It was like re-living a moment in South African history, going back 58 years with Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, to the place where it all began.
We are outside the Union Buildings in the South African capital Pretoria, and De Bruyn is wearing a dark coat and shades on a cold winter morning.
She was hardly 18 when as one of four women leaders, she marched 20,000 other women to the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956.
Today, she is an elegant, demure grandmother, and the last living member of the famous four who led the protest, the others being Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa.
It has not been an easy journey, and this particular moment stokes many memories of that historic day.
“I had no fear,” she said, as we made our way to Pretoria.
The women had decided that they did not need, or want, passbooks (special identification booklets that limited their freedom of movement) as black or colored women. And as she delivered their angst in a letter to the Prime Minister JG Strijdom, a major supporter of the apartheid government, on that chilly August day, De Bruyn and her comrades set the precedent for Women’s Day in South Africa.
The 1950s were a tumultuous time in South Africa. Mass meetings were often met with violence by authorities. And political organizations, designed to fight the system, were separated by race. The rule of law, which accorded non-white South Africans the status of second class citizens in their own country, was at its worst.
This was why the Women’s March was the ultimate act of defiance.
It was unheard of in those days for any woman, let alone colored women, to stroll around the Union Buildings, the seat of South African government. For De Bruyn, the buildings housed more than the men responsible for deciding their fate. To her, they were the “Holy Grail”.
And after surviving the travails of getting the women to Pretoria, she was unafraid of any consequences.
The women had journeyed far and raised a fortune to make the march. De Bruyn’s group arrived from the Eastern Cape in two coaches. They sold tea and scones at political meetings for a profit of three pence, and a shilling was earned from serving chicken stew and rice. These little enterprises raised enough to make the long trip north.
Originally, the women had intended to camp outside the Union Buildings for an entire week. But the logistics of that plan were too difficult to follow through. Instead, they organized within their splinter groups and made their way, separately, towards Pretoria. When she saw the women that day, De Bruyn says she was gratified.
“The glory of how they looked, and their dignity and grace, and that determination in lifting their feet in a place where no other African person had done before,” she says.
The women came in droves and that surprised De Bruyn. There were women of every race at the march and she remembers the splendor of that scene.
“It was a splendid day, [there were] women in all sorts of dress – Indian women wore saris, the African National Congress [ANC] women in their green, black and gold and others in their everyday wear.”
She didn’t realize how many they were until she “sat and looked back at them, in their thousands”.
After the march, De Bruyn committed herself further to the freedom struggle. As the 1960s ended, she joined her late husband, Henry De Bruyn, who was exiled in Zambia. While in Lusaka, she took evening classes and studied for her O level certificate exams. Three years later, she moved to Nairobi and earned a diploma in education. The De Bruyns did not return to South Africa until the early 1990s to a short-lived return. Soon after the ANC came to power in 1994, she moved with her husband to Jordan as the first South African diplomats there.
Even when in exile, De Bruyn concerned herself with the freedom of the South African women she left behind. She spearheaded the ANC’s Women’s League in Lusaka and, with the help of then ANC president, O.R. Tambo, forged a place for women in the party. But her concerns have shifted, over the years, to the freedom of younger African women.
“I think our young women have got it in them. Today, the things that are there for them weren’t there for us. What gives me a sense of gratitude is to see our young women and what they can do.”
When speaking about the 1956 march, De Bruyn is humble about her role in the protest. She insists that it was an “event of women” in South Africa’s history and not her own. Yet the memory and the triumph of that August day still drive her.
“It lives on in my psyche,” she says, taking a long, hard look at the Union Buildings.