Could you tell? Our media, usually flooded with Women’s Month sales, and calls to wear our doeks, or for men to wear heels, was notably more subdued. As South Africans, we have always been ambivalent about how we mark historically important days. Many of these days are in memory of some of the darkest parts of our journey to democracy. The Battle of Blood River, the Sharpeville Massacre, the Youth Uprisings of 1976. We mark these bloody memories with public ‘holidays’, share reminders of the reason behind these days off, and perhaps take a moment to enjoy the freedom for which so many fought and died.
Women’s Day has always been different. Given the moment in which the march took place – less than ten years into the tyranny of Apartheid, when social segregation was picking up pace – it is a remarkable that women across races came together to defend the rights of women of colour to travel freely, without passes. Perhaps because of the spirit of hope and interracial unity represented by this march, the 9th of August has always been a less sombre historical ‘holiday’. Maybe that’s why it’s always been marked by a slew of marketing gimmicks, and commercial campaigns all aimed at women and loosely related to Women’s Day.
Call me a cynic, but I’ve always found this content tasteless. Surely, in a country that struggles with gender-based violence and chronic inequality, we can do better than to mark Women’s Day by selling women stuff they don’t need? I understand the urge to reach for the more positive, and hopeful aspects of the day and its history, but I worry that its gravity is lost in the superficial noise.
This year was different. Women’s Day came a few weeks after the release of the findings of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) revealing that women are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 economic decline. According to the survey, mothers regularly go hungry and give what little food they have to their children before they eat. Higher reported rates of adult hunger (47%) compared to reported rates of child hunger (15%) indicate that mothers are working hard to feed their children even as they cannot feed themselves. This Women’s Day also falls a few months after news of a spate of gender-based violence hit the country. In June, we learnt of Tshegofatso Pule and her unborn baby daughter, who were found dead in Roodepoort. We learnt of Altecia and Raynecia Kortje, a mother and (7-year-old) daughter murdered in Cape Town. The names and devastating stories poured in, as they always seemed to. This time, though, it was enough so that the president dedicated a portion of one of his COVID-19-related addresses to the nation to saying the names of these mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. In his address he explicitly linked the scourge of everyday sexism to the brutality of sexual violence and femicide:
Ultimately, the success of our fight to end gender-based violence will require the involvement and support of our entire society. If we are serious about ending these crimes, we cannot remain silent any longer. These perpetrators are known to us and our communities. By looking away, by discouraging victims from laying charges, by shaming women for their lifestyle choices or their style of dress, we become complicit in these crimes. I once again call on every single South African listening this evening to consider the consequence of their silence. As a country, we find ourselves in the midst of not one, but two, devastating epidemics. Although very different in their nature and cause, they can both be overcome – if we work together, if we each take personal responsibility for our actions and if we each take care of each other.
Whilst he has said the same before, to highlight sexual and gender-based violence as a social ill during an emergency address is an unprecedented and pivotal step.
The restrictions the pandemic has forced on all of us has made us sit up and really take in the effects of the things we know lurk in our society. It’s as if in taking away all our ‘non-essential’ activity, and having us shelter in place, we have quietened the noise and are really reckoning with the things that matter. We are seeing our learners leading open conversations on race and race relations in our schools. We are recognising the heroism of community care workers, who are on the frontline, putting the health and welfare of others before their own. Rather than hide away from the things we struggle with and take a ‘holiday’, we have seen a society that seems ready to face some of its problems head-on.
If we are to look for any blessings from this dark period of vulnerability and loss, maybe we should look to the quiet that took the place of the usual ‘Women’s Day’ noise. Stripped of our usual distractions, it felt we were focused – as we have been since March – on one another. A neighbour of mine started a pop-up soup kitchen to feed the men who wait along our streets, hoping for ad hoc work. Another woman I know launched a project that will distribute food garden starter kits to 100 women in her community. The Black Business Council hosted a webinar on the support available to small businesses during this time.
Like those leaders in 1956, we are in the midst of a period of tumultuous change. We are scared and we face an uncertain future. It is heartening to see that, like those leaders, we refuse to let the fear of this moment divide or define us. We are struggling to find common ground and a way back to one another through acts of service and community.
I cannot imagine a better tribute to the bravery of the women who marched in 1956.
By Rumbi Goredema Görgens
Rumbi is a feminist author and activist. Her writing has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Vela Magazine, and on FeministsSA.com and MyFirstTimeSA.com. She has worked with various South African civil society organisations. Find more of her work at Rumbi Writes.
See below a selection of posts from Women’s Day