For Gxowa, who was merely 22 at the time, it was not about attaining freedom for herself, but it was about unshackling the thousands of South African women from the chains of apartheid. Gxowa was one of the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings.
Before the events of August 9 unfolded, weeks of planning went into one of the biggest protest movements women had ever undertaken. It all began with a single petition in early 1956. Women made their way across the country for weeks on end, not leaving a single village or town untouched in an effort to demolish the draconian laws that were imposed on them, in search of thousands of signatures.
“When we started, people doubted that we would be successful because we were poor and we didn’t have money,” said Gxowa. “We set up a committee and I was one of the organisers of the committee. We went all over the country, touched every village and formed small working committees to work on things.
“We drafted a petition that would be signed by each and every woman. We would not rest until all discriminatory laws had been abolished. It was only when the campaign was gaining momentum did the government realise that what we were doing was real,” she says.
A few days before the march, some modes of transport such as buses were banned. The women then needed to come up with other means of transport to get themselves to Pretoria from all corners of the country and unrelenting they boarded trains from every town and village in the country. While some were stopped when the police realised what was happening, many soldiered on.
“The police only realised what was happening when they saw Pretoria buzzing with women from all over the country.
“We started counting the women in the amphitheatre in the Herbert Baker Building, but we stopped counting at 20 000 because there were just so many,” she recalls.
As they waited to hand over their petition to the Prime Minister, the melodic notes of Nkosi Sikelela pierced the air and floated through the corridors of the Union Buildings.
Neither the Prime Minister, nor any of his senior staff was there to see the women. The leaders (Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie de Bruyn) left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside JG Strijdom's office door. That was when the slogan “Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock) was born.
“Those days when we were campaigning we used to say ‘freedom in our life’. Some of us have seen it, some have not seen it. When you are in the struggle, you don’t think that you’re doing this for yourself. But doing it for the freedom of your country,” adds Gxowa.
For 77-year-old Seroke, the struggle for women empowerment will always leave a bitter taste in her mouth. When the march took place on August 9, she was a student at Fort Hare University, and while she was unable to join the throngs of women who flocked to Pretoria, women at the University took part in the defiance campaigns at various locations.
After completing her degree she worked for the YWCA in Natal which was her first experience of dealing with rural women as a social worker. This is where her interest in women’s issues really started. When the country erupted in 1976, she was picked up by the security police and was kept in detention at the Fort, commonly known as Number Four, under Section 10 of the Security Regulations (Preventive Detention) for five months along with struggle stalwarts such as Ellen Kuzwayo, Fatima Meer, Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, Oshadi Mangena – Phakathi, Vesta Smith, Debra Mtshoba, Sally Motlana and others.”
The women were not discouraged by their imprisonment and they continued their activism within the prison confines, conscientizing the common prisoners and fighting for their rights.
Years later, Seroke became the Chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE). Among the issues which the CGE tackled are the challenges faced by women, such as gender-based violence and poverty. She has won numerous awards for her work on woman empowerment among which is the National Order of the BAOBAB.
Today, both Gxowa and Seroke believe much more still needs to be done to empower women in the country. While they started the ground-work, they believe that young women today now need to take the reins and continue with their efforts to educate women, especially those in the rural areas about their rights.
“There is still a lot that needs to be done. The younger women who never went through what we went through don’t understand how hard it was for us- going through the stringent and oppressive laws. I admire the present day young women who are bold and independent, but that independence should go beyond self gratification and extend to how they can empower those women who are less privileged than themselves,” says Seroke.
“I want to see this generation of women understanding the struggle and taking it forward. When we went to the Union Buildings those many years ago, we went there full of hope, knowing that one day we would get what we wanted,” adds Gxowa. - BuaNews