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Marching to Pretoria: Helen Joseph leads a march by more than 20 000 women to the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Johannesburg – Lilian Ngoyi, Amina Cachalia and Helen Joseph each chose to put on a green blouse on August 9, 1956, when they rose on a late-winter morning that was forecast to have high-level clouds and a slight wind.

But it was in that light winter weather that they would later stand in proud solidarity in front of the Union Buildings, with their thumbs raised high, carrying piles of signed petitions waiting delivery to Prime Minister JG Strijdom.
That’s the image of the march of 1956 which the world knows, and one so different to the Women’s Day of today, which has degenerated into a whimsical celebration where women are urged to “spoil themselves”.

Most of the women who made their way to the Union Buildings in 1956 were black, yet inside pages of newspapers spoke to the home-makers, the white women, who would have paged past the plight of their sisters to read about what specials the stores had.

If the ads and feature pages were a reflection of South African society, these women were absorbed in their homes, babies and attire.

On a “shopping page” in The Star on that day, a range of items are showcased as advertorial. And graphic illustrations of women portray them with unlikely waistlines, sharp-breasted and with fine features. Spring was around the corner, so court shoes and continental cottons featured in the ads, coaxing readers into downtown Joburg.

Immaculate seamstresses would have caught buses to ABC Shoe Centre or Stuttafords, where they could receive expert advice on pattern making.

New on the shelves were Glazed and Sea Island cottons, printed seersucker and plain poplins.

“Go on – spoil yourself to a fashion soon to be forgotten,” they seem to say.

This was a world so far away from the green blouses and traditional dress of the historic moment which would play out forever in our history at the Union Buildings.

– The Star *The views expressed here are solely of the writer’s