Fellow South Africans,
We have come together to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the women’s march to the Union Buildings in Tshwane to demand equality, dignity and their rightful place in South African society.
It was in 1956, when more than 20 000 women from all walks of life marched to the seat of power to protest against the introduction of pass laws by the apartheid regime.
This was a turning point in the role of women in the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.
Today we salute South African women for their relentless struggle for liberation, democracy and human dignity.
This important day enables us to review how far we have come with regards to the emancipation and advancement of women in South African society.
This year also marks the centenary of International Women’s Day which is observed on March 08.
One hundred years ago, women campaigned across the world for the right to vote and to be voted into public office. They demanded equality and decent working conditions.
Our own pioneer of women’s rights, Charlotte Maxeke, led women’s protests in the Free State, resisting government attempts to impose passes on women in 1913.
The women burnt passes in front of the municipal offices – a courageous act of defiance, at a time when the repressive government of the Union of South Africa was consolidating its authority under Gen Louis Botha.
The 1913 march demonstrates that women participated in various struggles against white domination in South Africa very early on in our history.
Five years later, women formed the Bantu Women’s League to respond to repression that affected them as black people, as workers and as women in particular.
With increased repression from the National Party government, the women’s struggle also became more militant with women participating in the Defiance Campaign – which was the deliberate contravention of petty apartheid laws.
Women organized across political and racial lines to form the Federation of South African Women in 1954. They drew up a Women’s Charter which pledged to bring discriminatory laws to an end.
They participated heroically in all the four pillars of our struggle which were: mass mobilization, armed operations, underground organisation and international solidarity.
They served as combatants and leaders in all these fronts, leading to the period of the transition in 1990. And women endured the same suffering and sacrifice as men, as a result of their participation in the struggle.
In fact, one of the icons of our women’s struggle who passed away this year – Albertina Sisulu – had banning orders totaling 18 years.
That was the longest banning period than anyone who took part in our struggle for freedom and democracy ever endured.
We are inspired by these women patriots who took up the fight for gender equality and freedom. We were inspired by Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn.
These are the four women we see in posters as they constituted the core-leadership of the historic march of women which marks its 55th anniversary this year.
With the unbanning of political organizations and the release of political prisoners in 1990, many women returned from exile and underground work. They continued the struggle, joining their sisters who were fighting inside the country, to ensure a successful transition.
Women again organized themselves across political lines to ensure that their voice was heard in the negotiations for a new South Africa.
They campaigned for representation in negotiations under the slogan: “No Woman, No Vote”.
They also demanded representation in parliament to ensure women’s participation in determining our destiny as a nation.
They worked under the auspices of the Women’s National Coalition which brought together women from diverse political affiliations and NGOs.
They made critical gender submissions which were incorporated into the new constitution and the Bill of Rights of the country.
Their struggle was not in vain.
Great strides have been made since 1994 to improve the status of women, although much more still needs to be done.
The progressive democratic government introduced a new gender-sensitive Constitution, repealed apartheid laws and introduced new laws that took the interests and needs of women into account.
These new laws included those dealing with domestic violence, child maintenance, recognition of customary marriages and the landmark Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000.
The implementation of these and other progressive laws and policies has surely improved the lives of women.
Advances have also been made in the representation of women in political decision making positions.
The representation of women in Parliament jumped tenfold from 2, 7 percent during the apartheid period to 27 percent after the historic first democratic elections of 1994.
The number of women MPs increased to 30 percent in 1999 elections and 32 percent after the 2004 elections.
After the adoption of the 50/50 gender parity at the 2007 Conference of the ANC, held here in Polokwane, women representation increased to 44 percent.
This has placed South Africa in the fourth position in the lists of countries with the highest representation of women in parliament in the world.
Women cabinet ministers have also increased dramatically from pre-1994, when there was only one woman in cabinet. Today women make up 43 percent of cabinet.
Unfortunately, women’s representation in local government decreased from 40 to 38 percent after this year’s elections.
We missed the opportunity at these elections to advance local government towards a 50/50 gender parity because some political parties did not feature an adequate number of women in their candidate lists for local government.
Our goal is to achieve the 50/50 gender parity by 2015 as required by the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. This requires all political parties, including the opposition, to champion this cause.
The statistics in the corporate environment indicate that not much progress is being made to advance women.
