National Women’s Day – 9 August

National Women’s Day is a South African public holiday celebrated annually on 9 August. The day commemorates the 1956 march of approximately 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the country’s pass laws that required South Africans defined as “black” under The Population Registration Act to carry an internal passport, known as a pass, that served to maintain population segregation, control urbanisation, and manage migrant labour during the apartheid era. The first National Women’s Day was celebrated on 9 August 1994. In 2006, a reenactment of the march was staged for its 50th anniversary, with many of the 1956 march veteran.

1956 Women’s March

On 9 August 1956, more than 20,000 South African women of all races staged a march on the Union Buildings in protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950, commonly referred to as the “pass laws”. The march was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams. Other participants included Frances Baard, a statue of whom was unveiled by Northern Cape Premier Hazel Jenkins in Kimberley (Frances Baard District Municipality) on National Women’s Day 2009. The women left 14,000 petitions at the office doors of prime minister J.G. Strijdom. The women stood silently for 30 minutes and then started singing a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.). In the years since, the phrase (or its latest incarnation: “you strike a woman, you strike a rock”) has come to represent women’s courage and strength in South Africa.


National Women’s day draws attention to significant issues South African women still face, such as parenting, Domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, unequal pay, and schooling for all girls. It can be used as a day to fight for or protest these ideas. Due to this public holiday, there have been many significant advances. Before 1994, women had low representation in the parliament, only at 2.7%. Women in the national assembly were at 27.7%. This number has nearly doubled, being at 48% representation throughout the country’s government. National women’s day is based around much of the same principles as International Women’s Day, and strives for much of the same freedoms and rights.

Street Names to Honour the Women

In his State of the City speech, the Executive Mayor announced the awarding of the Freeman of the City award to four prominent women activists, namely Sophie de Bruyn, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi. Together, these heroines led the 20 000 strong Womens’ Freedom March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956.

A request has been received by Community Development to investigate the re-naming of streets in Johannesburg in honour of the four women icons to be with the Freedom of the City Award. The four women are:

Sophie de Bruyn: Noord Street will be Sophie de Bruyn Street.

Of the four new recipients of the Freedom of the City award, Sophie Williams de Bruyn is the only one still living. Naming places after living people is generally discouraged by the Policy on the Naming and Re-naming of Streets and Public Places. In Section 7.1 (“Criteria for the Selection of Names and the Re-naming of Features”), the Policy states: “Naming after living people should be avoided and only be done in exceptional cases”. The case of Sophie de Bruyn can however be considered to be such an exception. Taking into account her exceptional service, and such factors as her advanced age, it will be fitting for a street to be re-named in honour of Sophie de Bruyn.

Rahima Moosa (1922-1993): Jeppe Street is Rahima Moosa Street

In 2007, the City re- named Mayor Street in Newclare in honour of Rahima Moosa. Now called Rahima Moosa Avenue, this is the street where Rahima Moosa lived together with her husband and fellow-activist, Dr. “Ike” H.M. Moosa, and her family still lives at this address.

Helen Joseph (1905-1992): President Street is Helen Joseph Street.

The late Helen Joseph lived at no. 35 Fanny Avenue in Norwood, where she was under house arrest for many years. Helen Joseph has been honoured with the naming of a major hospital in Johannesburg, located in Perth Road, Auckland Park. Other places named for her include the former Davenport Road in Glenwood, Durban, and a road in Rustenburg. In 2010, the gravesite of Helen Joseph in Avalon Cemetery, together with that of Lilian Ngoyi, was declared as a National Heritage Site.

Lilian Ngoyi (1911-1980): Bree Street is Lillian Ngoyi Street.

Lilian Ngoyi lived at no. 9870 Nkungu Street, Mzimhlophe, Soweto, after moving there in the 1950s. It is at this address that she was confined when under house arrest by the apartheid government. For 16 years, Ngoyi was banned from attending and participating in any social or political gatherings, becoming the person who spent the longest period under house arrest. At the time of her death in 1980, she was still staying in this house with her daughter Memory and the grandchildren.

Sites in Johannesburg and Tshwane have been named and/or re-named in memory of Lillian Ngoyi:

  • A community health centre in Soweto has been named in honour of Lilian Ngoyi
  • On 9 August 2006, on the 50th Womens Anti-Pass March of 1956, Strijdom Square in Pretoria, from which the women marched, was re-named as Lilian Ngoyi Square.





Pictures from: Mail & Guardian