Address by Deputy Minister Mabudafhasi during the Mail & Guardian Women’s Roundtable, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg

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28 Aug 2014

Programme director

The Mail and Guardian Women’s Roundtable happens just on the eve of National Book Week campaign that will take place from 1st to 7th September, as part of the Heritage Month.

It is important that through books, documentaries and online media, we shall tell the stories of our heroes and heroines who fought for freedom and who paved the way for the present and the future.

We shall focus our attention on the role of women in the liberation struggle and capture these earliest contributions.

As we are nearing the close of National Women’s month, we must remind everyone that women exist throughout the year. They must be cherished, appreciated and respected every day. Igama lamakhosikazi malibongwe!

We are here to celebrate the role that women have played in the liberation struggle that brought about the democracy that we enjoy today. Our theme for this evening, “Women in the Struggle, Championing the cause of Freedom,” recognises the contribution made by women in the struggle for liberation which brought about our democratic society.

These women contributed immensely in the struggle to build a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa.

In so doing, women claimed the space to organise themselves, mobilise for women’s emancipation and gender equality and, importantly, to unite women in rural and urban areas across provinces, languages and cultures and to fight against poverty and for a prosperous society and a productive life.

We honour and celebrate all the women who sacrificed their lives and went through many hardships to make South Africa a better place to live in. We also honour women who continue to play a prominent role in uplifting our society.

As women, we are the backbone of society. We know torture, humiliation, and rejection, but we always emerge victorious.  No society can claim to be free until all its women are free. We, in South Africa, are moving forward with the struggle for the total emancipation of our women.

The late writer, Mbulelo Mzamane, eloquently describes the role played by women in society in the following words: “Women are the heroines of continuance, who sustain life, making sure life continues from one era to the next. They have known the agony and the ecstasy. They have known treachery, rejection, and betrayal…They will, no doubt, redeem society through the release of their creative potential.”

The story of the liberation struggle of South Africa cannot be told without the struggle of women in the household, workplace and in the battlefield. Women have occupied frontline trenches alongside their male counterparts and played a pivotal role in some of the key moments in our history.

The year 2013 marked the centenary of women’s march against the imposition of pass laws on women. This march took place in 1913, and set the tone for massive women’s struggle in South Africa. 

Ahead of the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955, the women of this country had gathered together and signed the Women’s Charter in 1954. When we attained freedom in 1994, we ensured that gender equality is enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Since then, we have embarked on a number of programmes to ensure that women are empowered as equal citizens of this country.

It is also inspiring to notice that even the United Nations, through the Millennium Development Goals, has set a deadline for all member states to promote gender equality and empower women.

I am proud to say that South Africa is far ahead of many countries across the world. We have women talking leadership positions in the cabinet, provincial legislatures and other strategic platforms. However, we all know that we are not yet where we want to be.

Today, we speak of women’s month because of the sacrifices that South African women made in order to have a free, non-sexist and democratic society.

The heroic deed of the 20,000 women from across the country stands out as the key moment that earned us this month. In their fight against the pass laws, these women marched to the Union Buildings to confront J.G. Strijdom, the apartheid government Prime Minister. They chanted, “Wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo

It is important to note that the 1956 march was comprised of women from all walks of life, regardless of race, class and social status. They were united as women of South Africa.

This is the appeal that we are making to all women of South Africa to work together to build our nation and promote social cohesion. We derive inspiration from the women of 1956, who persevered and triumphed amid despair and hardship.

This very venue, the Constitution Hill, holds a very important historical significance to women and the liberation struggle. Many women who played a prominent role in the liberation struggle were incarcerated here. The likes of Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Suzman and Albertina Sisulu, among others, were kept and tortured behind these walls. 

The story of struggle icon, writer and painter, Fatima Meer, is known today because she documented it. She recalls that, “The cell was so narrow I could not stretch out my arms between the two long walls”. She secretly sketched and documented prison life while still incarcerated here. Her husband and her lawyer would smuggle some painting material in during their visit and she pretended to paint flowers.

I believe that the story of our struggle cannot be complete until the likes of Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba, who is here with us this evening, tell their stories. Debs is one of the unsung heroes of our struggle. She knows how sleeping on the cement floor feels like; she knows solitary confinement, and she knows about torture exerted by the brutal apartheid police.

These are the stories that our children are not familiar with. We must begin to chronicle and share our unique experiences through a variety of mediums including literature, painting, film and other art forms. The words of Okey Ndibe that, “A story that must be told never forgives silence,” rings true.

As the Department of Arts and Culture, we will continue to support initiatives that promote nation building and social cohesion.

We believe that art is a powerful tool that can be used to tell our stories and transform our lives. We also believe that the arts, culture and heritage sector has got a huge potential to contribute to economic development.

This is in line with the Mzansi Golden Economy (MGE) strategy, which among other things, intends to mainstream the arts sector as a significant contributor to job creation, poverty reduction and skills development.

Government also continues to support women’s participation in the economy as entrepreneurs and also as decision makers.  Over the next five years, we shall be piloting several creative arts incubators across the country. These will be the hotbeds for cultural entrepreneurship and democratise access to tools of production. These will be the sites that we encourage as government for the creation of local content.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have struggled and conquered the monster of apartheid. As we celebrate the past victories, we must also think about the future of women in this country. South Africa needs strong women who will take our country forward.

The women leaders of tomorrow are the young girls of today. We must invest in their future and ensure that they have access to education, culture and knowledge. We must remind them also that our freedom was not free. They must also know that our past does not define who we are or what we want to become. 

I thank the Mail Guardian for creating this platform to recognise women in struggle. As women we must redefine our rightful place in society and take charge of our lives in this unfolding democracy.

Together let us move South Africa forward towards a non-sexist future!

Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!

I thank you.