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August 9 South African Women’s Day

by Carole Adriaans | July 15, 2003

Carole Adriaans left Cape Town for a new life, stopping first in London and then in Toronto. Two children and a divorce left her raising a young family, working and tending to her aged father after her mother passed away only after being in Canada a short while. With the children embarked on successful careers and her father no longer with her, Carole became increasingly active in the South African community in Toronto, drawing together the many faces of South Africa in Canada.

Her primary vehicle for this is the organization, South African Women for Women (SAWW). Created in 1997, to commemorate South Africa’s Women’s Day and the women who marched on the government buildings in 1956, SAWW is an organization dedicated to the empowerment of South African women – those who live in South Africa and those who have settled in Canada – by encouraging long-term systemic change.

“We believe in inclusiveness and are committed to a model of sharing, participation and influence which transcends traditional definitions of power and privilege,” said Carole, president of the organization.

“We wish to unite all South African women, no matter their backgrounds, and promote recognition of our rich and varied cultural and historical legacy for the enjoyment and benefit of present and future generations.”

One of the big events on the calendar of South Africans in Toronto (and their many friends and supporters) is the annual gala awards ceremony in August, marking South African Women’s Day. Award winners highlight the contributions women have made to many sectors, both in Canada and in South Africa. In 2003, the 7th annual awards ceremony will honour six women: Albertina Sisulu, Zubeida Barmania, Patricia DeLille, Denese Belchetz and Rhoda Kadalie.

“We will pay tribute to the individual contributions they have made to our common good. These women serve as role models for all of us.”

“We salute them and their achievements. In honouring these exceptional women, South African Women for Women is also making a contribution to the betterment of women in South Africa,” said Carole.

“We encourage you to provide us with names of South African women for future awards who have achieved excellence in their field and who have dedicated their being to humanitarian and other issues relating to the development and well-being of women and children.”

“Additionally, South African Women for Women is providing scholarships to young women in South African townships and we encourage proposals to be forwarded to us for consideration for a scholarship award,” said Carole. And, continuing the emphasis on education, SAWW has run a teacher mentoring program since 1997. In 2000, SAWW published, Let’s Hear Them Speak, by Phyllis Ntantala, putting the voices of African women into print.

The core of the organization is a volunteer board comprised of women from various backgrounds, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of South Africa abroad. Current membership includes Monica Hendricks (Chair – Teacher Mentoring Project), Gwen Coffen, Hazel Manuel (Chair – Scholarship Fund), Pravina Nathoo, Rena Blatt (Chair – Health Program), Khuli Koaho, Janice Dembo, Iris Simpson, and Valerie Sloman.

Carole has fashioned a vocation out of uniting diversity, of brining disparate people together to work towards a common goal. With a belief in the power of education and the strength of the community behind her, Carole continues to organize gala events: planning, fundraising and administering the scholarships, teacher mentoring projects and a new health initiative targeting women and children who have been subjected to sexual violence. One cool woman, indeed!

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Women in Toronto celebrate 1956 march that changed history Leader in fight against apartheid honoured at Gala

Participants recall women’s solidarity in Pretoria protest
by TRISH CRAWFORD – LIFE WRITER, Toronto Star | August 2, 2003

Half a century ago and half a world away, they were among 20,000 women who launched an unprecedented resistance to apartheid.

Today, Thea Abramson and Aisha Bhabha live quietly in Toronto, but the march in their homeland, South Africa, in 1956 is a treasured memory for both.

Abramson, a concert pianist and mother of two young children, living in a white enclave in Johannesburg, knew only culture and privilege. But she objected to the country’s apartheid laws and says that being Jewish gave her empathy for others experiencing oppression. Her father had moved the family from Estonia to Africa when she was a child because of growing anti-Semitism.

Abramson frequently wore a black sash in protest of apartheid rules and staged concerts that raised thousands of dollars to buy children in the townships books and other school supplies. It was in this spirit of wanting to do something to help that she joined her friends in an extraordinary demonstration of solidarity on Aug. 9, 1956, when women of different religions, cultures and social backgrounds staged a peaceful march to press the prime minister for reforms.

Bhabha, was there, too. Her family was always politically active, her brother was jailed for resisting apartheid, and her mother, Khathija, who now lives with her daughter in Toronto, took the 10-year-old Aisha to the march that day.

What those thousands of women did the risks they took, the precedent they set was a major factor in the history of the country, so much so that the day is commemorated as Women’s Day every year by South Africans worldwide. At issue was a government decision requiring black women to carry passbooks, just one of many infringements on their freedoms under apartheid, Abramson says.

