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You strike the woman, you (still) strike the rock

Dr Zweli Mkhize is the Minister of Health, South Africa.

In the midst of political factions and disunity among the ANC we must never lose sight of the history of the women who fought so hard for the freedoms we take for granted today.

Women’s month is celebrated in August every year in South Africa in honour of the remarkable contribution of our women to our great nation. The month commemorates the inspiring role of women to secure women’s rights and build a more equitable society for all. It is also dedicated to women because of the oppression and exploitation they face and the fact that in many respects they still remain victims.

It’s a time in which we reflect on the lives of the many women who stood in the face of adversity against the apartheid regime and fought with resilience and strength. It is undeniable that they endured the same suffering and sacrifice as men, as a result of their participation in the Struggle. The country’s heritage can never be recognised fully without paying homage to these honorable women who fought beside us. They were a force to be reckoned with. Without the stories of these women our history remains incomplete.

To understand the magnanimous role these women played in our struggle one has to go back to the day that marked a critical milestone in the liberation of not only women but of all who were oppressed. It was that fateful day on 9 August 1956 when 20,000 women from the reserves, cities, towns, villages, women of different races, colours, religious affiliations, some with a baby on their backs, marched to the Union Buildings to protest against the extension of pass laws to black women. They marched with a militant fervour as they broke out into song, “Wathint’abafazi, wathint’imbokodo!” (“Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, and you will be crushed.”)

It was not the first demonstration by women. In 1918 the Bantu Women’s League was formed as an outgrowth of the women’s anti-pass protests that began in the Free State in 1913. This organisation was led by Charlotte Maxeke, the first black South African woman to receive a BSc degree and an icon of the Struggle. Women had been politically active for many decades, even though they were only allowed membership into the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943.

We are inspired by these women patriots who took up the fight for freedom and carried the banner high. Our sisters, Albertina Sisulu, Charlotte Maxeke, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Frances Baard, Dorothy Nyembe, Ray Alexander Simons, Fatima Meer and Hilda Bernstein, names that will go down in the annals of history for their unmatched and remarkable contributions to the liberation struggle. There are many more unsung heroes whom we remember and pay tribute to.

Our freedom was dependent upon the women of this country. They often had to bear the brunt of brutal violations and economic hardships yet they remained committed and steadfast. There is great admiration for the courage, strength and unity they possessed. There are many of us who may have fallen by the wayside if it were not for these remarkable human beings.

In the midst of political factions and disunity among the ANC we must never lose sight of the history of the women who fought so hard for the freedoms we take for granted today. As we further our own agendas and political will, we sometimes fall prey to the oblivion of the blood, sweat and tears that had to be spilled by these women in order for us to occupy the positions of power we do today.

Part of acknowledging our history is a commitment to not making those same mistakes twice. As we stand on the verge of the elective conference in December we bear the onus of being conscious of our history with an objective of taking South Africa forward. It’s having the courage to stand up for what is morally and ethically right amid the prevailing circumstances of the day. This will require speaking out emphatically against corruption, political factions and in-fighting that is tarnishing the reputation of an ANC, once synonymous as a moral beacon of hope and freedom for our people. It is this stance that will set us apart as true leaders, leaders that these women who sacrificed so much can be proud of. This is the least we can do to honour their memory and the legacy of the ANC they fought incredibly hard for.

We must also be mindful of remembering the voices of the many women that go unheard even today and who continue to be oppressed and prevented from securing their rights and realising their potential. There must be discussions of the situation in contemporary South Africa where women still face many challenges and the struggle continues.

Women are the extraordinary fabric of human nature that clothes our country. They have the power to create, nurture and transform. Yet in recent times gruesome and horrifying accounts of harassment, abuse, kidnapping, rape and murder have exposed the reality that our women are not being protected. The statistics reflect the reality of how serious the situation actually is. Every eight hours, a woman is killed by an intimate partner, according to the SA Medical Research Council. One in five (21%) women in a relationship have experienced physical violence by a partner, Stats SA said in its South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016 released in May.

In order to truly comprehend the gravity of this situation we have to put names to these statistics. These are just some of the 20 cases reported in the media; many more will go unreported:

  • Karabo Mokoena, 22, killed on April 29, 2017 by her boyfriend. Acid had been poured over her and she had been necklaced.
  • Lerato Moloi, 27, one of four women found murdered on May 14.
  • Popi Qwabe, 24, found shot on May 12.
  • Bongeka Phungula, 28, found dead, shot in the upper body. She had been raped.
  • Courtney Pieters, 3, found on 13 May. She was raped twice and killed.
  • Mavis Mabala, 25, died on May 19.
  • Priska Schalk, 29, stabbed to death in February.
  • Mananki Annah Boys, 28, stabbed to death and set alight in April.
  • Nicola Pienaar, 28, found in January, was six months pregnant at the time she was murdered by her boyfriend.

These are just some of the horrific accounts of violence against women and children.

Despite having a world-renowned Constitution, underpinned by a comprehensive Bill of Rights and legislation implemented to safeguard the rights of our women and children, they are still unsafe. We have made great strides; however, we have to admit that a lot more has to be done in order to turn this situation around and stop the perpetration of violence against the most vulnerable, our women and children.

Government supports a number of interventions which includes but is not limited to a toll-free, 24-hour gender based hotline (0800 428 428). In addition there is a need for the recent outrage to translate into practical interventions to tackle the horrors women face. Five key areas of intervention: effective legislation, accessible and affordable legal services, specialised facilities for GBV survivors, effective co-ordination of anti-GBV efforts, and community mobilisation, will always remain priorities in the fight against abuse of women and children. The outrage, which rises up intermittently according to the latest attacks against women and children, although confronting, must also be accompanied by action.

Government has certainly up-scaled our efforts in this regard through various campaigns and initiatives. The recent spate of violence against women and children demands a public statement by all leaders to demonstrate our strong commitment to the protection of women and children. Our political leaders have all pledged this commitment. It is now for us as a society and particularly as men to show our support in the fight against gender-based violence.

This call has been echoed by our Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as he launched the national campaign a few days ago to protect women and children from various forms of violence. He stated: “In working to end violence against women and children, we need to ensure that men are centrally involved. Men need to organise themselves in a sustained campaign against gender-based violence.” These words need to touch the hearts of each and every man and boy throughout the country. We need to take ownership of this epidemic and remain committed until it reaches resolve.

We must be in a position to assess the progress of the emancipation, advancement and, most important, protection of women in South African society. This responsibility rests equally with men as it does with women. This is a call which all men must heed. Boys must be sensitised and taught to respect the rights of women. For far too long, women have taken the sole responsibility for issues like violence against women as if men had nothing to do with them. The time for change is now. We as men must assume the shared responsibility of combatting the abuse of our women and children.

Women will remain subordinate and inferior if we as men continue to subordinate them. We need to challenge the one-dimensional caricature of what society tells you being a man entails. It is our responsibility to change the social constructs of patriarchy and stand up for what is truly manly. It is only once we appreciate the importance of supporting and protecting our women and children that we can truly say we are men.

This month I pay tribute to all the women of our beautiful nation, those that have gone before us and those that continue on with us. You will forever remain inspirations to this generation and the many generations to come. I share with you the words of Lillian Ngoyi at the end of her address to the ANC Women’s League, in November 1956.

In memory of all the brave, defiant, resilient women (of all colours and classes) whose labours gave birth to a new South Africa. Though now at rest, they still inspire women everywhere.”

Malibongwe igama bakakosikazi. Mali-bongwe!” DM


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