August 9 is Women’s Day in South Africa. I have written about this day in the history of struggle before but it is very special to me so I am recapping.
On August 9, 1956, more than 20 000 women from all over South Africa marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the pass laws of 1950. These laws made it illegal for black women and men to move freely around the country and confined them to designated black townships unless they had a pass permitting them to work in white areas.
Think about that for a minute. If you were black you had to work in white areas doing underpaid work at slave labour wages for white people. But you could not travel from your home in a black Group Area to work unless you carried a pass. You were an exile from your own country, an outlaw just for trying to put bread on the table. This is why women all around the country sold furniture and in some cases even their houses in order to travel to Pretoria to protest against the idea of carrying a pass. Freedom of movement is not something that can be taken away lightly.
The women left bundles of petitions containing more than 100 000 signatures at prime minister J.G. Strijdom’s office door. No senior official acknowledged the woman were there.
Outside the great Union Buildings, symbol of the British Empire and now an Afrikaner institution they stood silently for 30 minutes, many with their children on their backs. The women sang a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.). In the 50 years since, the phrase (or its latest incarnation: “you strike a woman, you strike a rock”) has come to represent women’s courage and strength in South Africa.
Today is also the Feast of Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, known as Edith Stein. Sixty-five years ago today Edith Stein, died in Auschwitz. She was a Jew, born into an Orthodox family on October 12th October 1891 on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. She studied with Husserl and wrote many papers on phenomenology. Edith earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1916.
She converted to Catholicism after reading the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. “This,” she said, “is the truth.” She continued as a university teacher until 1922 when she moved to a Dominican school in Speyer; her appointment as lecturer at the Educational Institute of Munich ended under pressure from the Nazis. She entered religious life as a Carmelite, knowing the Carmel could not protect her and offering her life as a sacrifice for love. She wrote of her life in Carmel: “Everyone here is treating me with so much love … He who has laid the Cross on my shoulders has managed to make it sweet and light.” The Nazis took her and a her younger sister from the convent in Echt and they were last seen on a box car for Auschwitz. ‘Come Rosa, ‘ said Edith to her younger sister. ‘We are going for our people.’
She is perhaps not a Catholic saint, just another Jewish victim of the Holocaust. The controversies over her religious identity always seem misplaced to me. To define or redefine an identity under oppression is not simple and we always work within the context of what is possible for us here and now, given these constraints. Limited choices. Little freedom of movement. Edith Stein was a woman trapped in an impossible situation and showed her own courage in facing death, lived by her own vision of what gave life in those horrendous circumstances meaning.