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Karen Robertson – Telegraph – Friday, 06 December 2013


Nelson Mandela, the former South African president. Image : AP

I was on a bus brimming with the exuberance of South African women singing freedom songs. It was August 9, 1999, National Women’s Day, and we were on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s prison for 18 of his 27 years behind bars. Working on a postgraduate project, I’d been granted access for this special celebration.

These joy-filled ladies were some of the same who had marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria 43 years earlier. On that day, over 20,000 women of all races marched to the seat of apartheid power, to petition against the pass laws, which forced all black South Africans to carry a pass book or ‘dompas’ (‘dumb pass’ in Afrikaans), severely restricting their movement between ‘black’ and ‘white’ areas. As the women snaked through the streets they sang in isi-Xhosa: “wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo” (“You strike the women, you strike a rock”).

South Africa’s history is filled with women like these – strong, modest, quietly powerful, they contributed to the struggle for fundamental human rights at grassroots level. Others, like Albertina Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Helen Suzman and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela took on more prominent roles in the fight for freedom . . .

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