Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of South Africa, Ms Sue van der Merwe, on the Occasion of the Departmental Launch of the 16 Days of Activism: No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign, Union Buildings, Pretoria, 29 November 2005

Your Excellencies,
Ambassadors and High Commissioners
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Colleagues of the Department of Foreign Affairs
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

As we gather here on the lawns of the Union Buildings to launch the 16 Days of Activism Campaign, we do so in an atmosphere of sustained peace. Our economy has been growing steadily over the last decade and processes of unity and reconciliation have ensured that the majority of our people have united and embraced a common vision of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa, a space where everyone is equal irrespective of creed or colour or gender.

This is no longer a country where people are at war with themselves, where apartheid divided people and used force, violence, to keep people apart, where men were deemed superior to women and whites were deemed superior to blacks.

Above all, this is an age of democracy and the South African people have a new confidence of a bright and prosperous future.

The new government in 1994 set about reconstructing the new country, putting new legislation in place, new policy frameworks and built houses, schools and clinics for South Africa's people. The last decade has seen fundamental changes in people's lives.

From here, we can think about how far we have come as South Africans in the last eleven years. We can also look towards the rest of the African continent and note the visible progress made on the rest of the continent in resolving conflicts, attaining peace and strengthening democracy.

Then we will come to the realisation that much has been done to nurture a continent in which there is enduring peace, security and stability, a place where the vulnerable are protected, where women are free to be women and children are free to be children. We have come so far, yet we can go so much further.

Through the democratic elections of 1994, we dismantled the apartheid state and its machinery. We put a stop to the sheer brutality inflicted by one person on another for political and economic gains. We outlawed racism and sexism and put the pillars in place for a truly people-centred development; characterised by partnerships across the spectrum of South African life. But again; we have come so far, yet we can and must go further.

Public spaces have been democratised. But as long as tyranny exists within the household, as long as there is a dictatorship within the four walls of the home, our democracy will be incomplete. Because the violence against women and children takes place within the household, in dark corners or narrow alleys, in places for the most part that are not in full view of the public.

It is this violence that we must stop. For women and children have the right to be free, to walk the streets, the right to live their lives without fear or favour and without being stopped in their tracks.

The freedoms we have fought for and still work towards can only be fully realised if the violence against women and children comes to an end and if we all say together: never, never and never again shall we accept this situation - and we need - each and everyone of us - to reinforce these words with actions.

In this African season of hope, we call to action all South Africans and our brothers and sisters on the rest of the African continent to join hands to eradicate violence against the vulnerable members of our society, particularly women and children, and to bring about peace in their lives.

The key to attaining our goal of Consolidating the African Agenda is in bringing about human security as well as freedom from physical harm.

But as long as our people are rendered vulnerable by abuse, self-centred and destructive actions, the more distant the goal of achieving global peace and security. This is why I believe that as a South African people acting together, we can do so much more than what we are doing now.

Already, it is good to know that there are signposts along the way, pointing us in the direction of greater freedom for our people.

I would like to remind you about the statement made by Minister Dlamini Zuma at the Inaugural Department of Foreign Affairs Imbizo, which was held at the University of Cape Town. Minister Dlamini Zuma made an important connection between the role played by women and youth in nation-building. She said the following:

The women are the people who are building our society and indeed our Continent today - they are central in the future of this Continent. It is no mistake that it is women who nurture life and who are central in the continuity of the human race. Women have special qualities to take us forward towards the prosperity of our country; they are the most important in national service to a country because they ensure jobs, food and education for future generations. It is impossible to exclude them from the centre of where our future is shaped, because they are so central to our being. Look at our women, they are peacemakers and can do so much to prevent the suffering under wars and conflicts. Look at the role of women in the rural areas and all the positive energy they are generating. Also as teachers they are playing a central role in education….We need to nurture the human race - women do that. Women can bring life and have interest in shelter, protection, and food. We are nurturers of life and we need to know that there are jobs, food, and shelter for young people. It is of importance. Without us there will be no continuation of the human race. We shape the future. We do things differently."

We have seen in recent years women in our country and in other African countries take their future into their own hands by forming a critical mass and by being agents of change.

