Her Excellency, Vice President Joice Mujuru
Gallant Women of Africa
Ladies and gentlemen Thank you for giving me the privilege to open the second Annual Women in Politics Africa conference. This high-profile meeting of minds clearly signals a solid conviction to do justice to the gender question in Africa.
To the credit of the organisers, Women in Politics has brought together distinguished women activists and leaders from all corners of the continent in keeping with the impassioned plea for unity implied in the optimistic and positive theme of this series of conferences: “Uniting as one to achieve the 50/50 Quotas in top positions.”
This theme evokes the fortifying spirit of solidarity, best expressed in the slogan “in unity there is strength”, that has firmly secured for us many battles over centuries of pillage, colonialism, imperialism and patriarchal domination.
As was noted at last year’s Women in Politics Africa Conference, the thematic emphasis on “top positions” presupposes that working together we can and have made progress in the broader transformation of our societies. But the conference’s theme also reminds us in a subtle way that “progress towards equal representation of women in political decision-making over the last ten years has been slow and uneven” (Gender Links, policy Brief 2, July 2010).
According to Gender Links, only four countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region (SA, Mozambique, Angola and Tanzania) have achieved or surpassed 30% women in Parliament. No wonder, at the last conference, Winnie Mandela made a clarion call that “women should rise, and the time is now”.When we celebrated, on 9 August, the 54th Anniversary of the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings, we demonstrated and confirmed in no uncertain terms the efficacy of this noble principle that says “in unity there is strength. We made bold to say with unity and collective effort we can move mountains.
We would have achieved our goals if at the end of this conference we are ready to take a stand, like the gallant women of 1956, in defence of and on behalf of the women of Africa who have tasted wretchedness over centuries.
Just as it is shocking for some to overhear the brave question you have posed for this conference over “what is holding women back from becoming presidents of their countries?”, it was equally earth-shaking for women in 1956 to declare in the face of brutal repression that: “We, the women of South Africa, have come here today. We represent and we speak on behalf of hundreds of thousands of women who could not be with us. But all over the country, at this moment, women are watching and thinking of us. Their hearts are with us. “We are women of every race; we come from the cities and the towns, from the reserves and the villages. For hundreds of years the African people have suffered under the bitterest law of all – the pass law which has brought untold suffering to every African family.”We are gathered here today in a climate of democracy precisely because of the might of unity that has turned the tide, irreversibly, in favour of the forces of progress.
As you well know, internationally and on the African continent in particular, a legal and legislative framework has been put in place to transform the position and status of women in society. Many of our countries have ratified regional and international agreements aimed at promoting and protecting women’s rights. An important achievement is the adoption by the African Union of rules requiring a 50/50 gender balance in its highest ranks.
In 2004, in the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, African Union (AU) Heads of State embraced the parity rule for all organs of the AU, including all member states.
In August 2005, in the spirit of this Declaration, the SADC Heads of State also adopted the 50/50 gender parity principle. Country experiences may differ. But, as Gender Links says in a July 2010 Policy Brief: “If some countries are able to achieve or come close to achieving this target then all countries in the region are capable of doing so.”
In South Africa, the ANC leads by example. In the last elections (of 2009) the African Nation Congress (ANC) lived up to the 50/50 quota adopted at the Polokwane Conference in 2007. Gender Links has confirmed that in this country “only the ANC has made any real effort to mainstream gender in its manifesto”. Women empowerment is still a burning issue in many of our countries. A vast majority of women on the continent still remains vulnerable in many fronts, thus the focus by this conference on uplifting women in rural and disadvantaged communities.
We all have a critical role to play in mainstreaming gender better to ensure that all political and governance bodies are persuaded, if not compelled, to institutionalize policies that guarantee gender equality. We must see to it that the AU 50/50 gender parity principle is replicated and implemented at all levels of national, regional and sub-regional governance.
There are significant challenges ahead of us which I trust the second Women in Politics Africa Conference will help in unravelling. These include the fact that:
- The representation of women in leadership positions among most governments is a far cry from the 50/50 quota that governments have committed to. The picture is even worse in the corporate sector
- There is evidence of poor access to essential human rights such as access to quality education, health services, shelter, land and economic opportunities
- Women continue to be at the coal-face of poverty and different forms of abuse and extreme violence
- Patriarchy remains well and alive in most of our countries, with women perpetually viewed as ‘objects of desire’, as ‘the second sex’.
It is of the essence that as we advocate for parity in leadership, we do not lose sight of the strategic objective of ensuring that women in Africa, “from the cities and the towns, from the reserves and the villages”, fully enjoy inalienable human rights.
This conference will have achieved its objectives if at the end we are able to provide answers, if not solutions, for addressing disquieting concerns that women are merely put into positions of power as tokens, for compliance sake, only to satisfy parity requirements, without rocking the ship of patriarchy.
Women constitute a critical mass on the African continent. It is only logical that they must have a central, critical and decisive role to play in the leadership and management of this continent. Analyses of elections in South Africa have shown that “women constitute over half of all registered voters in all provinces and 55% of voters overall” (Gender Links).
Besides, as many have argued, the liberation of women is a precondition for the liberation of all humanity. The former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has rightly pointed out that: “There is no better tool for achieving development than gender equality”. Before I close, allow me to remind you that South Africa will remain forever indebted to the women and men of Africa for their role in the fight for freedom, justice and equality for all.
It is in this spirit that we strongly condemn the scourge of xenophobia that has recently ripped our country apart. As an African state, we shall continue to support peace efforts and struggles of women all over the continent. As we pace the 21st Century, our historical task as women remains that of ‘moving the centre’ in favour of the women of Africa and the world who have led lives of marginality, on the periphery, for way too long. These we must do, inter alia, by “uniting as one to achieve the 50/50 quotas in top positions”.
This conference has given me much hope by looking beyond minimum demands of women. I would like to urge you to pronounce sharply and concretely on issues taking the struggle for women’s empowerment to even greater heights, over and above the vexed question of “the 50/50 Quotas”, including critical issues such as:
- writing into African history, a new era of progressive and successful women presidents and leaders
- gender mainstreaming
- applying international women rights in African politics
- tackling misconceptions about women in politics, and
- educating young women to become excellent leaders.
As the organisers of this conference expect of us, important questions you must answer in these three days must include:
- What is holding women back from becoming Presidents of their countries
- How best to uplift and empower women in rural areas
- How to ensure that the legal measures that are meant to protect and promote women are properly implemented?
I sometimes resist the enticing temptation to end conversations with a conventional quotation from some sage or person of note. But, for today, a few words of wisdom from King Whitney Jr should enrich our discussions. And I quote: “Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better” (close quote.).
You are here because you are not “fearful”. You are here because you are “hopeful”. And most importantly, you are here precisely because you are “confident” and you want change. The daring spirit and high morale on your part tells me that through our relentless efforts and undying love for the continent, we shall roll back the “blood-dimmed tide” of sexism and restore “the ceremony of innocence”.
This we can and must do as women and men of Africa united in our passionate resentment of patriarchy and against every iniquitous ritual of power it represents and perpetuates. We dare not disappoint the hopeful women all over Africa who “are watching and thinking of us. Their hearts are with us”.
Once more, welcome to South Africa. I wish you well in your deliberations. Please ensure you find time to enjoy the overflowing hospitality of the friendly and beautiful Joburg City.
I thank you.
Issued by: Department of Basic Education
20 Oct 2010