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Published Date: August 7, 2015

Published Date: August 7, 2015

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Holding Hands: South Africa’s National Women’s Day

This article was written in honor of South Africa’s National Women’s Day on August 9. In light of this memory and moment, we celebrate the experience of global womanhood, even as we learn to hear and love each other’s unique stories.

I glanced at the newspaper lying next to our table. It read “the day 20,000 women said no the dompas.”[1] I was intrigued and pulled the paper onto the table where my mom and I were sharing lunch. Just the week before, South Africa had celebrated women’s day on August 9 with a sleepy holiday from work. But, as I read the article, I wondered why many of us had never learned about the significance of the holiday.

I am a woman who believes in the value of the female voice. I also believe in the godly empowerment of other women, so there I sat, glued to the newspaper headline. The article told the story of four brave female leaders who led 20,000 women up the steps of the Union Building in Pretoria to hand over 20,000 petitions to the prime minister. These women were Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn. Sophia is the last surviving leader of the march and the newspaper article was dedicated to her legacy and fight for women’s rights. The newspaper came home with me, and so did the feeling brewing inside of me—that this article was meant to find me.

As the hours passed, I heard the voice of God and the unmistakable words, “you are going to meet Sophia.” You can imagine the excitement I felt mixed with apprehension. Was I hearing God correctly? I didn’t know where she lived or if she would agree to see me.

Exactly two months later, God provided the finances, the opportunity, and an angel who took up the call to arrange a private meeting with Sophia. I was standing on the platform at the Gautrain on my way to meet this matriarch of strength. As I climbed onto the train, I clutched a tiny piece of paper in one hand with an address scribbled on it.

I had no idea how to get to Sophia’s house. I had received the call a half hour before I boarded the train. All I knew was that God had told me to go. So I sat on the train and prayed, watching the scenery roll by. I noticed that the elderly lady opposite me wore a beautiful Hebrew necklace. When I commented on it, we struck up a conversation. Before long, I discovered that we knew a lot of the same people—what a move of God! As the train pulled into the station, she questioned me about my visit to Johannesburg. When I told her about my meeting, she said “I am taking you to your meeting,” and off we went in her white car. Talk about an answer to prayer.

When I arrived at Sophia’s house, I shyly rang the doorbell and was ushered inside. Sophia was running late, so I took my seat in the living room. Immediately, a sense of love and acceptance surrounded me.

When Sophia finally walked through the door, she dropped her handbag, took her seat, looked me in the eye, and asked “how are you, Lauren?”

After I struggled to answer, she said “it will be hard to answer that question now, but by our third meeting you will tell me how you really are.” That was my first impression of Sophia, my first image of who she is. I must admit I was somewhat silenced in her presence. We chatted casually before our conversation turned to the women’s march.

Sophia’s tone grew serious and she said, “The women’s march was a highlight—it was not the only thing I did, but it was a highlight. It was history in the making. These women who marched—they made history, we didn’t do it for ourselves, we did not think—what is in it for me? We didn’t do it for the accolades or the rewards. We were a bunch of down-to-earth women—mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers—that was what we were and that was what we did. We did it because it was part of what we needed to do; it was in the line of our lives.”

Sophia shared that she was the youngest of the four women who led the march, and the other three leaders nurtured her. She looked up to them and saw them as mothers.

“At the time, South Africa was divided into four provinces,” she continued, “women came from all over to join the march, these women raised their own funds from crocheting, selling scones, selling food—they did whatever they could to raise the funds. It was not like today, these women relied on themselves. They were poor, but we all believed in doing what we did for the goodness of everybody. Twenty thousand petitions were given on that day and there would have been more. Except some women were arrested, while others were sent on a wild goose chase—not knowing where to go.”

While Sophia spoke, I felt the weight of the struggle and the sacrifice these women made to free the captives of South Africa. I also felt the weight of the women themselves and their role in changing the face of our nation.

Sophia’s heart is moved to share the stories of women. She is adamant that all women share each other’s stories. We are called to look for the hidden faces of those that fought bravely on the front lines all those years ago.

When I asked her if they were scared, she replied “Our leadership was worried about us, they were a little bit scared. I remember that we were called in and asked, what are we going to do if the police show up to arrest us? So we made plans, Lilian and Helen organized it so that if the police came to arrest us, we would all kneel down and pray. Twenty thousand women would kneel down together and they would not be able to take everybody. There were many there who were Christians and many had it in their nature to fall down to their knees and pray, so that was our plan.”

Sophia shared her life with me and the hours flew by until eventually, the sun began to dip beneath the horizon and I felt it was time to say goodbye. Before I gathered my belongings, Sophia showed me the placards they used in the march, along with a book highlighting the lives and faces of women in Parliament who made a difference. Sophia’s name was on the front along with a beautiful quote on strength and individuality. I found that I could no longer hide the tears that my soul was desperate to shed in those divine moments.

Sophia hugged me tightly and gave me a big smile. “You must nurture other women,” she told me, “and you must not break them down, but build them up, take women’s hands and tell their stories.”

That was not the first time I had heard those words. God had told me the same thing many times. I knew the weight and worth of those words outweighed all the hidden gemstones the world had yet to see.

“Can I call you Ma, Sophie?” I had to ask.[2] The brave matriarch understood, “of course you can, people call me many names.”

Ma Sophia dropped me at the train station and we said a hurried goodbye. But, she will remain with me long after our meeting. God has our destinies in his hand, and part of mine was to meet a woman who called me to my purpose. So here I am, still fighting to find my part in the story, but happy that as a woman, I have finally begun that journey. And I am overjoyed that my destiny was to meet a matriarch of our nation. I know that our meeting was not just for myself, it was for others too. Forever burnt into my mind is the image of 20,000 women rising up to fight injustice.

“God sent forth the word and great are the army of women who proclaim it,” (Psalm 68:11).

If you are in South Africa on August 9, then Happy Women’s Day! If not—it’s still women’s day, so let’s celebrate!


[1] A Dompas was a book non-whites were required to carry with them in Apartheid South Africa.
[2] Ma means Mother in Afrikaans and Xhosa.

Photo credit Flickr user Elizabeth Ann Colette