  • In recent years, we have seen the women in the Great Lakes Region come together to forge their understanding of peace and unity, nation-building and post conflict reconstruction. These women have made their voices heard.
  • We have seen the women of the Mano River Basin come together and activate the leaders of different countries to meet, to talk, to engage in dialogue and to ensure that peace agreements were signed, sealed and delivered. The same region now boasts the first woman, President elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to be elected President of an African country - her victory is indicative of the power that women have in this region through coming together.

As you might be aware, Liberia is still recovering from a painful past of human rights abuses with women and children being the victims of violence. Let us salute the Liberian people for turning the tide against autocracy and lend our support in whatever way we can in their endeavours of rebuilding their country from the abyss of poverty, war and economic stagnation.

  • The women in Rwanda fought for their rights and ratified a constitution allotting 30% of decision-making positions to women.
  • In South Africa, we have also seen significant progress in women's representation at all levels of government, particularly the executive.

South Africa has been committed to advancing the ideals and cause of women empowerment in all spheres of life.

There is therefore hope that as humankind we can transcend narrow stereotypes based on race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture and language which are the source of all intolerance and abuse of those most vulnerable members of our society.

These are only a few examples of progress on a continent where there has been substantial changes in recent years.

However, we must concede that there are places where women's freedoms remain far and few and where much work needs to be done for freedom to be a reality on the ground.

Moreover, on the African continent women have been the tillers of the soil, farmers, care-givers and in many places, heads of the household. Only when we fully address the problems of poverty and underdevelopment on the African continent through the full implementation of African-owned and Africa-initiated development plans, will we fully see the emancipation of women and children in rural areas.

As South Africans, part of our response must be to mobilise. We need to harness and build on our legacy as a country that waged one of the most active and success human rights campaigns, namely the struggle against apartheid. We should never forget the roles played by women leaders such as Lilian Ngoyi, Ruth First, and youth leaders such as Tsieti Mashinini in bringing about a South Africa founded on "peace and friendship" as envisaged in the Freedom Charter.

However we still have a long journey ahead of us in reducing and eradicating the scourge of women abuse and children abuse within our country, our continent and the world community.

  • As government we have established twenty-four hour one stop Thuthuzela Care Centres to render services such counselling, medical examination, policing and prosecution to victims of sexual offences.
  • In the past financial year, police statistics show that there were 63 specialised sexual offence courts in session with an increased conviction rate, ensuring that perpetrators are put behind bars for their heinous crimes.
  • Next month also sees the commemoration of World Aids Day on December 1 as well as the International Human Rights Days ten days later. These two themes are equally related to the 16 Days of Activism highlighting the importance of stemming the spread of HIV and Aids and curbing the continued trend of human rights violation.
  • Our government has designed a five-year strategy to deal effectively with the HIV and Aids pandemic by identifying four areas of priority: preventing further HIV infection; providing treatment, care and support for those infected and affected by HIV; researching an AIDS vaccine and conducting other research; and monitoring and asserting the human and legal rights of all affected by the disease.

But again I repeat that we can do so much more and take this struggle against gender violence so much further.

  • We need to increase our activism and vigilance and mobilise enough support within our own communities to stem the horrendous forms of abuses against our own kith and kin.
  • Often violence is not inflicted by a stranger but by a friend. As South Africans, we need to stop protecting those who hurt us, yet claim to love us.
  • We need to expose those whom we know are abusing others, even if they are our friends, members of our families or our communities. We need to speak out to make our cities, our villages, our workplaces safer places for women and in which children can grow up in peace and harmony.

And we have start somewhere, so that it feeds into a whole and makes a better country, a better continent in a better, safer world.

In the words of an African poet:
let us liberate this vast landmass,
this African space from narrow ways,
blot out the borders that imprison us in separate lives.
Let us create new trade routes of thoughts and imaginings,
to a marketplace where ideas are exchanged,
a meeting place of hands and hearts and minds….
Let us dress the world in a new consciousness and
clad everyone we meet in dreams of togetherness.

We must continue through our awareness campaigns to bring about a heightened consciousness of change for the better, of women's empowerment, of the well-being of all citizens and people, of protecting the poor and downtrodden so as to build a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it and an African continent in which the children of today can collectively possess a bright future.

I thank you

Issued by Department of Foreign Affairs
Private Bag X152

29 November 2005


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