9 August is National Women’s Day in South Africa. It commemorates the 1956 march to the Union Buildings by more than 50,000 South African women of all ages and races to petition against the “pass laws”. The pass severely restricted the movement of black people, and if a person was found in an area not allowed by the pass (or without the pass), he or she faced detention and even jail. After handing over the petition, the women stood silently outside the Union Buildings, then sang a song composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint’ Abafazi Wathint’ imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock). This has become a much-used phrase to depict women’s strength and determination.
In today’s South Africa, there are incredibly positive signs for women but also unspeakable hardship. South Africa’s Parliament is one of the world’s most equitable, with women making up close to 50% of representatives, yet gender based violence is at alarming levels. The South African Police Service estimates that close to half a million women and girls are raped in South Africa every year (source).
Women’s day for me is not just a day to remember the brave acts of women during the struggle against apartheid, but also a time to reflect on women’s situation today and to celebrate all of those that work tirelessly to reduce abuse and inequality. I have chosen to tell you more about three women, representing the past, present and future. These women are just three among many, many women (and men) that deserve recognition for their work.
Ruth First was an anti-apartheid activist and scholar, born in Johannesburg to Jewish immigrants from Latvia. She was a member of the Communist Party as well as the African National Congress, and played an active role in the struggle to end apartheid. Her contribution to the struggle was both hands-on as she orchestrated and took part in many of the Defiance Campaign protests in the 1950’s; and academic through her work as a journalist and editor. First was one of the 156 accused in the Treason Trial, alongside struggle heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and her husband Joe Slovo. Following the State of Emergency after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre she was banned, meaning that she could not attend meetings or publish nor could she be quoted. In 1963, she was the first white woman to be detained under the Ninety-Day Detention Law, and was held in isolation without charge for 117 days. First was forced into exile in 1964, and spent time in London, Dar es Salaam and finally Maputo where she was assassinated on the order of the South African Police by a letter bomb in 1982.
Thuli Madonsela is a Human Rights Lawyer and Equality Expert, and currently holds one of the most important offices in South Africa: Public Protector. Madonsela, the daughter of two informal traders, grew up in Soweto and later attended the University of Swaziland where she studied law. In 1994-5, she was one of the 11 technical experts that helped drafting the Constitution of South Africa. Madonsela pursues her role a Public Protector without fear or favour, and is probably most known for her damning report on President Jacob Zuma’s upgrade of his private home (Nkandla), where she found numerous instances of ethical breaches by the President and maladministration by members of his cabinet. In April 2014, she was listed on Times Magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” with the motivation: “an inspirational example of what African public officers need to be”.
Lindiwe Mazibuko is currently taking time out from South African politics to study at Harvard in order to “be exposed to the best ideas in the world, to a global narrative, including on how to do employment equity right”. Few people doubt that she will come back even stronger. Upon completing her BA Honours (Political Communication) in 2007, she was employed as a researcher in the DA’s parliamentary operations. One year later, she decided to stand for public office, and in 2009 she became South Africa’s fourth youngest parliamentarian, DA’s National Spokesperson and Shadow Deputy Minister for Communications. In 2011 Mazibuko was elected as the DA’s Parliamentary Leader and Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, making her the youngest black female leader in the history of the DA’s parliamentary caucus.
In 2012, she was named “South Africa’s Most Influential Woman”, and in 2013 a “Yong Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum as well as one of “20 Youngest Power Women in Africa” by Forbes.