Nearly sixty years ago, a group of female activists led one of the largest demonstrations in South African history, an anti-apartheid march of 20,000 women, to the steps of the country's seat of power in Pretoria.
Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, they sang as they climbed the stairs to their prime minister’s office. You strike a woman, you strike a rock.
For decades afterwards, however, those women and others in the anti-apartheid movement found themselves tucked into the margins of South African history, playing supporting cast to male freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu.
In recent weeks, South Africa has been roiled by mass student protests over the prohibitive cost of university education in recent weeks. And the young leaders at the fore of the #FeesMustFall movement are largely women. This time around, they say, they won’t let their gender push them to the margins of the story.
Since the protests erupted two weeks ago, gender has been a visible and vocal rallying point for many female demonstrators, who have held signs reading “the patriarchy must fall with the fees” and “black women —you are power.”
Their signs served as a reminder that the students' protest movement is about much more than university tuition. Instead, it has quickly become a way to put a finger on the pulse of discontent over the sluggish pace of social change here since the end of apartheid two decades ago.
And for young women in particular, it has become a forum for expressing their frustrations about growing up in a country that, despite having one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, struggles with a deeply entrenched patriarchy. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked South Africa 90th out of 148 countries on its social institutions and gender index, which measures discrimination against women in social institutions.
“I think these young women have reached a point where they’re saying, ‘you know what? I’m getting tear-gassed alongside you, I’m being hit with rubber bullets alongside you, so I think my equality is an important part of this movement too,’” says Kagure Mugo, a University of Cape Town alumna who has written about the role of gender in the protests.
“Rather than saying they’ll wait for the battle to be over to call out misogyny, this generation is saying we have to deal with this now, during the fight.”
A new female leader
But nearly as soon as they began, these calls for equality were met with skepticism from other demonstrators who accused the women of attempting to divert the momentum of the protests for their own ends, says Pontsho Pilane, a reporter for The Daily Vox in Johannesburg who covered the movement extensively.
“As I tweeted about [the call for gender equity] – as I tweeted about everything I witnessed throughout the protest – I was repeatedly told that I shouldn’t try to “hijack” the protest and make it about what it was not,” she wrote in a recent article for the City Press newspaper.
That call – to avoid muddling a protest movement with calls for gender equity – is familiar and painful to many South African women, who faced similar demands in the struggle to end apartheid.
"Women were important as wives, mothers, girlfriends and sisters, in fighting a common struggle against a common enemy," wrote black consciousness activist Mamphela Ramphele in the 1990s of her time protesting in the mid-1970s. "Scant regard was given to their position as individuals in their own right."
But the generation who have come of age today say there is no longer time for that kind of patience.
“We are saying as the generation that is supposedly “born free” that we are alive, and radical, and ready to take it to the streets,” Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, student body president at the University of the Witwatersrand, told a large crowd gathered at the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg last Thursday. “This is only the beginning.”
With her trademark green-and-gold headwrap — seen bobbing at the front of many demonstrations —Ms. Mkhatshwa herself has become something of an iconic figure in the movement, helping to inspire a trending hashtag based on the old liberation song of the 1956 women marchers which refers to powerful women: #MbokodoLead.
“My daughters will know about the leaders of the #FeesMustFall campaign,” wrote Twitter user @ctema above a set of photos of Mkhatshwa and her student body president predecessor, Shaeera Kalla. “May they continue to inspire. #MbokodoLead”.
Witwatersrand is one of South Africa’s top universities and where the first protests took place.
Changing South Africa
But many activists say it’s not enough to simply have women on the front lines.
“There’s a real tendency in this country to window dress,” says Mbali Matandela, a student protestor and feminist activist at the University of Cape Town. “We have some powerful women in our public spaces, in our political spaces, but it doesn’t mean anything if they are not also part of the important strategizing that happens behind closed doors, or if their voice is taken away from them there.”
Women make up 42 percent of lawmakers in South Africa's parliament, among the highest in the world. At the same time, the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko was admonished publicly by ANC lawmakers for “dressing inappropriately” in parliament.
Still, Ms. Matandela says, increasing visibility can only be a good thing. And last Friday, as students made their own march on the Union Buildings, hundreds of media cameras snapped shots of the movement’s female leaders walking literally in the footsteps of the women of 1956, tracing their path back to the president’s front door (today's equivalent of prime minister.)
Back then, as the demonstrators climbed the building’s steep steps, a photographer snapped an iconic image of their four leaders — Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams (De Bruyn) and Lillian Ngoyi — arms linked, skirts billowing, their faces locked forward in steely determination as the crowd fanned out behind them.
Fifty-nine years later, a different photographer captured an equally emotive shot of Ms. Kalla and Mkhatshwa in virtually the same position — hands clasped and fists raised, their gazes fixed on the halls of power in front of them.