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Florence Matomela Memorial Lecture “The Importance of the 1956 Women’s March” by Ms Angie Motshekga, 8 August 2010 speeches


Programme Director,

Students and Gallant Women of our Country

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am delighted to deliver the Florence Matomela Lecture, during Women’s Month, to this distinguished audience of bright minds. I am certain you have experienced social exclusion or discrimination of one form or another. Hitherto, the situation of women in countries that have experienced colonial and patriarchal domination was described as “triple oppression”.

At one level, black women have been exposed to political oppression and racism, with no right to vote. Secondly, and with working class men, they were exploited and deprived of economic opportunities, with no share in the country’s wealth.

Thirdly, for over centuries women have been vilified on grounds of gender, with no regard to race or class.

Edmund Waller, in his “Song”, says he wants the woman he had loved to remember: “How small a part of time they share/that are so wondrous sweet and fair.”

In another context, I find it important to talk about the importance of the 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria and national Women’s Day, to young women who are still “so wondrous sweet and fair.”

It is only by placing issues underlying the misery of women high on the transformation agenda that we can hope to achieve equal opportunities and progress for all. Our theme for Women’s Month this year is “Working Together for Equal Opportunities and Progress for All Women. This year also marks the beginning of the Decade of African Women recently adopted by the African Union.

It feels good to talk about the importance of the 1956 Women’s March and National Women’s Day in the Eastern Cape. Your province has played a significant role in the struggle. It gave us a role-model you must emulate – Cde Florence Matomela.

Background: The Pass Law System

Let me remind you that at the turn of the 20th Century, women were denied of human and political rights. In South Africa, they had no right to vote and therefore no platform to decide or influence their fate and that of their families and children.

One of the most vicious forms of subjection was the pass law system that curtailed and limited movement of Africans in their own motherland. They had to carry, and produce on demand, reference books, derogatorily called “the dompass”. The ‘passbook’ was a concrete image of racial discrimination big enough to dig a hole in a man’s pocket. Yet, some say not much has changed in our country.

But, take it from me, the day I threw away my “dompas”, I felt good inside! I felt free. It was a Biblical feeling of an oppressed people walking out of “Egypt”, crossing the river Jordan, with freedom in their hands.

As renowned poet, Mongane Serote, puts it in “City Johannesburg”, “my pass” was “my life”. Every time I entered the white city, I saluted the cops with my pass “while my stomach groan[ed] a friendly smile to hunger.”

It was because of those cruel pass laws that women took matters into their hands. At the time, women were united under the banner of the Bantu Women’s League, the forerunner of the ANC Women’s League. They staged a daring protest march against the pass law system during the reign of Prime Minister Strijdom, on 9 August 1956.

This is why democratic South Africa declared 9 August, Women’s Day. With the gravity of gender inequality, the whole of August is dedicated to activities raising awareness around trying and often untenable conditions under which women live, at home, at work, in schools and universities.

The importance of the 1956 Women’s March

The Declaration of the Progressive Women’s Movement of 8 August 2006, has neatly captured why we must celebrate efforts of women like Florence Matomela. We celebrate the 1956 Women’s March because, during this time:

“We salute the pioneers that paved the way for us, we remember the gallant heroines and heroes who rose against colonialism; those who protested the pass laws; those who took united action against unjust labour laws; those women who under severe conditions of poverty, oppression and exploitation, created homes, educated and developed and produced leaders of yester year and today.”

During this time, in “recalling the history of South Africa and the triple-fold struggle characterised by class, race and gender oppression, [we] salute the struggles which led us to democracy” (Ibid).

Many agree that the 1956 demonstrations were probably the most successful and militant of any resistance campaign mounted at the time. There are many lessons to learn from them. Most importantly, they answer the question of how we came to be where we are today. Women’s Month activities are part of the revolutionary process set in motion in the 1950s.

Most of all, the Women’s March was in itself a process requiring careful planning and precision. It demonstrated the ability of women to organise.

You will be interested to know that the March was planned over a period of two years, with very limited resources, in a climate of political repression.

It showed that by 1956, women were highly politicised and well-organised into a powerful resistance movement. Contributing factors to politicization included harsh living conditions and exposure to city life. From that moment on, women’s struggles have gathered momentum, irreversibly.

Political activism was strongly felt also in rural communities, like the district of Herschel and Qumbu in this province, the Eastern Cape, as early as the 1920s. Remember, this terrain produced leaders like Florence Matomela.

Women who led the 1956 March represented a broad spectrum of leaders, including, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophy Williams and Rahima Moosa. As we pay tribute to them, we also salute heroines like Madi Hall-Xuma, Frances Baard, Dorothy Nyembe, Adelaide Tambo, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela and many others.

