Towards Empowerment of Women in South Africa

Published on 29th May 2018

We stand here in recognition and celebration of the selfless contributions of two women who will ever-remain the true giants of our struggle against apartheid oppression. Mama Albertina Sisulu and Comrade Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela were a formidable force against patriarchy in all its manifestations. Mama Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu’s light shines as the brightest symbol and personification of the courage and the heroic struggle of South African women. Her passion for the liberation of her people focused on building structures that defended the movement during the dark days.

Mama Sisulu played an instrumental role in many of the landmark moments of our liberation struggle. These include the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, and her election as the first woman President of the United Democratic Front. She was the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act. MaSisulu was the only woman to attend the first conference of the ANC Youth League and was one of the organisers of the Women’s March of 1956.

She was the organiser of the Federation of South African Women, President of the Federation of Transvaal Women, and the founding member of the ANC Women’s League. She played a pivotal role in the re- establishment of the ANC Women’s League after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990.

The memory of the sacrifices of Mama Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela are still very fresh in our minds. Our duty as women of South Africa is to take lessons from the life of Mama Madikizela-Mandela. Comrade Winnie always chose the freedom of our people and the emancipation of women over anything else.

This year marks one hundred years since the formation of the Bantu Women’s League, which was the precursor to the ANCWL. Its first President was Charlotte Manye Maxeke, who exemplified the spirit of defiance and indomitable will in the face of an oppressive, racist and sexist regime. She had a clear understanding of non-sexism and was not conservative. She recruited to the ANC Reverend Mahabane who went on to become the President of the ANC.

These gallant fighters of the women’s struggle had a vision of a free, non-racial, non-sexist society in which the oppression and exploitation of women is eradicated. These are the women who came from the Trade Union movement, and others who were highly educated, that started working together. To mention a few, Ray Alexander, Helen Joseph, Ruth Mompati, Bertha Mkhize, Sophie Du Bruyn, Dulcie September, Rahima Moosa, and Fatima Meer.

It is in this spirit that we call upon all South Africans, from all walks of life, to support our outstanding athlete, Caster Semenya, in the fight against a system that seeks to undermine and destroy her talent.

At the occasion of the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, uTata Mandela said, and I quote: “Many new provisions on gender issues reflect the progress that we are making as a nation towards securing equality for our women compatriots who have for far too long suffered too many privations merely because of their gender.”

Since 1994, South Africa, led by the ANC government, has made considerable progress towards empowering women through various legislative, policy and programmatic interventions. South Africa resembles a warzone! The war is against women and the girl-child! We have a national crisis! Murder, rape, brutal physical attacks, harmful practices, the denial of opportunities for the advancement of women across the board have become established practice in our society.

When brutal killings of women are announced, they are always taken as business as usual and women are taken as statistics. The grief of families who have lost their loved ones is real and the pain is unbearable.

In the political arena, the economy, and in their social lives, women face everyday exclusion, discrimination, systematic segregation, physical and emotional violence, threats of, and actual death, many times at the hands of family members and boyfriends and those that are in control of business in big institutions.

On the other hand we have to listen to the fears of the boy-child. It is important that we include boys and men in our programmes so that they understand what patriarchy is and what the abuse of women is. We also have to listen to their experiences.

How do we justify the aspirations in our Constitution against the reality that women face every day of their lives unsure if they will still be alive in the next hour? This year alone, our country has witnessed a number of tragic and violent crimes against women and children. These include the brutal and senseless killing of Katlego Joja, Zolile Khumalo, Ntombizodwa Dlamini, Lindiwe Sibiya and countless women and children whose names are too many to mention. Others just disappear forever. They are trafficked.

The country was shocked by the news that one of our youngest and brilliant female artists, Babes Wodumo, was allegedly abused by her partner. The country also heard about another artist, Mshoza, who had allegedly endured unimagined violence by her husband. These are a few stories that make the headlines. There are many untold, unreported stories of women in the rural areas who endure the same.

Women are raising their children all on their own. The fathers of their children are absent. The court system exists to protect women and their children. How does a woman in Muyexe or Mkhanyakude approach the courts to force the father of her children to take responsibility? The court system expects her to bring evidence to prove that she is indeed the one looking after her children. The administration and the process is long, frustrating and discouraging.

