, my Aunt Hetty, to make tea for the two of them and whoever else was in the house at the time. In her later years she would wake up in the early hours of the morning, go down the passage to the kitchen to put the kettle on, only to realise that it was not afternoon, not time for afternoon tea at all, and go back to bed with a hearty chuckle.
I was going to write about how the 20000 women had stood for 30 minutes in silent protest against the extension of the Pass Laws to women, how they had stood and not even a baby had cried out, for a full 30 minutes, their hands raised in the Congress salute. But I decided instead to write about Mariah, I don't even know her surname, who was my parent's domestic helper when I was a child, who picked me up when I fell off my little tricycle and dusted off my knees and helped me feel better. I owe her so much.
When you strike a woman
I was going to write about how the women marched in Pretoria, the city where I am now writing this, chanting their warning to Strydom: "Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo! (When you strike the women, you strike a rock!)" but I thought instead of my mother who, through thick and thin, putting aside any disappointment she might have felt at the way life panned out for her, stood by my father, supported him and spoke up for him. She had two or three miscarriages between the birth of my brother and my birth, she dearly wanted a daughter and got two sons, but she stood firm, she was always there for me. She was a rock.
I was going to write about MaNgoyi, Lillian Masediba Ngoyi, who with little education, saw that so much was unjust in South Africa, especially how the women suffered the double oppression of apartheid and patriarchy, and was a single mother struggling to keep her family going, and said to Strydom that his government "will never stop the women of Africa in their forward march to Freedom During Our Lifetime!" But instead I thought of my Aunt Lucy, my father's sister, who, in the face of great hardship, and the loss of her blind husband, whom she had looked after and supported for so many years, endured and brought up a family while running a farm and I thought how my life was enriched by her strength.
You strike a rock
I was going to write about Sophia Williams, one of the leaders of the Pretoria march, barely 18 years old at the time, with such courage and insight for a young woman, but I thought instead of my mother's sister Dorothy who from an early age struck out on a path of her own choosing, prospecting for diamonds and starting a business as a pharmacist where women were not really supposed to be in those days. In the wilds of colonial Africa she made her own path and found her own place among the people to the extent that, when Zimbabwe finally became truly free, she was able to pick up the phone and call Robert, who as a little boy had played in the dust in front of her pharmacy in Harare and was now the Prime Minister of a free Zimbabwe.
This morning, when the day dawned crisp and clear, a typical Highveld winter morning, I thought I would write about that valiant English woman who came to South Africa and made the struggle for freedom her struggle, to the extent that she walked with the black women in protest against the Pass system, Helen Joseph, whose name will always be remembered as one of the leaders of the women's march, but instead I want to write about Maxine, my brother's wife, who gave up so much to help him make a go of his music, helped him to achieve his dream of putting the various strains of music flowing through his mind out into the world.
Remembering the women - Malibongwe!
So many women who have directly impacted on my life - besides those I have listed above, I think of Ilse, Mara, Joan, Catherine, to name a few. There is still so much that women have to struggle for. I can never repay the gifts these women have given me, and still do.
And then I think of my daughters, Sarah and Caitlin, my granddaughter Sophie, and my fervent hope is that their lives will be better than the lives of the women who went before them. Their lives are built on the foundation of the lives and sacrifices of the countless women that have gone down this road of life before them, bearing the particular burdens that seem to be put onto women all over the world.
I was going to write a lot of historical stuff about the march of the women on Versailles in 1789, and the Suffragettes, and many more indomitable women who have struggled for freedom and dignity throughout the ages.
But then I thought that really the best thing I could do to celebrate Women's Day would be to remember and acknowledge the amazing debt that I personally owe to so many women, beautiful people who have touched my life positively in so many ways and over so many years.
By remembering them I also remember and honour the great women of this country who suffered and endured, who never lost sight of the vision of dignity and freedom that is the birthright of every woman, every girl child.
I hope I never lose sight of the demands of that birthright, the justice of it, the necessity of it, and join my heart and hand to the struggle to achieve it. Because it is the right thing to do, the just and honourable thing to do. Because without women we men are nothing, really, for who else could or would give us our birth?
And I say to all the women of South Africa and the world - "Malibongwe! (We thank you!)"
"Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo!"