Paying a fitting tribute to the past generations of women

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On 09 August 2018, the nation will pause and remember the class of 1956, particularly at the National Women’s Day commemoration, at which the President of the Republic, His Excellency, Mr Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, will deliver the main address in honour of the role played by South Africa’s women.

The Class of 1956 dared to defy against the pariah apartheid state and marched peacefully onto the seat of government in Pretoria in an anti-Pass protest, but which also became part of the broader effort against the unjust, racist and illegitimate apartheid government. The women handed over a petition to the office of Prime Minister JG Strijdom. This had been drafted by the Federation of South African Women. Part of the petition declares: “We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security.”

It is apt that this year’s commemoration of Women’s Day coincides with the centenary of Mama Albertina Sisulu – the unassuming doyen of our liberation struggle, who was also among the throngs of women on this historic march. It was therefore appropriate that in acknowledging the enormous contributions of Mama Albertina Sisulu in the struggle for liberation, this year’s Women’s month theme is 100 Years of Albertina Sisulu, Woman of Fortitude: Women United in Moving South Africa Forward”.

Mama Albertina Sisulu, though known for her warmth and unassuming demeanour, remains a liberation struggle icon in her own right. Her life story intertwines with that of her husband, given their impenetrable spousal and political partnership, particularly on account of their  prominent political leadership. Yet her own identity in the struggle has also been immense. The role of women should also take centre-stage in telling the South African story.

Mama Albertina Sisulu life story straddles the political, the personal and the professional with such enviable ease. She was arrested and detained several times by the apartheid state. Also, her work in the ANC Women’s League and as one of the founding Presidents of the United Democratic Front have all left an indelible mark in the politico-historical narrative. As a professional, she branched into nursing, after foregoing her ambitions to become a Catholic nun. Even during the many years at the political coalface, Mama Albertina Sisulu still showed her mettle on the home front as a loving and nurturing mother – not only to her immediate family, but to many other young people in the community and in the liberation movement whom she mentored, nurtured and mothered. As an African feminist, she saw no contradiction between her leadership role in the mass democratic movement on the one hand and her nurturing and mothering role on the other. This demonstrates a level of sophistication and pragmatism on her part, which sets her apart from most of her contemporaries. As a professional, Mama Sisulu remained a practising nurse and remained faithful to the profession. The current cadre of public servants can take a leaf out of her book and show the same level of dedication, commitment and selflessness in serving our people, building our new democracy and extending our freedom.

As we commemorate the class of 1956, it will be an egregious error on our part to create an impression that hitherto 1956, women were docile, uninterested and inactive in social, political and civic affairs. While 1956 is the catalytic moment for the liberation struggle in general and for women’s struggle for gender equality in particular, there are numerous struggles waged by women which precede the 1956 moment and these too need to be integrated into the broader narrative of women’s struggle. These too need to be included into the historical timeline. The women’s agenda needs to be at the centre of our South African story.

In fact, the 1956 generation drew sustenance and inspiration from previous generations of women who engaged in just struggles. We dare not forget the 1913 anti-pass generation of women who tackled the new Union government that had just assumed power in 1910. It was certainly this generation and subsequent other generations that would have inspired the 1956 generation. The life stories and heroics of women in the early parts of the 20th century must have struck a chord with Mama Sisulu’s generation and ignited in them such acts of heroism, which today are worth of remembering, celebrating and commemorating.

The commemoration happens at a time when gender based violence continues to be a stubborn challenge. The women’s day event will be used as a platform for a call-to-action, so that all sectors of society, including religious and cultural institutions, community based organisations and Not-for-Profit organisations are all mobilised to stamping out this scourge. Fighting gender inequality and discrimination, including gender based violence should be the nation’s foremost preoccupation, since South Africa will never be a fully integrated and inclusive society until such time that women and girls too have an equal place in it and play meaningful roles together whith other citizens.

The Department of Arts & Culture has the mandate to manage the national commemorations calendar, including national days. It is quite apt that this year, during the centenary of Mama Albertina Sisulu and Tata Nelson Mandela, the Women’s Day event is being hosted in Paarl, in the Western Cape – just a stone-throw from the Victor Verster Prison at which our late president and statesman spent his last few months before his final release.

All members of the community are invited to the National Women’s Day commemoration, where President Ramaphosa, address the nation. A cultural programme, which includes a mini-concert, will commence at 09h00 on 09 August 2018 until such time as the official commencement of proceedings. After the official programme, the cultural programme will continue in celebration of the women of South Africa.