Address of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of 1956 Women's March: Union Buildings, Tshwane, 9 August 2006

Programme Directors, Ntombazana Botha and Barbara Creecy,
Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka,
Your Excellency, Vice-President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Joyce Mujuru,
Veterans of the 1956 Women's March and other senior citizens,
Leaders and members of the Women's Organisations,
Minister Pallo Jordan and other Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Premier Mbhazima Shilowa and other Premiers,
Mayor of Tshwane, Gwen Ramokgopa and other Mayors,
Leaders of our legislatures and other state institutions,
Leaders of political parties,
Our religious and traditional leaders,
Your Excellencies Ambassadors and High Commissioners,
Women of South Africa, comrades and compatriots:

On behalf of our government and the people of South Africa as a whole, I am honoured to welcome you to the Union Buildings, the seat of the national government.

I am especially pleased to welcome Mama Albertina Sisulu, Mama Sophie de Bruyn and other veterans of the 1956 Women's March to the Union Buildings.

I am equally happy similarly to welcome the thousands of the women of our country who are here today as we celebrate our National Women's Day as well as the 50th Anniversary of the 1956 Women's March.

We have gathered here today to pay tribute to the brave women freedom fighters who marched on the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 not only to oppose the pass laws, but also to give further impetus to the struggle for our liberation from apartheid.

We have also gathered here to salute the millions of heroic South African women who engaged in struggle both before and after 9 August 1956, to whom we owe the freedom we enjoy today.

We are also meeting here to recommit ourselves to the pledge we made as we fought to defeat the apartheid regime, that South Africa will not be free until the women of our country are free.

We have therefore also convened here at the Union Buildings to reaffirm that the national government, as well as our provincial and local governments will continue to work together, in a People's Contract with the women's organisations, with the women of our country, with our people as a whole, to ensure that we achieve the goal of the emancipation of the women of our country from racial discrimination, from gender and class oppression.

I am glad that today we have among us people from the younger generations that did not have to carry the burden of our struggle for liberation. Their presence here communicates the firm message that the generation of 1956 has succeeded to pass on to its children and grandchildren the determination to struggle for freedom and a better life, which brought thousands of women to the Union Buildings in 1956.

Our freedom is only twelve years old. During these short years of democracy we have seen how easy it is for many of us to forget the enormous sacrifices that were made to bring about our liberation.

And yet for us properly to take advantage of the fact of our liberation to build the South Africa of our dreams, means that we dare not forget where we come from! We dare not forget that freedom was not free, but was achieved at a high cost!

We should never forget that our mothers and sisters who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 did so despite the fact that they knew that the apartheid regime would respond to their demands with violence and repression.

And yet they marched on, refusing to be terrorised by the threat of police brutality, banning orders, banishment and imprisonment. Even after they had left Pretoria to return to their homes throughout the country, and for many years after 9 August 1956, they continued to walk the long road to freedom.

As they walked that difficult road, they refused to be cowed into submission by such brutal massacres as those that took place in Sharpeville, Soweto, Boipatong, Shobashobane and elsewhere in our country and by long terms of imprisonment in Kroonstad and other apartheid prisons.

They refused to surrender because of fear of arrest and torture at John Vorster and other police stations, because of fear of assassination at Vlakplaas and other murder centres, or because of fear of being driven into exile from the country of their birth.

When we say - malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi - we say so because the women of our country were found everywhere in the front ranks of those who fought for the liberation of our country and people.

They responded magnificently to the challenge thrown at the feet of the men-folk by the late Lillian Ngoyi, when she said, "We don't want men who wear skirts under their trousers. If they don't want to act, let us women exchange garments with them."

Accordingly, they took their rightful place in the mass struggles we had to wage, in the underground structures of the national liberation movement and its armed formations and in the international struggle for the isolation of the apartheid system and support for our struggle for liberation.