Even in the period before the 1956 March, a lot of work had been done to highlight the plight of women, under the careful eye of dedicated leaders like Charlotte Maxeke.

The Federation of South African Women, formed in 1954, also gave impetus to mass protests of the 1950s. It had regional branches and many members throughout the country.

The history of the 1956 Women’s March is very important. It must be told especially to young women who are still “so wondrous sweet and fair”, in a poetic sense, before they are tempted by trappings of consumerism, or dissuaded by perceptions that the ‘law of the father’ is predetermined.

This year’s theme is very relevant precisely because it reminds women of our country that “working together we can do more to advance equal opportunities and progress for all women.”

The ANCWL correctly noted in a 2007 Discussion Document that women’s power gained further impetus in 1943 when the ANC accepted women as full members – a development leading to the formation of the League, in 1948, with Madie Hall-Xuma as first president. That policy change, on the part of the ANC, demonstrated that women are a powerful agent of change.

And so, when we celebrate Women’s Day we go back in time to also remember women leaders in the league of Charlotte Maxeke whose life was best described by Dr AB Xuma, in 1935. Dr Xuma, former president of the ANC, said she was “the mother of African Freedom.” Indeed Charlotte Maxeke was the mother of the women’s struggle.

We organised this lecture to encourage promising young women at university to help preserve the memory of Charlotte Maxeke and women leaders like Florence Matomela. ‘Memory is a weapon’; by remembering brave acts of women, we can pick up the spear and take women’s struggles to greater heights.

This must be your historic mission as you go through your studies and as you return to your communities to plough back for what they have done for you, including your parents who educated you “under severe conditions of poverty.”

In a nutshell, the importance of the 1956 Women’s March lies in the fact that it demonstrated “that the stereotype of women as politically inept and immature, tied to the home, was outdated and inaccurate” (2007 ANCWL Discussion Document).

Who is Florence Matomela?

It is in this context that we must look at the life and times of Florence Matomela, a child of the Eastern Cape, who was born in 1910, in the year this country was proclaimed a Union of South Africa through the Act of Union of 1909, to the exclusion of the African majority.

She was a teacher, a loving mother, an ANC Veteran, an anti-pass activist, a civil rights campaigner, a champion of oppressed women, a communist, a revolutionary and working-class leader who gave her life to the noble fight for freedom.

In 1950, Florence Matomela led a demonstration in Port Elizabeth “that ended in the burning of permits” (South African History Online). Permits, in terms of influx control regulations, were used to restrict the movement of Africans, keeping them in poverty-stricken areas.

“In the mid 1950s, Florence was the Cape provincial organiser of the African National Congress Women’s League” (South African History Online).

She was also one of four Vice-Presidents of the Federation of South African Women, launched on 17 April 1954 at the Trades Hall in Johannesburg.

One of the important contributions of the Federation of South African Women is that it gave us the 1954 Women’s Charter which acknowledged the triple oppression of women and the role of women in the struggle.

But always remember that Florence remained on the side of the masses of our people to the very end, till her death in 1969, due to diabetes, still under banning orders.

The South African History Online suggests that “her health deteriorated badly” while she was serving a five-year prison sentence for furthering the aims of the ANC, which was banned at the time; “she was sometimes deprived of much-needed medical attention, such as the insulin for her diabetes.”

It is now 54 years since the Women’s March, and therefore important to ask the question: ‘Where are we?’


In 2009, Chief Statistician Pali Lehohla, observed in Engendering Statistics that “the early years of the 21st century have seen great improvements in the absolute status of women globally, with gender inequalities decreasing quite substantially in a number of sectoral areas such as education and health.”

Gender equality, in South Africa, has been on the agenda of transformation for a while. The democratic Constitution (of 1996) guarantees the rights of all to equality, freedom and human dignity.

South Africa is a signatory to a number of international instruments for the promotion of rights of women, including, the SADC Declaration on the Prevention and Eradication of Violence Against Women and Children and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Goal 3 of the Millennium Development Goals, which calls for the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2015, has been achieved. “The primary enrolment rates of girls about doubled in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa, rising faster than boys’ enrolment rates. This substantially reduced large gender gaps in schooling” (Padi Lehohla, Engendering Statistics, 2009: 2)

Other democratic gains in our country include the following:

The ANC has adopted the policy of 50/50 gender parity;

Representation of women in the legislature has risen to 44% after the 2009 elections;

The number of women in the Cabinet stands at 40%;

The ANC-led government has introduced income support programmes for women;

Access to resources, like clean water, sanitation and electricity; and

Creation of space for women to be heard.


