The Women’s Monument at the Union Buildings in Tshwane “A FOUND OBJECT, WHISPERED VOICES and TEXT”

By Steven Sack

It was around the turn of the century. The Director General of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, was deep in the looming calamity of the “millennium bug”, the “Y2K”, that was predicted for the day the clock ticked forward from 1999 to the year 2000.  Just one of many matters of policy that our senior partners in Science and Technology pursued. Later that year they would be landed with the unenviable task of responding to a request from the President Thabo Mbeki to convene “experts” through the Presidential Advisory Panel on AIDS, half of which were AIDS denialists. 

On the other hand, the Directorate of Arts, within the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, where I was deployed, was engaged with the heritage mandate, looking back in time to 1956 and the historic Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. We were tasked with writing a Cabinet Report premised upon the promise of the TRC that there would be “symbolic reparations” for the atrocities associated with Apartheid.  According to the TRC report, symbolic reparations refer to measures that facilitate the “communal process of remembering and commemorating the pain and victories of the past.” Such measures, which are seen as mechanisms to restore the dignity of victims and survivors, include exhumations, tombstones, memorials, monuments etc.

And then there was the Department of Public Works. It came to our attention that they were in the process of commissioning the design and imminent construction of  a fence that would entirely  surround the Union Buildings, making it inaccessible to the public.  Despite our remonstrations, they insisted that the National Key Points Act made this a requirement. We were immediately struck by the irony that we were to be party to the development of a monument for women who marched onto the Union Buildings precinct in 1956 and that this very Monument  was to become inaccessible due to the policy requirement that this Key Point be secured, with a hugely expensive fence, under our democratic South Africa.

In commissioning the first post-Apartheid memorial, to be located at the very heart of the Union Buildings, we reflected on how Herbert Baker had conceptualised this bastion of white power, as two wings, symbolising the unifying of the English and the Afrikaners; and we were about to commemorate, in the heart of this building, those who had always been excluded.

Gordon Metz, a colleague in the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, and I, got working on the project. We had both studied Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand and thought we knew how this project should be realised.

We started to speculate about what we would commission – the very idea of a monument seemed so anachronistic. “Monuments” were for men, for heroic white generals, on horseback, cast in bronze or carved in marble. None of this suggested a way forward for a commission to commemorate women, and their struggle to live in the country of their birth as equal citizens.

What kind of monument could possibly adequately record this historic event? What kind of monument was the new democratic state after? Surely not bronze statues, and nothing obviously “heroic”.

We knew that a woman artist needed to be found, who would find the solution, who could imagine and shape the heroic into a new and appropriate form.

There were no progressive institutions of learning in South Africa, involved in the teaching of monumental art production. We began to form some ideas as to who could produce an artwork for this significant moment. A kind of non-monument, engaging and interactive, subtle and meaningful. We began to list the artists, and no more than two or three seemed suitably capable. We would arrange for three of them to meet, to talk, to collaborate and to find a solution. We were new to the civil service, to the ways of government, to the public processes, the tenders and compliance requirements, and we soon realized that it was not for us to “curate” the memorial. Our job was to oversee a fair and transparent, open process, so that all artists throughout SA could compete for the honour of producing this public symbol.  A national call for proposals was announced.

A committee needed to be convened: a panel of experts, including a woman art historian. This would be the first attempt of the new Government at a monumental memorialisation. For this reason, the Deputy Minister, the Honourable Bridget Mabandla, served on the adjudication committee, a woman herself, who could provide appropriate political leadership.

We approached Noria Mabasa and told her of the call for submissions. She said to us that the sculpture would have to come to her in a dream, that she would have to dream the sculpture into existence. Sadly her dream had not manifested by the closing date for submissions. (There is a film in which she describes her way of dreaming works into existence: Mam Noria Mabasa: Inspired By Her Dreams

And so it came to the day of review and selection of the submissions. Each proposal was dispiritingly more stereotyped, unoriginal and cliché’ed than the next. I have no record of these submissions, but I do recall the images of clenched fists, and the too-familiar abstracted female forms. Few of them demonstrated the ability to make a memorable and original monument.

Finally the proposal from Wilma Cruise and Marcus Holmes was chosen. and they were commissioned to execute their very unconventional design.

Here we will let Wilma Cruise in her own words provide a background and an account of  her intention as the artist commissioned to make the monument:

In 1956 on the 9 August, twenty thousand women gathered at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the pass laws on women. They came from all walks of life; they represented all races and a wide range of political opinion. Yet they were united in their purpose in demanding the end of apartheid rule. They presented the Prime Minister, JG Strijdom with bundles of protest letters demanding the repeal of the pass laws. The Prime Minister fled even though the protest was peaceful, organised, quiet and dignified. Defiant, in the face of the Prime Minister’s absence the women stood in silence and then sang the song that was to become the rallying call of the movement – wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo (strike the woman strike the rock). The memorial celebrates this event. It is a multi-media installation, which incorporates a FOUND OBJECT, a chorus of WHISPERED VOICES and TEXT. The figurative element is supplied by the viewer/s themselves.