Yesterday, Alexandra Township in Johannesburg commemorated the 50th Anniversary of August 9th by organising lunch and entertainment for the senior citizens of the township, especially the grand mothers.

Among them was Mama Martha Dlamini who is now 78 years old. She is among the thousands of unsung heroines whom we honour today, whose example we should use to inspire us to honour our commitment to the goal of a better life for the women of our country and our people as a whole.

Here is what Mama Martha Dlamini said about herself yesterday in Alexandra Township: "I became actively involved in politics in the late 50's. We organised women in the potato boycott…In the late 50's we participated in the anti-pass campaign as women. We organised demonstrations in town under the leadership of Lillian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph. We were arrested and taken to No 4 prison. Nelson Mandela was our legal representative. We were discharged.

"I was arrested again in 1960 when the government swoop (sic) the whole country. I was taken again to No 4 prison. In 1964 I was put under the banning order (sic) for 15 years by the Minister of Justice John Vorster. I was ordered to report at Bramley police station every Monday between 7am and 5pm. I was not allowed to have visitors or to attend any gathering. When my first born got married, I went to Pretoria to ask for permission to attend the wedding. When Florence Mophosho left the country, I was ordered to leave with her but because my children were too young, I did not go."

Martha Dlamini remains to this day a freedom fighter, having refused to be broken by the detentions and the banning orders that the apartheid regime thought would destroy her determination to see the women and people of our country liberated from the yoke of racist oppression.

Martha Dlamini is now nearly 80 years old. This does no mean that we should forget her and the example she set. The sacrifices she made must serve to inspire all of us, including her grand children, to do the right things to ensure that we achieve the goal of a better life for the women of our country and our people as a whole, building a truly democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous country, free of the poverty that continues to afflict millions of our people.

Neither should we forget that she herself represents an unbroken chain of heroines and proud women that pass backwards through Charlotte Maxeke, Kasturba Gandhi and Valliamma Moonsamy, champions of passive resistance, back to the women who lived and worked in the Cape as slaves.

Among them were such indomitable women such as Swarte Maria Everts and Angela of Bengal who defied oppression to become very successful farmers after being freed from slavery. We must also continue to draw inspiration from the first women prisoners on Robben Island, the Khoi women like Krotoa, the slave-worker for Jan van Riebeeck, whom he called Eva, as well as Catherine of Paliacatt and Susanna of Bombasser, who endured harsh treatment that was to be visited on many more women in the prisons of our country. On this important day in our national calendar our thoughts also go to Saartjie Baartman and all the women who suffered inhuman abuse.

We must remember too the women who were confined in concentration camps during the South African War, otherwise referred to as the Anglo-Boer War. The words of Olive Schreiner must impact on our consciences when she said about these women: "My feeling is that there is nothing in life but refraining from hurting others, and comforting those that are sad."

To refrain from hurting the women of our country and to comfort those that are sad means we must approach the tasks of achieving gender equality, of the emancipation of women, of guarantee their safety and security, of the eradication of poverty and the enhancement and defence of the human dignity of the women of our country with the greatest determination and unwavering commitment.

This must surely mean that our society as a whole should adopt as its own objective the goal set by the women of our country who said in The (1954) Women's Charter, "We, the women of South Africa hereby declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the population."

Nobody in our country can question the fact that, as demonstrated by the 1956 Women's March and other struggles since then, the women of our country have lived up to this commitment, including paying the supreme price, as did Dulcie September and others.

These women did not sacrifice their lives only to continue living as second-class citizens in a free South Africa. They did not fight for the liberation of this country to be told, in a liberated South Africa, that there are special positions reserved for men only.

Thus when we demand as we will always do, that women must have equal access to all opportunities our society provides as well as all positions of authority, in the public and private sectors, we are not extending any favours to our women. We are merely confirming what they themselves have fought for, remaining loyal to the vision of the creation of a non-racial and non-sexist society, for whose realisation many women paid the supreme sacrifice.

