Kalpana Sharma: Saluting South Africa's women for their achievements Print E-mail

Sunday Magazine August 20, 2006

To the women of South Africa
The women's movement in South Africa has achieved more in 12 years than we have in 59.

A day to remember: Women in Pretoria celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march of 1956

 THIS is a letter to our sisters in South Africa.

Fifty years ago, on August 9, 1956, 20,000 of you defied your country's oppressive laws and marched to protest against the discriminatory pass laws of that despicable system of apartheid. Two years before this, on April 17, 1954, when you founded the Federation of South African Women, you formulated "The Women's Charter" that is relevant even today. Your words, "The level of civilisation which any society has reached can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women is a test of civilisation," have echoed around the world since then.

Your slogan during the August 9 march also struck a chord: "Now you have touched the women, You have struck a rock, (You have dislodged a boulder!), You will be crushed!"

Eventually, your prophecy came true and the terrible nightmare of the apartheid regime ended in 1994 when South Africa took its first step towards freedom. At the opening of your country's first democratically elected Parliament on May 24, 1994, your inspirational first President, Nelson Mandela said, "Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression."

Today, some of that oppression has ended. The new South Africa has accepted women as equal partners. One third of your Parliament is made up of women. And 43 per cent of the Ministers in President Thabo Mbeki's cabinet are women.

That is enviable. But what is even more impressive is the acknowledgement by the current male leadership that despite being part of a "progressive" movement to end apartheid, they did not fully accept the need for gender equality. It was a pleasant surprise to read what President Mbeki said in his address on the 50th anniversary of the Women's March. He admitted that in its earlier history, the anti-apartheid movement "also perpetuated the inferiority of women within its own ranks." He said that at its foundation, the African National Congress did not accept women as full members and that its 1919 Constitution only allowed them to be auxiliary members with no voting rights or the chance to be elected to a position within the movement.

This changed in 1943 when women became full members of the ANC and a Women's League was established. Even so, it took more than 10 years for the first woman to be elected into the National Executive Committee of the ANC. "The fact of the matter therefore is that it took our movement more than 40 years fully to give expression within its own ranks to the principle and practice of gender equality," said President Mbeki. He went further to acknowledge that although 12 years after liberation, much had been done to enhance women's status, "we have as yet not achieved gender equality and are still some distance away from realising the goal of a non-sexist society."

That kind of admission from a head of state has to be applauded because it is so rare. It would be truly unusual if one of our leaders, from any of the political parties, admitted past errors and accepted current realities.

As you in South Africa have realised, progressive laws, a Constitution that guarantees equal status, and even a political leadership that has accepted women's role in nation building does not add up to a society where women feel free, where women are safe, where women have the chance to realise their full potential.

For, 12 years after liberation, the biggest oppression that the majority of women in your country face is that of violence, on the street and at home. It is disturbing to hear that South Africa has one of the highest rates of domestic violence and of rape. In addition, HIV/ AIDS is afflicting as many women as men. According to one shocking statistic, an estimated 30.2 per cent of pregnant women in South Africa were HIV positive in 2005.

But it is the violence that ultimately tells on women's lives regardless of whether they are enmeshed in the poverty that predominates amongst women or they are the ones who have successfully broken through the glass ceiling and are at the top of the corporate ladder. As Carrie Shelver, spokesperson for People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), an organisation working to end violence against women, rightly observed, "We've fallen into the trap of formal equality, of saying we have women business and political leaders, but too many women still go home to oppression. We need to change the mindset in the country; we need to transform institutions -
it's not only about writing new laws and thinking that's enough."

That is a sentiment many of us in India would heartily endorse. At the same time, you have achieved more in your 12 years since liberation than we have 59 years after Independence. We are still a long way from having one-third representation of women in our Parliament. Each year, women raise the issue only to have it relegated to the "pending files" tray. And we cannot even dream of a day when 43 per cent of the ministers in the Union Cabinet are women. What we can claim are equivalent levels of violence, an absence of gender justice and a long way to go before we become a non-sexist society. So even if 50 years after that remarkable Women's March, you feel there are many battles to be fought, remember that your fight has set an important example for your counterparts in India and elsewhere.