According to the 2011 Women in Corporate Leadership Census of the Business Women’s Association, women hold only 4.4 percent of CEO or managing director positions, 5.3 percent of Chairperson positions, and 15.8 percent of all directorships.
The figures released by the Commission for Employment Equity last week on the current workforce profile also reflected male dominance, especially white males.
The Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities is now developing legislation which should compel all parties to adhere to the principle of gender equality.
Fellow South Africans,
You will recall that in the State of the Nation address in February we declared 2011 the year of economic transformation and job creation.
In line with that call, the theme of the 2011 Women’s Month is“Working together to enhance Women’s Opportunities to Economic Empowerment”.
Women’s economic empowerment is fully supported by the Constitution, the Small Business Act and the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act and other legislation and policies of government.
We want to see visible change for women from all walks of life.
We believe that women in rural areas, townships and villages must have the opportunity to open successful small businesses or cooperatives to generate income.
We are aware that women entrepreneurs remain on the periphery of the national economy.
Their activities are concentrated in making and selling crafts, hawking as well as the personal and retail sectors.
The low participation is due to, amongst others, poor access to business opportunities, information, financial markets and knowledge of how to run businesses.
There are a number of support programmes across government departments, designed to assist women to remedy these constraints.
One of these is the promotion of cooperatives especially in rural areas to enable women to participate in the economy.
Cooperatives allow the benefit of bulk-buying and joint marketing which improves women’s bargaining power in the market place.
Co-operatives are also more stable than individual enterprises due to the risk-sharing between members. Cooperatives also offer prospects for growth.
Countries such as India have already demonstrated that it is possible for women in co-operatives to supply top retailers in the formal economy and thus emerge from poverty.
We would like to see the same success for local cooperatives and government departments have programmes to support women going on this route.
For example, the Department of Trade and Industry supports women cooperatives by fast tracking their registration as well as providing funding for capital equipment under the cooperative Incentive Scheme.
The Department of Public Works has set a target of supporting 120 cooperatives and 950 beneficiaries by 2014 for its sector.
Other departments have sector specific support programmes as well.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We also encourage women to enter industries that are not considered to be traditionally female, such as mining.
We are encouraged by the number of companies led by women that are increasingly applying and are being granted mining prospecting rights.
We are however concerned that the target of 10% for women participation in mining was not met, as the recent Mining Charter review has indicated. This means that more work must be done to open this sector for women.
Women will also benefit from the implementation of government’s massive infrastructure development programme, in which we are investing more than 800 billion rand over the next few years.
We will be rolling out large-scale projects such as energy, dams, roads, public transport and communication infrastructure nationwide.
There are also benefits in the Department of Transport’s Sihamba Sonke Road Maintenance and Rehabilitation Programme, which will create at least 70 000 jobs. The intention is that 70 percent of those jobs should go to women and the youth.
We are also encouraging women to participate in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries sectors.
Existing programmes include the annual Female Farmer of the Year Awards which promotes women in farming.
Government also has the Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme, which has this year disbursed one billion rand to the provinces to assist aspirant farmers.
In addition, an amount of 400 million rand has been given to the provincial departments of agriculture to help emerging farmers through the Ilima/letsema programme.
We have also allocated 57 million rand through the Land Care programme, for projects assisting women in rural areas.
Government also offers loans through the micro-agricultural financial Institutions of South Africa known as Mafisa. We urge women to take advantage of these opportunities.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Government is also investing in the long term development of women in scarce skills, especially science and technology.
The enrolment of women in universities has increased from 48 percent in 1996 to 56 percent in 2008. However, despite this increase, women only constitute 44 percent of enrolments in Science, Engineering and Technology.
To contribute to bridging this gap, 70 Research Development Grants, each worth R300 000, have been awarded to qualifying women researchers, through the National Research Foundation.
We also hold the South African Women in Science Awards function annually, to recognise and reward the achievements of South African women scientists and researchers.
We have made reasonable progress in many aspects of our struggle for gender equality and empowerment of women, since the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings.
This includes particularly the representation of women in political decision making positions and establishing the legislative framework for the protection and promotion of the rights of women.
While consolidating the gains made politically, we have to work towards achieving true economic emancipation for women.
Women in our rural villages, townships and informal settlements must be able to share fully in the country’s wealth.
We have begun that second struggle, and working together, we will succeed.
Happy National Women’s Day to you all!
I thank you!