“Strijdom, you have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock, you will be crushed!” These are the words of the song composed by the women of 1956 as they staged a peaceful march to the Union Buildings 60 years ago to confront the might of the apartheid regime that had enacted a law designed to extend the cruel and iniquitous ‘pass law’ to African women.
Since that historic march, many doors have been opened for women. However, despite the fact that great strides have been made in the advancement of women, much more still needs to be done to transform our society to a more inclusive and classless one we would like to see.
Over half a century later, as we commemorate the sacrifices made by over 20 000 women from all over the country and from all walks of life and from different racial backgrounds, we pay homage to the women of our nation – the mothers, the wives, the sisters and the daughters who continue to make sacrifices for the greater good of our society in many and diverse fields of human endeavour.
As a nation, we recognise the incredible contribution women have made in the various levels in our society and recommit ourselves to their advancement – particularly so in the academic sector. Today we salute the students and staff who all help to make Rhodes University a distinct and distinctive institution of higher learning. At Rhodes, we have many pioneering women who are contributing to making South Africa a better place for all who live in it. We salute all Rhodes women on this Women’s Day as we do ooMama Lillian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph and Sophia Helen-De Bruyn who led the 1956 historic march.
As we celebrate the women in our society today, we must also be cognisant of the harsh realities that face women in our society today, especially those in the rural areas and townships who bear the brunt of poverty and hardship on a daily basis. The lives of these women were, and, indeed, still are, characterised by low levels of literacy and inequitable access to education, health, housing, water and employment opportunities.
Many amongst the women of this country continue to experience sexual and gender based violence and are disproportionately affected by the scourge of HIV/AIDS. They daily carry the scars of their suffering often in solitary silence and without adequate counselling and support.
Together we must bring the abuse and violence against women to an end. In this regard, we as the University continue to engage with our staff and students as to how we can permanently rid our campus of this pernicious scourge. The time has come for all of us to end the cycles of abuse and violence against women and children that have become so endemic in our communities.
As we mark National Women's Day today, let each and every one of us ask ourselves why we keep silent when we are witnesses to violence against women, why do we keep silent when they are subjected to intolerable abuse on a daily basis?
I call on every one of us to pause and reflect on the immense damage that this violence has inflicted on our society, the way in which it reduces us to less than human and destroys the possibility to rebuild the fabric of our society.
Let us draw courage, strength and inspiration from the women of 1956 who were prepared to risk their all for the good of our country. Let us confront and challenge those systemic, social and cultural beliefs, myths and practices that normalise and perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence in our society.
We owe it to the past, present and future generations of courageous women of our country that we spare no effort in building a more humane, a more just, a more equitable, a more inclusive, a fairer and a compassionate society.
Wathinta abafazi; wathinta imbokodo! You strike a woman; you strike a rock!
Photo by: Paul Greenway