What she saw that sunny day in Pretoria, was a singing, marching throng peacefully pressing for change as they massed outside the Union Buildings.

“It was illegal (to march), so we walked in groups of three. It was exhilarating and I was overcome with emotion. It was so inspiring. What I remember the most was the singing and the diversity of the crowd.

"They were singing in the Bantu language and their voices rang out. Indian women were in saris, many wore the ANC (African National Congress) green and yellow, others wore headdresses of their different tribes.”

The women presented their petition to the prime minister and observed a half-hour of silence before dispersing quietly and returning home. Bhabha remembers riding on the bus from Johannesburg to Pretoria for the march. It was an Indian-only bus, as were the schools she attended and the train coaches in which she travelled. “It was a different life (from Canada),” says Bhabha, who immigrated here in 1970. “But, when you are growing up, you are not aware of that.” Bhabha, a Muslim, didn’t wear a sari but western dress. “We were all dressed in white,” she recalls. She, too, remembers all the different clothes and people assembling. But she also remembers seeing dogs guarding government buildings. “They sent dogs to attack us, to chase us away from the Union Building,” she says. “The dogs were chasing us from all directions. But that was such a common practice in those days.” She’s still afraid of dogs. “The dogs were chasing us from all directions. But that was such a common practice in those days.”

Aisha Bhabha, who was 10 at the time

Community activism continues to be part of her family ethic. Her only child has just gone to South Africa with CUSO. After majoring in world religions, Bhabha’s daughter is in her mother’s homeland, working on education and health issues.

Bhabha, 56, and Abramson, 85, will celebrate Women’s Day this year by attending a South African Women for Women fundraising dinner and awards ceremony at the Sheraton Centre Hotel on Aug. 10. Abramson, who followed her children to Canada in 1981, was honoured at the awards ceremony in 2001 for her work in South Africa.

South African Women for Women was founded seven years ago by Carole Adriaans, an Ontario civil servant who was born in Cape Town and immigrated to Canada in 1970. The annual awards ceremony honours work by South African women at home and in Canada and is a major fundraiser for the organization.

Last year, $200,000 was raised for projects including scholarships, a teacher exchange program and a women’s health project. One such health project – a midwife training program in Cape Town – is under way. Janet Maher, a sociologist and international policy development officer at the Centre for Research in Women’s Health, is in South Africa helping to set it up.

Maher, in an interview shortly before she left Toronto, said few women in Africa have babies in hospital or with much medical care at all, so it is important to develop medical models in Africa that will reach them in their communities. Part of the midwife training will involve counselling and testing for HIV, plus the measures that help reduce mother-to-child transmission. About a dozen midwives are expected to come to Canada for further training and to observe our practices here, she said.

Adriaans says that, although apartheid ended in South Africa, its problems did not. Maher, for example, is dealing with four different universities – indicative of the fragmented medical and education system in South Africa that is a holdover from the days when people of different colours did not mix.

At the $100 fundraising dinner, the current situation in South Africa, which is experiencing an epidemic of HIV/AIDS, will be the focus of a keynote speech by Stephen Lewis, United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Also, five women are receiving special awards for their work to raise awareness of inequity, poverty, illiteracy and lack of human rights.

They are:

  • Albertina Sisulu – Woman of Distinction – nurse, educator and politician who helped organize the Pretoria march, has been jailed and now is a Member of Parliament and the ANC leader for Orlando West, Soweto.
  • Patricia Delille – Activist – union official and Member of Parliament in the Pan African Congress, she recently formed her own party, The Independent Democrats.
  • Rhoda Kadalie – Human Rights – the executive director of the Impumelelo Innovations Award Trust, which rewards initiatives to reduce poverty, is a former human-rights commissioner.
  • Zubeida Barmania – Community Service – a lawyer who has helped minority women in Canada and South Africa, sits on a pension review board since returning to South Africa in 1993.
  • Denese Belchets – Education – a superintendent with the York Region District School Board who specialized in teaching students with special needs and has helped develop curriculum and other materials for African schools and has encouraged teacher exchanges.
  • Maryanne Chambers, a former Scotiabank executive with extensive community involvement, will receive the Friendship Award. Chambers is the Ontario Liberal candidate for Scarborough East.

For tickets to the Aug. 10 Gala, call 416-691-9406. For information on South African Women for Women, visit http://www.interlog.com/~saww.

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background

On August 9, 1956, over 20,000 South African women marched to government offices in Pretoria. They chanted “when you strike the women, you have struck a rock.” They were protesting the government’s plan to extend the “pass laws” to women. These laws required African persons to carry a document with them to prove that they were allowed to enter a white area. The government backed down and did not apply the law to women.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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