Opening Remarks by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honorable Sue van der Merwe, to the Women Heads of Mission Workshop, Pretoria, 8 March 2005

Colleagues
Distinguished Diplomats:

As you are all well aware, today is International Women's Day; and the Minister has invited all of you here so that together we can celebrate the role and contribution of women who represent South Africa as Heads of Mission all over the world. We are so pleased that so many of you have made it to this meeting, since some of you have travelled so far in such a short time to come home.

Today as so many women diplomats converge in Pretoria, let us not forget that almost fifty years ago, in 1956, 20 000 progressive women of South Africa, of all colours, under the umbrella of the Federation of South African Women, marched to the Union Buildings from all corners of our land in protest against the erosion of their rights and they declared in their much quoted lines to the then Prime Minister: "Strydom, you have tampered with women, you have struck a rock".

Wathint' abafazi Wathint' imbokodo

Today we gather here at the State Guest House, a mere stone-throw away from the Union Building, not as protesters or as the powerless, but as those who are in power, as those who reside in the hallowed Union Buildings and as those who lead South Africa's push and efforts in the international arena. Were it not for those brave women and the work of women's movements in South Africa over the decades, I doubt whether we would all be here today.

As we pay tribute to them, we are also here to celebrate, to share our experiences and also to plan the road ahead so that out of these discussions and deliberations we can move forward in advancing gender equality in general and the position of women diplomats in particular.

I know the Minister has said that we have missed out on this kind of occasion in our first decade of democracy. We are here to give thanks to you for your sterling work. Now we shall start the next decade, having been able to say that indeed we have met and are making inroads.

Most importantly, we are here to recognise the role our women ambassadors are playing in the wider world. The tasks that you have to fulfil are many - you have to represent our countries and in so doing, present our country's principles, policies and strategies to the world and make firm decisions in how this is done.

Even beyond this, all of us have to represent our country mission of creating a better Africa and a better world.

Moreover, in line with South Africa's position, wherever in the world we find ourselves, we should at all times encourage dialogue and peaceful negotiations to problems and to lobby for a multilateral approach to world affairs.

I am reminded of the Chinese proverb describing women's power in society and it says that: "Women hold up half the sky."

Our attempts to do precisely this and more takes a heavy toll on us - since it is not simply half the sky that we hold aloft - it seems like we also have to extend our reach to keep the sun and the moon and the planets in place. We have to see to our families, and more often than not, we are single parents. And we also have to build our professional and personal relationships.

Indeed "in holding up half the sky", despite our knowledge base and skills, how different it is to be a woman in a position that is considered strict and formal and whose rules have largely been designed to be carried out by men.

I think that the nearer one gets to the pinnacle of power, the more women occupy positions that are increasingly powerful, the more likely one is to have to confront the challenges of the glass ceiling.

I believe that one of our drawbacks as women in encountering problems and in our daily work is that we tend to do everything ourselves - this is both a curse and a strength.

There is also a need for more adequate support between women in diplomatic positions. As South Africa, we are also placed in a somewhat unique position, since there are probably more women ambassadors and diplomats that have been placed in South Africa in the past ten years, (although at the moment numbers have dwindled with the return home of many of the resident ambassadors) than in a number of other countries because of our progressive gender policies. What does these responsibilities entail?

How do we support these women and they support each other?

How do we ensure that the authority of women in these positions world-wide is respected since there are those who would not want to accept a woman in authority?

How many women, for that matter, head up diplomatic associations around the world?

And is this easier to do now than it was before or has it become more difficult in an age of rapid and rampant globalisation?

The challenge is also for us to extend the global space for progressive change and especially to work towards extending the national and international space for women's emancipation and gender equality.

The outcomes of the Conference on the Status of Women in New York should also undoubtedly guide us in our tasks as should the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The Freedom Charter, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate this year, has also been very clear on women's emancipation.

How proud we are, fifty years on, of what we have done, of what the women of the country are doing to ensure their freedom from discrimination, from racism, from poverty and underdevelopment and how proud we are that women are asserting themselves as leading figures also in our economy and in consolidation our African agenda.

With these few remarks, I would like to declare this seminar open.

Let us also use this opportunity to network, to take a sober look at the position of women in the DFA and suggest ways in which this position can be enhanced or the conditions made more appropriate for women's advancement. Let us not be dismissive about the challenges that exist and the very real tensions that emerge and that we encounter in our daily tasks.

Above all, let us use this opportunity to speak the truths about the realities of our positions and what can and must be done to make the DFA a better place for women to assert their equality and extend their emancipation on the ground - for freedom is only genuine if we can make it work together. Non-sexism gains new meaning in practice, when advances are made in the reality of struggle and work and in the broader interests of society.

I wish you success in your deliberations. Have a happy International Women's Day.

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