Address by Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha at the Launch of Gamohle/ National Archives Oral History Project

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08 Aug 2006

“AGE OF HOPE: Through struggle to freedom”

Programme Director, honourable veterans, distinguished guests, colleagues, government officials, members of the media, ladies and gentlemen: Good morning!

It is, indeed, an honour and a great pleasure for me to be addressing you this morning on the eve of the national commemoration and celebration of the 50 th Anniversary of the Women’s Anti - Pass March to the Union Buildings here in Pretoria on 9 August 1956.

50 years ago on 9 August 1956, 20 000 women came from all over the country to march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the extension of government regulations to African women regarding the carrying of passes. We are proud to acknowledge in our midst, some of the veterans who marched on that historic day. We have here (name veterans……………)

In 1932 the Bantu Commissioners’ Office, better known to the local people as gaMohle was established in Pretoria as a result of the New Group Areas Act of 1923. The building served as a new administration office with the purpose of controlling influx and labour also providing passes to African people.

As Minister Pallo Jordan often reminds us, that before 1994 museums tended to reflect the history and achievements of only one section of the people of this country. And as we are faced with this reality, our Museums have to begin exploring innovative methods of generating funds and utilizing heritage for economic development. Oral History is a tool that can be used to address challenges faced by all of us charged with preservation of our heritage.

It is important to tell our stories to the younger generation while time still permits. Our parents and our grandparents, who hold this memory, will soon be passing on, We should not miss the opportunity of documenting the authentic history of our people.

From the research that has been done, it is clear that for centuries African women were pioneers when it came to resisting the wholesale contemptuous degradation and dehumanisation of women in the social, cultural, economic and political system. It is absolutely imperative for us to rewrite our history to accurately reflect and record the powerful contribution made by women of this country.

Even though the struggle to end apartheid is considered to be over by some people in this country, we all need to bear in mind that the struggle for the total emancipation and gender equality is not over yet.

The mass mobilisation of tend of thousands of women culminating in the protest march of over 20 000 women to the Union Buildings was a unforgettable event in the history of the struggle for freedom which continues to inspire us today. Tomorrow, as we re-enact this historic event we remember with pride and honour those women who were the pioneers of the freedoms we enjoy today.

This story has been told over and over, from generation to generation. A few photos were taken by male photographers, if I may add, but not much of the activities around this event has been documented – the organisation and mobilisation of women in the townships, small dorpies, villages and farms in the build up to the day has not been adequately recorded.

Ma-Helen Joseph, one of the four leaders of the march, when asked to express her feelings about what she saw and experienced on 9 August 1956 had this to say: “I shall never forget what I saw on 9 August 1956 – thousands of women standing in silence for a full thirty minutes, arms raised high in the clenched fist of the Congress salute. Twenty thousand women of all races, from all parts of South Africa, were massed together in the huge stone amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the administrative seat of the Union government, high on the hill. The brilliant colours of African headscarves, the brightness of Indian saris and the emerald green blouses worn by Congress women merged into an unstructured design, woven together by the very darkness of those thousands of faces”.

Throughout the history of humankind, starting with the story of the creation of the human beings, Adam and Eve, in the Bible, until recent times with the judgment by esteemed judges in the criminal matter of The State versus G J Zuma, women have been portrayed as either weak or useless and stupid, either confused or liars, either ???? or wicked, by those who write about them, by those who think they know what women need, by those who think they are superior to women and by those who judge their actions because they think they know them even better than women know themselves.

Do you really believe that Eve (in the Bible story) was created from the rib of Adam?

Most of the stories are written from a man’s perspective and even the recent judgment I referred to, is a decision from a man’s perspective. In fact, the proceedings of the case revealed a lack of understanding about women’s sexuality and emotions.

Since the 1994 democratic breakthrough women in our country have indeed notched important victories and advances. Women also now occupy key positions and play an important role in the reconstruction and development of our country. These are important gains given the long struggle to try and place women’s emancipation at the centre of our historically patriarchal organizations.

Even the Freedom Charter, progressive as it is, never really said much about the struggle for women’s emancipation and struggles for gender equality.

A proper history of the women’s struggles in South Africa in general as well as in South Africa’s liberation struggle still remains to be properly researched, written and documented, for example, not much has been written about the struggle of women for their inclusion as full members of the ANC during the period between 1912, when the ANC was founded and 1943, when women were eventually accepted as full members in the organisation.

According to Hilda Bernstein, already in 1913 women took up the campaign against the carrying of passes in Bloemfontein. Charlotte Maxeke led the formation of the earliest political organisation of African women, the Bantu Women’s League, regarded as the forerunner to the ANC Women’s League.

With the huge influx into the black townships in the 1940s we also saw the intensification of women’s struggle, leading to the revival of the ANC Women’s Section in 1941, which laid the basis for the admission of women as full members in the ANC in 1943. The launch of the ANC Defiance Campaign in 1952 also gave further impetus to women’s struggles, culminating in the formation of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and the adoption of the Women’s Charter in 1954. I must emphasise the point that the Women’s Charter was the forerunner of the now nationally acclaimed Freedom Charter.

Through this oral history project we want to pay tribute to the role that women played over the ages in the struggle for freedom and human dignity. The history of this country is full of women like Sara Bartman, Magogo, Nongqawuse and other women who suffered under the colonial and apartheid regimes but in their own special way contributed to the liberation of the people of this country.

The role that women played in situations of conflict as freedom fighters and leaders of the struggle has not been adequately documented. This Oral History Project will go a long way in filling the gaps and correcting the distortions in our history.

On 8 th March this year we launched a year long programme of commemorating and celebrating the 50 th Anniversary of Women’s Anti-Pass March. I am happy to launch the gaMohle / National Archives Oral History Project on the 1956 Women’s Anti-Pass March today. This is one of the National Projects for 2006, conceptualised by the Northern Flagship Institution in partnership with the National Archives and Records Services of South Africa.

I am actually excited about this project and am looking forward to what I consider to be a project re-writing history from a women’s perspective.

We have come a long way since 1956, we have made many gains as women but we do acknowledge that a lot still has to be done. If this project can yield the results that we hope for, of re-writing our history and filling in the gaps so that it is authentic and credible, we will have achieved a lot, not only for ourselves, but for future generations. There is so much that our young people can learn from the stories of the people of this country, stories that will liberate them from the shackles of the challenges of today.

I am also very happy that there are so many young people who are keen to be involved in this project. While they will be listening and documenting the stories of veterans of our struggle, they will also be learning valuable lessons from this rich history.

I now have the honour and great pleasure to declare the gaMohle / National Archives Oral History Project duly launched.

Thank you