There are few institutions and organisations in our country today, which do not profess commitment to gender equality. Many of these have produced very impressive statements that indicate strong dedication to the emancipation of women. Yet, actual practice is often worlds apart from the stated policies.

To avoid the possibility of our declarations becoming empty rhetoric, we must put processes in place to help us audit, periodically, our progress or lack thereof with regard to the emancipation of women, whether in government, business or civil society.

We should do this honestly in a transparent manner so that the entirety of the South African society can assist with ideas as to how from our different stations, we can accelerate the process of the true emancipation of women.

Accordingly, as government business and civil society we should even today ask ourselves as to what have we done in the past 12 years to remove all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against women. We should answer the question honestly - what have we done to remove obstacles that militate against women's progress in society and deprive them of their inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities which other members of our society enjoy!

This I must also say that all of us know very well that we can put all the measures in place for the advancement of women, we can achieve impressive targets in ensuring that women occupy, as they should any position of authority in the public and private sectors yet as long as we do not stop women abuse, domestic violence, the rape of children, young and old women, we should know that we are still far from achieving the critical goal of the emancipation of women.

I would therefore like to take advantage of this important occasion once more to call on the leaders of all sectors of our society religious leaders, traditional leaders, community leaders, educators, health workers, political leaders, sports people and cultural workers everyone to be part of the programme to help eradicate the sickness that results in the abuse and murder of women and children.

This challenge faces not only government, the police and social workers. It confronts all of us as South Africans. Appropriately to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Women's March, we have to address the scourge of women and child abuse. We have to defend the view that women's rights are human rights. We have to unite to defeat poverty and poor access to resources experienced by many of our womenfolk. We have to ensure that the economic wealth we generate is shared in a manner that benefits the poor including the women in the rural and urban areas of our country.

Together as a nation, we must uphold the perspective that none of us is free unless the women of our country are free - free from race and gender discrimination, free from poverty and loss of human dignity and free from fear and violence.

As we engaged in the bitter and long struggle for freedom we consistently called for the mobilisation and organisation of women into a powerful, united and active force for revolutionary change.

Similarly today as we confront the challenges of poverty, underdevelopment, racism, sexism, exclusion and marginalisation we should continue to mobilise and organise the women of our country and all our people into a powerful, united and active force for revolutionary change and the true emancipation of women. This is a task that falls on the shoulders of both women and men.

Ten days ago the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) did us and the whole of Africa very proud by conducting very successful democratic elections. Once again, we congratulate our Congolese brothers and sisters on this outstanding achievement and appeal to them to continue working together to complete the electoral cycle and undertake the challenging task of the reconstruction and development of their country.

Already and far ahead of us in this regard the Constitution of the DRC provides for gender equality in the various institutions of state. We are confident that the Congolese leadership will build on this vigorously promoting the goal of the emancipation of the women of Congo in conditions of peace.

But as meet here today celebrating peace, both in our country and the DRC, war and armed conflict continue to inflict untold harm and suffering on many women and children across the world including Darfur and Somalia. In particular, the people of the Middle East are daily subjected to the horror of relentless bombings and killings.

Together we must continue to do everything possible to lend a hand to the ongoing efforts to bring a just and lasting peace to the people of Iraq, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon.

The Security Council of the United Nations in particular is faced with the responsibility urgently and immediately to discharge its responsibility in this regard driven by the fundamental interests of all the people in the Middle East all of whom are crying out for sovereign statehood for peace and peaceful co-existence throughout this region.

Once again, on this historic occasion, I wish everybody who participated in today's Commemorative 50th Anniversary March to the Union Buildings, as well as all the women across our country and the nation as a whole, a very happy Women's Day, convinced that we will continue to work together for the fulfilment of the dreams of the heroic women of our country.

Halala makhosikazi, halala!
Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo!
Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi!

Issued by: The Presidency
9 August 2006.

 

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