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South Africa Women Mark Women’s Day

August 9, 1999

KWATHEMA, South Africa (AP) _ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela led South African women Monday in celebrating a forgotten figure in the anti-apartheid struggle, a woman who organized one of the earliest and largest demonstrations against white rule.

But the graveside ceremony marking National Women’s Day was overshadowed by a major challenge still facing women in this fledgling democracy _ violence against women.

About 64,000 women and girls are raped each year in South Africa, and South African women are nearly three times as likely to be raped as women in the United States. About 14,000 of the victims are girls under 18, who are often raped by HIV-infected men who believe they will be cured by having sex with a virgin.

The National Women’s Day theme _ ``Women United: Break the Silence″ _ dominated a televised speech by President Thabo Mbeki, who said the liberation of South Africans would not be complete ``unless women of our country live without fear in their houses and walk freely through all the streets and villages of our country.″

Uniformed policewomen carried a banner that read ``police combat violence against women,″ joining about 5,000 people _ mostly women _ assembled at the stadium in Kwathema, a black township 25 miles southeast of Johannesburg.

National Women’s Day marks a 1956 march by 20,000 women who converged on government buildings in Pretoria to protest apartheid pass laws _ one of the first mass demonstrations against white minority rule.

The pass laws required South Africa’s majority blacks, mixed race and Asians to carry documents _ or passes _ that limited them to certain racially segregated areas.

The forgotten heroine of the struggle, Margaret Gazo, spent five years in prison for political activism after instigating a local anti-pass demonstration and later helping to organize the larger national march, women activists said Monday.

Most histories credit other women, including whites and Asians, with organizing the march. But Madikizela-Mandela _ dressed in the African National Congress Women’s League colors of black and green _ said in an interview she wanted to correct the ``distortions.″ Madikizela-Mandela, who heads the ANC Women’s League, is the ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela.

On Monday, Madikizela-Mandela and other Women’s League members unveiled a polished black granite monument to Gazo to replace the cement markers that currently designate her grave. She died in 1974.

``You go to any library, and the struggle of women has been ignored when the history of this country was written,″ Madikizela-Mandela told reporters after the service. ``We want to rewrite the history of women’s roles.″

Gazo’s great-granddaughter, Precious Modisane, 27, said her ancestor’s fighting spirit should inspire women of her generation to tackle the violence threatening women today.

Gender equality is guaranteed under South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, and women hold about one-third of the seats in Parliament and Cabinet ministerial posts.

A segment of an anti-discrimination labor law passed earlier this year went into effect on Monday to emphasize the symbolism of National Women’s Day, said Phenyo Nonqane, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor.

The affirmative action segment of the law will go into effect at a later date, he said.

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