We urgently need one, short emergency number that is dedicated to responding to the security of the people of South Africa. The country has too long, and too many numbers that do not speak to women and children. The number will then be organised according to various sectors or departments.

Patriarchy manifests itself in the power and domination of women by men in society. Patriarchy manifests itself in the power and control by men in all spheres of our lives. In fact, it has increased its offensive position against women - regardless of age, race, class, or ethnic group. It is patriarchy that drives fathers to sexually abuse their two-month-old babies! It is patriarchy that physically forces men on women and turns lovers into killers! It is patriarchy that convinces teenage boys to rape and steal from their grandmothers! It is patriarchy that forces women to reserve the best seat at the table for men!

It is patriarchy that ensures that the power relations and actions within organisations and workplaces are patterned in a distinction between male and female! It is patriarchy that ensures that masculine principles dominate structures of authority, even in women-led sectors!

Everywhere, women are seen as emotional, dramatic, requiring mentorship, seeking publicity and almost always untrusted with executive decisions. We are fully aware that patriarchy thrives on a series of privileges that reinforce power. We do not, therefore, expect those who have held power for centuries to champion a struggle that could result in the loss of such privileges.

The business sector continues to lag behind national efforts to eradicate sexist economic exclusion. There is only one female Chief Executive Officer in the Top 40 JSE-listed companies. Worse still, the South African gender pay gap is disturbingly high.

Women who have made it to the top of the ladder purely on merit are constantly labelled “female employment equity candidates” by men who think they have a birth right to be captains of the industry. Many boardrooms still resemble a “conservative boys club.”

Equally, women in the lower end of the economy - in the factory floors, as domestic workers and as cleaners in offices - face daily harassment and demands for sexual favours from their male bosses and supervisors.

The economic system and our labour market stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the different responsibilities that women have as mothers, wives, or as carers of young school-going children, the sick, and older persons in their households. The duty of care, every second, every minute, every hour, of every day, of every month, of every year, falls squarely on the shoulders of women. This fact is not included in the GDP.

In the absence of a structured gender transformation agenda in the private sector, women’s promotion to decision-making bodies and gender equality is left to the whims of the executive and the boards, and thus falls far behind our national aspirations. Measures that will be applied more strictly are necessary in order to bind the private sector to gender transformation regulations.

In South Africa, women continue to face discriminatory financial practices, that frustrate their efforts to gain a foothold and participate fully in the economy. In this regard, we recognize and applaud the pioneering efforts of former First Lady Mama Zanele Mbeki in spearheading a Women’s Development Bank, which is focused on micro-financing. This bank has focused on micro-financing for women and has been able to deal with the hurdles that have been created by the finance industry. We want to congratulate the CEO of the National Empowerment Fund for the efforts she has made in ensuring that women are given a priority in her programs.

South African women demand a leadership that is fully conversant with the women's agenda. A leadership that knows and understands the plight of African women and girls that live in extreme poverty in rural areas, and are excluded from economic advancement and decision-making. We demand a leadership that fully comprehends the plight of exploited and harassed Black, and more particularly African women and girls who toil daily and earn slave wages in the farms of the Western Cape.

In political parties, in the economy, in the religious sector, within the institution of traditional leadership, the trade union movement, the NGO sector, South African women demand strong, dedicated and committed leaders.

Our leaders must be prepared and ready to be held accountable in the advancement of the Women’s Agenda. We demand a leadership that is prepared to bring women into the leadership collective so that women have a voice on issues that affect and have an impact on them. Nothing about us without us!

Our leaders must not hide and bury cases of sexual harassment and the abuse of women in the workplace and in the many organizations that are headed by men who portray themselves as gender sensitive. NGOs that are led by so-called progressive men have also failed women, and have cut them into pieces when they raise their issues.

Women of our country demand a leadership that goes beyond attending gender sensitization workshops and signing of pledges on women’s empowerment. We want and demand positive results!

By Ms Bathabile Dlamini, MP,

Minister in The Presidency responsible for women, Republic of South Africa. 

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