I stood on the platform in Pretoria, clutching an address and waiting for the Gautrain. My short journey to Johannesburg was about to begin, but the longer journey to this point began exactly two months earlier.
While the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8 every year, in South Africa, Women’s Day is on August 9. Last year I celebrated by being part of a human trafficking awareness event. The following day my mom and I were shopping and chatting about the women’s day experience. We stopped at a coffee shop and waited for our order when I noticed a local newspaper headline. I felt something inside of me jump as I read the words, “The day 20,000 women said no to the dompas.”
What is a dompas?
During Apartheid, the Pass Laws Act of 1952 required all black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry a pass book, known as a dompas, everywhere and at all times. The dompas was similar to a passport, but it contained more pages filled with more extensive information than a normal passport.
In response to this restrictive and repressive law, I read how four incredibly brave South African women–Sophia De Bruyn, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Lillian Ngoyi–led 20,000 women in a march to the Union buildings in Pretoria on August 9, 1956. They marched against these pass laws that restricted the movement of black people in South Africa. It was a bold move; one that would go down in history.
After I read the article I had the God-sense that I was going to meet the last surviving woman of the march, Sophia De Bruyn. I was shocked at this overwhelming feeling, but within two months, I had the finances, a dear angel organized the meeting and there was an opportunity—I was invited to Johannesburg. Even though our meeting hadn’t been confirmed, I jumped on the train that day and trusted God.
I had no idea how to get to Sophia’s house and I’d forgotten my wallet at home. I was enjoying the half-hour train ride when I noticed an elderly lady opposite me wearing a pearl necklace with Hebrew writing on. Intrigued I leaned over and said, “My, that is a lovely necklace!”
“I don’t know what it says, though,” she responded.
I took a look at it and read it for her. Then she asked me, “Are you Jewish?” We had a lively conversation and I told her that I was going to a meeting, but had no idea how to get there.
“Of course you know how to get there!” she said. “I am going to take you.” That was her final words before she fetched her posh car and I was on my way to Sophia’s house. Yet another angel.
Sophia’s house was warm and filled with a sense of family. Awards filled the cabinets and servers, but I felt as though they were couldn’t come near to telling the story of the life Sophia had really lived.
When Sophia arrived, she seated herself, casually leaned forward and said, “How are you, Aliyah?”
We chatted for hours. This is such a powerful part of South African women’s history, showing how boldness and solidarity can create change, that I wanted to share with you some of her story she told me that day.
Sophia: The women’s march was a highlight—it was not the only thing I did, but it was a highlight. It was history in the making. These women who marched–they made history. We didn’t do it for ourselves, we did not think, ‘What is in it for me?’ We didn’t do it for the accolades or the rewards. We were a bunch of down-to-earth women—mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers. That was who we were and that was what we did. We did it because it was part of what we needed to do; it was in the trajectory of our lives. I was the youngest of the four who led the march, the other three ladies were my mother’s age and they nurtured me.
At the time South Africa was divided into four provinces and women came from all over to join the march. These women raised their own funds–from crocheting to selling scones and selling food—they did whatever they could to raise the funds. They were poor, but we all believed in doing what we did for the goodness of everybody.
Twenty thousand petitions were handed in that day and there would have been more, except some women were arrested, while others were sent on a wild goose chase and did not know how to find our gathering.
Our leadership was worried about us. I remember that we were called in and asked what we were going to do if the police show up to arrest us! So, we made plans. Lilian and Helen organised that if the police came to arrest us, we would all kneel down and pray. Twenty thousand women would kneel down together and they would not be able to take everybody. There were many there who were Christians and many had it in their nature to fall down to their knees and pray, so that was our plan.
For me it is not about one person, it is not about me—the rewards I have received are not mine. I take them in the spirit on behalf of those women who are not counted, who are not known and who are not spoken about. These are the women who have done so much for our country. These are black women, coloured women, Indian women and white women, and our country does not know what these women did! Women have always been there in all the facets of the struggle in South Africa and we need to teach our young people not about one person’s history, but about the history of a country.”
When Sophia and I had finished talking, the sun was beginning to dip beneath the horizon, but to me a new day was starting. We hugged goodbye and I could not hide my tears. They fell freely. I was touched by the personal words she spoke to me directly. She also encouraged me to share women’s stories and for the generations of South African women to come—for us to nurture and encourage one another, instead of pulling one another down.
Ma Sophia was the first one to say, You must tell women’s stories. Then I started hearing it over and over again—storyteller you are. I hear the call: to tell the stories of the many people I have met, to open my mouth and speak it, to pick up that pen and write it. It is time and I am here—it is time for women’s stories to be engraved on the earth with a diamond-tipped pen. It is time.
Top image credit: JR Ferrer Paris // Bottom image credit: Aliyah Jacobs