Gender disparities, as the ANC Women’s League has reminded us, continue to characterise South African society.

HIV and AIDS is one of the greatest challenges to human development and in particular, to women. For reasons of poverty, patriarchy and other forms of cultural domination, women are more vulnerable to HIV and AIDS than men.

It is men who own and control the means of prevention. Men can decide when and when not to use a condom, even a female condom that is in any case less marketed than the male condom.

Most disturbing are conclusions from the Antenatal Survey showing a rise from 0.7% in 1990 to 29.3% in 2008 in the HIV prevalence epidemic curve among antenatal women (1990-2008); 4 districts recorded HIV prevalence above 40%; 17 districts recorded between 30% and 40% HIV prevalence (6 in KZN, 3 in Gauteng, 4 in Free State, 2 in Mpumalanga & 2 in the North West).

By 2006, life expectancy in South Africa had dropped to 51 years for males and 56 years for females. In the same year, 2006, Stats SA Mortality showed that 59.3% of deaths (6 out of 10) were deaths of people younger than 50 years. It is disturbing that young women in their prime are most affected, and therefore, scary to imagine what this means for the human population if this trend persists.

My message to you is very clear: Know your rights and responsibilities regarding health and services that are available to you, and defend these with your life, for your own sake.

Violence against women and children is still rampant in our homes and other places in spite of progressive laws, like the Domestic Violence Act. As has been suggested by the ANC Women’s League (2007 Discussion Document): “There is a direct link between violence and poverty. Black women are disproportionately the victims of economic disempowerment due to the combined effects of apartheid and sexism.”

Poverty remains a formidable challenge that has to be highlighted during this year’s Women’s Month and beyond. As has been said, ‘poverty has a woman’s face.’ For instance:

Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70% are women (World Revolution).

The Women’s International Network has recently proposed that “women do about 66% of the world’s work in return for less than 5% of its income.

And according to AskWoman, “two-thirds of children denied primary education are girls, and 75% of the world’s 876 million illiterate adults are women.

World Development Indicators, 1997, has made a startling observation that: “Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food and yet earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property.”

The 2010 Employment Equity Report has shown under-representation of women in the workplace. For instance, at top management level, African women are at less than 3% while Coloured and Indian women stand at 1% each.

The media, inadvertently or otherwise, continues to reproduce the stereotype of women as ‘sex-objects’ only good enough to the extent that they satisfy expectations of patriarchal society. It is in this context that the Beijing Platform for Action stated in Critical Area 10 a reality that still persists to this day. I quote:

“The lack of gender sensitivity in the media is evidenced by the failure to eliminate the gender-based stereotyping that can be found in public and private, local, national and international media organisations...”

What is to be done

I am of the view that to reverse the subordination of women, steps to be taken should include the following:

Working in partnership with women in all sectors for social transformation must be intensified (Declaration of PWM, 2006).

The development of young women must be prioritised, with young women included in progressive structures (Ibid).

Promotion of gender equality and strengthening of the gender machinery within government, the legislature and within civil society must also be emphasized (Ibid).

Education must be a precondition for development, empowerment and progress. Without education, as the old saying goes, you will remain like ‘a tree with no roots’ or a ‘soft bush in a high wind’, and that way, you will forever remain a ‘modern slave’ of patriarchy and poverty.

Therefore, get education. This is the best advice I can give you today, which I believe would have been shared by Florence Matomela and the over 20 000 women who took to the streets of Pretoria in 1956.

Now that you are here, “make much of time”, not to break your virginity as the poet suggests in “To Virgins to make much of time”. There is AIDS out there! Rather, know your priorities, and never lose sight of the reason why you are studying. Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has expressed this even much clearer when he said:

“There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition and promote health – including helping to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.”

During and beyond Women’s Month, we must continue to work for gender equality. Like women of the 1950s, women have to work together, as a collective.

Nobody can change your life for you. Thus we have said, free your mind through the most potent weapon of them all – Education. Florence Matomela was a dedicated teacher and therefore made a difference in the lives of many. She participated in many progressive structures only to ensure a better life for all. You can do the same.


Lastly, by being here, getting education, you have made the right choice. This is the best way to celebrate achievements of Florence Matomela and of all other women leaders who were produced by the National Democratic Revolution.

Education, coupled with a responsible life, will give you the necessary power to preserve and sustain your “wondrous sweet and fair” lives free from all forms of oppression. Out of this lecture, let us continue Working Together for Equal Opportunities and Progress for All Women.

Wathint’ abafazi!

Wathint’ imbogodo!

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Written By: Pat Bulling
Date Posted: 1/19/2011
Number of Views: 9298

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