As we imagine you all with 20,000 other women, deadly silence, in front of the Union Buildings and protesting against pass laws, we try to feel what it must have been like standing on those steps and breaking the silence by singing: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!; You have touched the women, you have struck a rock!
As we recall that day, 63 years later, we write this letter to you to assure you that the women of South Africa can look back with pride but also with pain. From that winter’s day in August, the women of our nation have continued to echo your message. A message sung from the days of slavery at the Cape to our present-day struggles. A message that said that as long as you strike the women, you will strike a rock.
The rock is one on which many of our families are built. The rock which lays a foundation to our communities, our churches, our mosques, our community organisations and our street committees. The rock on which the factory floor, the warehouse, the shops, the home and even the business is built. Our country rests on this rock; our women.
Our women reaffirm today, as you did 63 years ago, that as long as we bear the brunt of struggle, the struggle in our country and for a better life for all our people will continue.
Regrettably, this truth was most explicitly and aptly exemplified in the recent unemployment statistics released by Statistics South Africa. Much was said and written about our increase in the unemployment rate from 27% to 29% from the first quarter of 2019 to the second quarter but very few, if any, made mention of the fact that women continue to suffer the most of the unemployment in our country.
As in 1956, it would seem, dear comrades, the attempted silencing of our women and their struggles continues. The attempt to make women invisible lives on.
Statistics South Africa in their Second Quarterly Labour Force Survey for 2019 highlighted that while the unemployment rate for our country is 29%, it is 27% for men and 31% for women. Again, while a number of commentators and analysts have made mention of the increase of 2% from the first quarter in 2019 to the second quarter, this 2% in increase in unemployment, in the main, is experienced by women.
The survey went on to indicate that over 9 million women were not economically active in South Africa while one and a half million were discouraged from seeking work. The labour force participation for women stood at only 53%, that is just over half of women in our country, while for men the rate was 66%.
African women, in the main, are the ones most likely to be unemployed with nearly a third of Africans, who should be working, being unemployed while the figures Coloureds, Indians and Whites are 22%, 11% and 7% respectively.
This past June, dear mothers of our struggle, President Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation Address mentioned that the unemployment rate among those in the 15–24 years age category is 56%. Those in this age category and who are not in employment, education or training increased from 31% in the same period in 2018 to 32% in 2019. In this age group, the rate for males who are not in employment, education or training increased by 1.6 percentage points while the rate for females decreased by 0.2 of a percentage point.
In other words, while this may have been a bit of respite for females in this age category, the rate for females who are not in employment, education or training still remains higher than that of males both 2018 and 2019, i.e. 34% for females and 30% for males in 2019.
The cold reality is that more than four in 10 young females are not in employment, education or training.
Dearest leaders of the women of South Africa, while your generation may well have pursued a struggle for political, economic and social rights, we realise that it is incumbent on our generation of 2019, and especially the younger women, to pursue socio-economic freedom for our women.
It is for this reason that the ANC continues to reiterate in its 2019 elections’ manifesto that as a broad movement of the people of South Africa we remain committed to the historic mission to build a united and democratic South Africa that is non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous.
Indeed, we can account to your generation of 1956 that the ANC government has made gains in the last 25 years of freedom even though some of these gains were hard fought for. For example, we have made good progress in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In 2004, over 70,000 of the babies born to HIV positive mothers became infected. By 2019, that figure had gone down to 4,500, saving tens of thousands of newborn babies every year from being infected with HIV.
Proudly we can report to you that access to free primary healthcare has been expanded from pregnant women and children under six years of age in 1994 to free primary healthcare for all in 2019.
For women who are working, maternity leave benefits cover now between 17 and 32 weeks which means that our mothers can receive a flat rate of 66% of their salary, instead of the previous 38% to 60%.
Yet we can also say to you that the 2019 manifesto stated emphatically that our plan remains to draw more South Africans, particularly youth and women, into decent employment and self-employment.
During these past elections, we committed ourselves to ensuring the advancement of women’s access to land and participation in agriculture and rural economies, so as to increase this labour and economic participation rate of our women. Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, socially-owned enterprises such as co-operatives and revitalisation of township and village economies remain a pillar of economic transformation, inclusive growth and job creation, again especially for women.
We also pledged to develop a plan to ensure that the development of the first thousand days of any human life in our country, from pregnancy to two years old. This plan must involve the pregnant mother and must ensure that she gets the necessary good nutrition, is encouraged to stop smoking and drinking alcohol as well as undertake antenatal care visits from an early stage. The baby must have good nutrition, exclusive breastfeeding, immunisation and growth monitoring.
Sadly, dear mothers of our struggle, our country continues to be plagued with the most devastating affliction of gender-based violence. The ANC believes though that its plan of a multisectoral approach must ensure that it responds to the need to step up the fight against gender-based violence. It is hoped the plan will also ensure that there is a strengthening of the broader interventions that address the causes and effects of such violence, particularly issues of patriarchy, economic relations and changing the way of thinking about gender relations.
We know that you will agree with us that the socio-economic emancipation of our women is, therefore, a fundamental necessity and our leaders deployed to Parliament and government must champion these policies and programmes of the ANC.
We were encouraged by the outcomes of the 2018 Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence, called by President Ramphosa, which insisted that, first, we need to fast-track educational programmes aimed at offering psychological and social support to vulnerable learners and work with young children to change social attitudes. Defeating gender-based violence must, therefore, start in the home at best and in the classroom in the least.
Second, we must continue to call for stricter bail conditions and harsher sentences for those found guilty of violence against women and children, particularly in cases of domestic violence and sexual offences.
Third, we must make sure that we capacitate the police and our courts to support survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault. While finally, scaling up the network of Thuthuzela Care Centres and other victim empowerment centres, we must guarantee more effective responses to incidents of violent sexual acts against women and children, reduction of victimisation and improved conviction rates and conclusion of cases.
From those Union Buildings to which you marched 63 years ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa, as announced in his recent State of the National Address, is continuing intensive consultations and engagements with the eventual aim of establishing the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Council and a National Strategic Plan. Determined that we will defeat this epidemic in our country, this council and plan will help us eradicate this national scourge.
As we remember you comrades and the strides you made in your day for the freedom of women in our country, the continent and the world, we can assure you that we have made some progress to ensure that our women attain a better life. Yet, as you will remind us: a luta continua. Be assured though that the women of our generation and the ones after us are trying to emulate your example. In fact, if anything, all of you, who have gone before us, have laid for us a solid foundation, a solid rock, to pursue this struggle for the freedom of our women.
We fondly remember you this Women’s Day in 2019. DM
Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC