Human and gender rights activist, Elinor Sisulu has called on South Africans, the youth in particular, to read more and know their history. Sisulu was speaking at an event hosted by the Ahmed Kathrada and the Sophie & Henry De Bruyn Foundations which paid tribute to several women who contributed selflessly to the resistance against apartheid.

Sophie Williams De Bruyn, who was part of the 1956 Women’s March also spoke at the event. Etched in history books, the march was part of a decade of mass protest and defiance that ended in 1960 with the Sharpeville massacre.

Struggle heroines Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Vesta Smith, Mary Moodley and Albertina Sisulu were remembered at a commemorative event which started at the Women’s Jail in Constitution Hill on Sunday, August 4.

During her address, Elinor Sisulu pointed out that when students, during the #FeesMustFall protests called for a free and decolonized education a clear concept of such an education system was never really ironed out. “My understanding of a decolonized education is about knowing your own history, celebrating it and affirming your own heroes.”

At the occasion, two publications were also launched one on the life of trade unionist and anti-apartheid activist Mary Moodley and another on Albertina Sisulu.  The booklets form part of a growing list of publications produced by the Kathrada Foundation. Elinor Sisulu remarked that the two publications advanced the promotion of history, contributing to a decolonized education. She also noted that this year marked the centenaries of South African writers Peter Abrahams, Es’kia Ezekiel Mphahlele and Noni Jabavu.

She appealed for history to be better presented to young people, in a quest to counter what she described as ‘a very toxic social media environment in which histories are getting distorted and untested accusations thrown in the public space’.

Sophie De Bruyn reflected on the history of Flat 13, Kholvad House in Johannesburg where Ahmed Kathrada took up residency from 1947 to 1963, before being arrested and imprisoned. Sophie recalled how Kholvad House became central to building non-racialism.

“It was also at Kholvad House that I met Aunty Mary Moodley for the first time when she had addressed us. There were young and old members of the congress movement. Aunty Mary had a passion whenever she spoke, and most of us in the audience would wave in awe, which would bring tears in her eyes.”

De Bruyn also acknowledged the tremendous role played by Mary Moodley in organizing the 1956 Women’s March. She said Moodley was able to work and mobilise people across race, gender and class.

However, De Bruyn cautioned that the sacrifices of stalwarts such as Mary Moodley and many others continues to be taken for granted. While the Women’s March envisioned a free and non-racial South Africa, De Bruyn expressed her disappointment at the increased racial sentiments and intolerances.

Directing her call to the country’s leadership, she urged for a deeper focus on nation building. De Bruyn said, “We are much more apart as a nation than having been brought together”.

She concluded by asking for a change in mindset when celebrating events such as Women’s Day. “Such historical occasions need to be commemorated differently, with more depth and consideration to the plight of the poor. This would have ideally characterized the values of Mary Moodley.”

De Bruyn who was only 18 years old on August 9, 1956 when the historical march took place and was also the youngest of the four leaders. The peaceful and non-racial protest saw 20 000 women ranging from various backgrounds and cultures marching to the Union Buildings in Pretoria mobilised against the extension of pass laws to black women.

Other speakers included environmentalist Catherine Constantinides, member of the inaugural African Union’s Youth Advisory Council Shakira Choonara, former student activists in the #FeesMustFall movement Fasiha Hassan and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa. Fasiha presently serves on the Gauteng Provincial Legislature while her counterpart Nompendulo Mkhatshwa was sworn as a Member of Parliament earlier this year.

The commemorative event takes its cue from a long-standing tradition established by Ahmed Kathrada who emphasized the importance of history by remembering the many heroes and heroines of South Africa’s struggle for liberation.

The remembrance event is part of the Kathrada Foundation’s month-long theme which focuses on taking forward the struggle veteran’s life, who would have turned 90 on the 21st of August. The Foundation will be celebrating Kathrada’s legacy by hosting a series of programmes under the theme #Kathrada90.

After the morning programme at Constitution Hill the delegation then moved to Avalon Cemetery for the laying of wreaths at the gravesites of Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph before proceeding to Newclare Cemetery. The third session of the programme saw the delegation gathering at the gravesites of Rahima Moosa, Vesta Smith and Albertina Sisulu for more reflections.

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