Address by Deputy President Jacob Zuma on the Occasion of the Thanksgiving Service and Women's Commemorative March to the Union Buildings, Pretoria, 31 August 2004

The First Lady, Mrs Zanele Mbeki,
The Minister in the Presidency and all Ministers and Deputy Ministers present,
Honourable Premier of Gauteng, Mbhazima Shilowa,
Religious and community leaders,
Distinguished Guests,
Women of South Africa,

It is an incredible honour, for me, on behalf of President Mbeki, the Government and the people of South Africa, to address this historic gathering of women to the Union Buildings today, ten years after freedom and almost 50 years since the first women's march in 1956.

That we are able to gather at the Union Buildings today in mass celebration, rather than protest, attests to the remarkable story of our country, our long march from institutionalised gender and race discrimination to a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

We express our gratitude and acknowledge the courage and determination of those thousands of women who descended onto the Union Buildings in 1956, and delivered a resounding rejection of racism, marginalisation and gender oppression.

We owe it to this mass of women to acknowledge the historical role women have played in the struggle for freedom and democracy in our country. We today salute all our mothers, Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn, Dorothy Nyembe, Charlotte Maxeke, Ruth First, Amina Cachalia, Albertina Sisulu, and thousands of others who fought in various ways against injustice and racism.

No amount of words can fully describe the contribution that women have made to ensure that we achieve our freedom in this country. We all remember the mass struggles during the late 50s when women invaded beerhalls which were a source of social and political destabilisation. We recall the effective women's uprisings in Zeerust and many other activities throughout the country during that era.

Today we also salute the participation of women in the underground structures of the liberation movement and in the armed struggle from the 60s onwards, defying any possible danger.

We honour the women who suffered severe harassment and brutality and continued the struggle while their husbands were in jail, and became a source of strength to all of us, such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Epainette Mbeki and a host of others. We remember women political prisoners such as Dorothy Nyembe, Marion Sparg, Thandi Modise and many others.

We salute the courageous spirit of women who lost their spouses and children to the struggle such as Nontsikelelo Biko and the wives of Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata, the mothers of Solomon Mahlangu, Siphiwe Mthimkhulu, Andrew Zondo and all our cadres who fell both in South Africa and in exile. The list is endless. We also remember the women who died brutally in exile such as Ruth First who was murdered through a parcel bomb.

Not to forget the suffering of thousands of women during the state of emergency in the 80s and the state-sponsored political violence in the townships and villages of our country.

Women have truly earned their place in a free South Africa as they were involved in every aspect of the struggle. When the time came to negotiate a political settlement and to craft a new Constitution, women again played a prominent and invaluable role.

We salute you for your strength, dedication and courage, and for not losing hope and faith in your country.

As we end Women's Month today, we pay homage to every woman in South Africa, from the unsung heroines who till the soil and toil in factories to boost our economy and to put food on the table for their children, to the women who are making inroads in the corporate world and political office.

All these categories of women are opening doors and creating better opportunities and a better future for the girl children of our country.

We have not reached our goals regarding women's emancipation yet, but already, our country has done well enough to become one of the leading countries in terms of the presence of women in senior public office.

We have seen remarkable progress in the increase in the numbers of women in the Cabinet. Our Parliament is headed by women, the Speaker, Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and the Deputy Speaker. We also acknowledge the achievements of women in that four out of nine Premiers are women.

However, we must emphasise that the struggle for the emancipation of women is not about numbers or about appointing a few women into positions of power. It is about improving the living conditions and creating an enabling environment for all women to advance socially, economically and politically.

It is about ensuring that the poor and marginalised as well as rural women are able to secure opportunities as well as access basic social services and employment to improve their lives, and that they live in a caring and secure environment.

The legislative framework created since 1994 has sought to achieve this in many ways. The cornerstone of transformation is the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act No.103 of 1996, which provides for an environment conducive to the empowerment of women and other previously marginalized groups.

The Bill of Rights in the Constitution states that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.

Sub-section 3 states that the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on any grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

Section 187 of Chapter 9 of the Constitution calls for the promotion of respect for gender equality and the protection, development and attainment of gender equality. It establishes the Commission on Gender Equality whose powers include the power to monitor, investigate, research, educate, lobby, advise and report on issues concerning gender equality.

A wide range of laws, which benefit women, have also been passed in recent years. The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000 gives effect to Section 9 of the constitution, and seeks to prevent and prohibit unfair discrimination and harassment, and to promote equality and eliminates unfair discrimination.

The Employment Equity Act, 1998 seeks to redress the effects of discrimination and to achieve a diverse workforce, broadly representative of the population.

In addition, there is the Labour Relations Act, 1995, and the Skills Development Act, 1998 which also seek to improve the working conditions. From a safety and security angle, the Domestic Violence Act remains a powerful tool for providing safety for women in distress, and of providing an avenue to abused partners to seek legal redress.

Most importantly, South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), adopted by the United Nations in 1979.

South Africa is today no longer a place, in the words of President Thabo Mbeki, "where to be born a woman was to acquire the certainty that you would forever be a minor and an object owned by another".

Compatriots, as we stand at the monument that pays tribute to the immense contribution of women to the struggle for freedom and democracy in our country, we need to ensure that every month becomes women's month, by acknowledging the role of women continuously.

In practical terms, this means we must mainstream the agenda of improving the quality of life as well as the position of women in all aspects of South African society.

We are today therefore saying that the march is not over. Let us continue the march to consolidate and strengthen democracy and to surge forward in the struggle for the improvement of the lives of women.

As government, we pledge to play our role and to be true to the saying that if you educate a man you educate an individual, and when you educate a woman you educate a nation.

If you empower a woman, you empower the whole nation!

Malibongwe, Igama lamakhosikazi!

I thank you.

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