At the launch of the monument there were women present who crouched on their knees and re-enacted the actions of grinding corn. Cruise proceeds to describe the grinding stone, the imbokodo. She says it is a ‘”found object”.

The imbokodo is a symbolic reference. This object is both particular to the women’s march and general in its reference to the Black women of Africa. The imbokodo provides the grinding surface for maize. It is the site of sustenance and nurture. Its significance is reflected in its use in the 1956 rallying call, “Strike the women strike the rock”. The imbokodo is used as the central motif in the vestibule. It is placed on bronze plates set into the sand stone floor in full registration with Herbert Baker’s design. The plates, one highly reflective the other more light absorbent, represent earth and fire.

The completed work included  voices, in the eleven official lanuages which are what Cruise describes as  “THE WHISPERED VOICES”.

When the viewer approaches the imbokodo, the phrase, “Wathint’ abafazi, Wathint’ imbokodo”, (Strike the women strike the rock) is heard. It is quietly repeated in each of the eleven official languages. The circuit is repeated. It is as if the women are whispering down the tunnel of history. They provide an exhortation and a reminder that tampering with the women is tampering with the very source of life. The sound is enhanced by the projection into space of some of the resistance phrases used in the 1956 march. These are produced by a state of the art computer-generated light system.


On the risers of the stairs leading up to the vestibule a section of text is imposed. Extracts from the protest letter, The Demand of the Women of South Africa for the Withdrawal of Passes for Women and the Repeal of the Pass Laws is applied to the surface of the sandstone in raised brushed stainless steel letters. The inscription on the risers provides a record of the actual protest – a gentle reminder that history should not repeat itself. It also functions as a visual announcement of the memorial in the vestibule. The stairs provide a sweep up to the hallowed site. They lead as it were to the point of climax. The viewer on entering Malibongwe is led up to the place where they pause to contemplate the monument.

Kathryn Smith has described the memorial as creating, “‘equivalences of experience’ without falling into an old fashioned rhetoric. It is not about a simulation of experience, but an experience made up of ‘real’ objects that are more evocative that didactic” (Artthrob August 2000).

Here follows a description in the media of the unveiling of the new monument:

Pretoria – President Thabo Mbeki on Wednesday unveiled a monument in Pretoria in honour of the women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 to protest against apartheid pass laws.

As dignitaries, including veterans of the march and cabinet ministers, gathered in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings, Mbeki stood solemnly as the monument’s sound system was activated.

Through the sound system the words that the 1956 protesters chanted were repeated: “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, Wa thinto bas.” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock).

The monument is a low structure consisting of a grinding stone mounted on metal to symbolise the power of women. It was erected at the top of the amphitheatre in a vestibule between the east and west wings.

Mbeki also unveiled the portraits of four women – Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Raheem Moosa and Sophie de Bruyn – who led 20 000 others in the march.

Mbeki was greeted on arrival at the Union Buildings by three veterans of the march: Mphoko Baleni, 67, Dorothy Masinya, 70, and Christine Mnguni, 74.

The president stood to attention as the South African flag was hoisted and the national anthem was played by a military band.

He then mounted the steps leading to the monument.

The steps have been inscribed with gold lettering reflecting extracts from the petition the women handed over to Prime Minister J G Strydom’s apartheid government.

It reads in part: “We came from the cities and the towns, from the reserves and from the villages as women united in our purpose to free the African women from the degradation of passes.” – Sapa

On this significant day, I am in London, at the request of the High Commissioner, Cheryl Carolus to help guide the process of the refurbishment of South Africa House situated on Trafalgar Square. Another example of Herbert Baker’s architecture.

South Africa House is a Grade II* listed building on Trafalgar Square in London WC2 and had been denied permission from English Heritage to remove the  highly offensive and inappropriate art that adorns the walls of the interior. 

I receive a call from the Deputy Minister. She is attending the launch and is in a state of some tension. ”Can the stone be raised higher on a plinth?” she enquires. The sculptures appears so unmonumental! She seems to be reassured when some of the women present get down on their hands and knees and enact the grinding of the corn.

Within days we hear of the theft of the stone in the imbokodo stone, and it does not take too long for the staff in the adjoining offices to begin complaining about the noise generated by the soundtrack.

Some years later I receive a call. Noria has finally had the dream and she has made a sculpture to commemorate the Women’s March. We don’t hesitate to acquire it and it is now exhibited in the Union Buildings. I cannot find a photograph of it but it is similar to another work .

This work,  depicting the Venda ‘Ngoma Lungundu’ drum being carried from Zimbabwe to Venda, also appears to be about giving voice. Mabasa previously used the traditional drum form in the monumental sculpture she produced to commemorate the 1956 Women’s March on the Union Buildings. There, the drum was intended to represent the voices of the women who protested on that day. Here though, the specific use of the Ngoma Lungundu drum, which was said to send the Venda nation’s enemies fleeing, seems to express a voice for the Venda people; to articulate a sense of pride in their history. 

Noria Mabasa at Bell-Roberts Gallery
by Katharine Jacobs

I have not been able to return to see if the Wilma Cruise monument still functions as intended, with its sound track and mbokodo with grinding stone still intact.