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Each August, South Africans turn our collective attention to women’s historic contributions and contemporary value.

We do so inspired by the example of the women who marched on the Union Buildings on August 9 1956, demanding to see the apartheid prime minister Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom. Their chant was specific, “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uzakufa!” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock, you will die.)

It was defiant, decisive and powerful. Holding in our mind’s eye the image of a dislodged boulder is the antithesis of a sedentary, impenetrable rock. It was not an expression of stoic strength as captured in the contemporary colloquial labelling of women as izimbokodo. In a country where the majority of people are fluent in one of the Nguni languages from which imbokodo is drawn, such a repeated mistranslation is curious. Language matters because it reveals how we think about ourselves and our world. What we elevate is as revealing as what we repeatedly trivialise or look away from.

Feminist historians have made it common knowledge that the 1956 march was the culmination of many years of women’s marches in the provinces in previous years. It was not an inexplicable or exceptional moment. In other words, the 1956 march against the extension of passes to African women was a notch in a complex timeline of women organising. Notably, it was not a moment of success, although some of the smaller marches we do not celebrate did achieve success. We would do well to ask questions about why those other marches are shrouded in secrecy.

This collective turning to women and the ways in which we matter is an important investment in our history and collective memory as a country. It is also a crucial reminder of how important symbolism is to the work of making sense of a nation. To make sense of a nation, we attend to more than chronicling its achievements, its various nation-building efforts, and the rigour of our democratic instruments; we also pay attention to what things in our past and present mean.

In recent years we have become stuck in a debate that proceeds as though there are only two options available to us as proper connections with the August march 65 years ago. On the one hand, we are invited to celebrate that moment and the ways in which it connects to actual on-paper wins for gender equality and to pick up the gauntlet to advance the cause of equality further. On the other hand, paying attention to ongoing and deepening violence against women, the continued pigeonholing and marginalisation of women seems more urgent than celebration. This is an important ongoing set of challenges.

I am going to sidestep the issue of whether we have something to celebrate, and indeed what such celebration looks like in August. There has been much written about this already. Instead, I want to propose that we ask questions about what it might mean to honour the work and memory of the women who made the 1956 march possible. Moments of crisis such as the one we are living through are both debilitating in the fear they unleash and also instructive.

What do the overlapping pandemics of Covid-19 and crisis levels of violence against women allow us to see about women’s lives, work and valuation?

What can the 1956 march and our canonisation of it teach us about the place of women today?

What does an honest reflection on women, gender and SA look like beyond recycling axioms about women’s courage and strength?

Covid has placed a magnifying glass on women’s work, contributions and devaluation in contemporary SA in three ways. Under lockdown level 5, we were all required to retreat into the home as a way to remain safe from a new menacing virus. Only certain categories of people, mythologised as real-life angels and heroes, could roam the streets: essential workers who ensured we could eat, get access to information and have access to medical care.

To oblige us all to retreat into the home without placing additional protections in place relied on a blatant disregard of what more than a century of feminist organising across the world has taught us: that home is neither a guaranteed safe nor gender-equitable space. It should have been unsurprising then to be informed of spikes in gender-based violence reports and demands for places of refuge. The lack of planning is a direct expression of refusal to take seriously women’s safety, lives and insights from women’s organising. It is an insistence on paying lip service to demands made by women’s collective actions, including most recently those made by the shutdown movements.

Secondly, in the ensuing lockdowns, certain categories of women were increasingly expected to work virtually while at home, often with the competing demands of domestic and childcare work. Adapting to the “new normal” did not enable women, who are disproportionately encumbered with cooking, cleaning and care work in the home, to deliver on their ongoing employers’ demands. Instead, the movement of the virtual workplace into the home demanded that women simultaneously juggle multiple work roles.

It is no longer the phenomenon previously dubbed “women’s double shift” at work and at home, which at least assumed that the “shifts” were undertaken in different physical locations. We may well live to see the ways in which women’s collective career advancements will suffer significantly because of this refusal to take the conditions of women’s labour seriously. This will find expression in promotions, performance evaluation scores, and it threatens to erode many of the workplace gains of the past few decades.

The third measure of value comes into focus when we pay attention to the careless treatment of the “heroic” essential workers by the state. Whereas millions of women in the food, retail and health-care sectors kept us alive in level 5, the state abdicated its responsibility to them in several brutally significant ways. These include the largescale looting of personal protective equipment which placed health-care workers in great danger, with no consequences for the thieves, as well as the refusal to vaccinate workers in food and retail sectors. There is ongoing dishonesty in not confronting the intersections of class, race and gender in who the state feels no obligation to.

We would do well to remember this parasitic relationship the next time the president implores nurses to hasten the vaccine rollout, as much as the next time we encounter the women scanning our groceries at the checkout till. It is no accident that most nurses and retail workers are black women.

The image of a throng of women, 20,000 strong, is an arresting one. It is one worth taking seriously. This August, let us do more than remark on it and honour those women by remembering the similarities between their work and today’s women. When women are called upon and remembered only as heroes in the service of national memory or a global pandemic, this is a parasitic requirement because there is no reciprocal responsibility of care. In its place, they can be mythologised as izimbokodo, not mobile, working, world-changing and now also traumatised women. Both women’s work and pain are inconvenient for nationalism and easy to trivialise.

When we take seriously what feminist historians have taught us about the 1956 march, such trivialisation is particularly disturbing, albeit everywhere in our midst today. It also lays bare the consistency in how we treat women’s collective work by rendering it submissive, one-dimensional and useful to nation-building only if it can also be tamed to better serve nationalist interests.

This article appeared in Sunday Times on 8 August 2021 written by Pumla Dineo Gqola - a feminist author and research professor at Nelson Mandela University