Women scrub away the taint of apartheid

One of the dates that was marked by the Non-Stop Picket each year was South African Women’s Day on 9th August.  On or around this date, City Group would organise a special rally on the Picket to honour and remember the role of women in the struggle against apartheid. 

South African Women’s Day celebrates the demonstration by 20,000 women of all races on 9th August 1956 against the pass laws.  Since 1994, it has been a public holiday in South Africa.

In 1988, City Group celebrated South African Women’s Day with a themed protest on 7th August.  As so often on these occasions, a direct action was planned as part of the rally.  In this playful action, four women – Colette, Grace, Clare and Penny – dressed as stereotypical housewives, took scrubbing brushes to the walls of the South African Embassy.  They did so to draw attention to how the embassy was tainted with the blood of all those killed by the apartheid regime.  In taking this action, they also sought to highlight the double oppression experienced by Black women living under apartheid – that they were oppressed on the basis of their race, but also as women.  By enacting domestic labour in their action, the Picketers drew attention to the limited employment opportunities for Black women in South Africa under apartheid and remembered that women had played leading roles in anti-apartheid resistance whilst continuing to carry the burden of caring and ‘housework’ in their families and communities.

Many of the direct actions taken by City Group activists were concerned with directly impeding the work of the apartheid regime and its supporters, profiteers and apologists in Britain.  This was the case with the occupations of South African Airways or the disruption of sporting fixtures by sportsmen and women who had broken the sports boycott.  Some actions were acts of witness, mourning or remembrance, such as the practice of attaching flowers to the Embassy gates following executions and massacres in South Africa.  In contrast, this South African Women’s Day action was more a piece of street theatre designed to convey a sophisticated message about the place of women in the struggle against apartheid.  In doing so, it used humour to good effect.  It also served to subvert the fabric of the embassy facade – the act of scrubbing it clean revealing the reality of apartheid’s dirty war played out behind its walls.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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