Nelson Mandela Foundation

This piece will focus on Nelson Mandela’s speeches on the issue of gender discrimination and in particular those made on National Women’s Day, from the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s speeches database. 

On 9 August 1956, 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to resist the pass laws that were introduced to African women. The pass laws required that all adult African men had to carry a book, commonly called a dompas, when they were in the urban areas of South Africa at all times. It was being extended to African women. Not having a dompas when stopped by the police, meant arrest and spending time in jail. The effects of this was devastating to families if both parents were arrested at the same time. Children were often left alone. The women in 1956 organised the march to protest against the pass laws. 

Madiba in his speeches pays tribute to the women for the role they have played during the struggle against apartheid. He said in 1996: “When the women of South Africa converged on these Union Buildings forty years ago, from every corner of South Africa, they created one of the enduring landmarks of our country's history. They declared that women would insist on their role in making history. Then, they vowed to a stubborn oppressor that they would resist and fight for liberation. Today, at the seat of our first democratic government, you have assembled to affirm the wisdom and farsightedness of those who declare: "Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo; uzokufa!" ".

Nelson Mandela was a champion of women’s rights because he believed that women rights are an integral part of a free society as in this quote from a speech he gave on 8 May 1994, Parliament, Cape Town: “Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”.

On the 39th anniversary of the march, on 9 August 1995, Nelson Mandela said: “The women in the communities must infuse the nation with the spirit of Masakhane. We have to work together to create a culture of learning and to defeat crime”. He made a special plea to the women in KwaZulu-Natal and in the rest of the country to rededicate themselves and reinforce the national crusade against violence. As the government ought to imprint in the supreme law of the land, and firm principles upholding the rights of women. In addition, Madiba emphasised that women themselves and the whole of society, must make this a prime responsibility to defeat violence.  However, one can wonder how this can be achieved due to the accumulating challenges that women face daily? This can be achieved firstly by speaking up and exposing the criminals and abusers, and secondly through having honest and open conversations amongst women and men in society and in power to end discrimination on the ground of sex. This speak to Madiba’s quote (Nelson Mandela by Himself the Authorised Book of Quotations 2001-p119):

“We must be honest and open about the power relationships between men and women in our society, and we must help build a more enabling and supportive environment that puts the role of women centre stage in this struggle. Each one of us - sister and brother, mother and father, teacher and student, priest and parishioner, manager and worker, Presidents and Prime Ministers, must add our voice to this call for action.”

Today, South African women live in fear and are still challenged with issues such as gender discrimination, unemployment, poverty, and gender-based violence. Violence against women is a growing phenomenon and as some research shows that one in four women has been subjected or experienced abuse or a beating. It affects any woman in South Africa regardless of their geographical location, socio-economic background, race, religion, sexuality, or gender identity.  Gender-based violence has serious physical, mental, economic, and social repercussions.  Sexualized violence can lead to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and sexually transmitted infections, isolation and depression. Moreover, it prevent survivors from achieving economic prosperity because of stigma, physical and psychological trauma caused by the violence they experience. 

Ubiquity of gender – gender based violence worldwide is largely a result of systemic gender inequality that disempowers women and girls, lack of justice, a dearth of available resources, and the lack of economic opportunities, which leads the victims to being dependent on the abuser. It gives power to the abuser to continue abusing without fear of repercussion.

As Madiba states in his 1996 Women’s day speech, “the legacy of oppression weighs heavily on women. As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure”. One could say that Madiba’s speech was prophetic as women in South Africa and in many countries across the globe still face challenges. 

More needs to be done in order to dismantle the challenges of women and gender discrimination, and for us to achieve that we can begin by taking into account Madiba’s words spoken at a National Men’s March, Pretoria, South Africa, 22 November 1997:

“As long as we take the view that these are problems for women alone to solve, we cannot expect to reverse the high incidence of rape and child abuse. Domestic violence will not eradicated. We will not defeat this scourge that affects each and every one of us, until we succeed in mobilising the whole of our society to fight it” 

Moreover, apply Madiba’s words “we need a fundamental change of mindset with regards to the way we speak and behave about sex and sexuality. Boys and men have a particularly critical role in this regard, changing the chauvinist and demanding ways sexuality and women were traditionally dealt with in both our actions and speaking” (Nelson Mandela-Youth forum on HIV/AID, University of the Witwatersand, Johannesburg, South Africa 22 September 2003). This words set a foundation on how to deal with gender discrimination and gender violence in our country.

Nelson Mandela was an advocate for women rights during his tenure as president. He ensured that South Africa participate in the fourth world women’s conference in Beijing. He contextualised the challenges that South African women are facing to and compared it to other women throughout the world to strengthen the force for change in the country. He ensured that the government ratified the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women by committing itself to specific and practical guidelines for attaining equality and the empowerment of women. If Madiba was alive I believe he would have ensured that government measures against gender-based violence are activate all over South Africa through a holistic and comprehensive approach that is multi-sectoral in its drive to achieve women empowerment across South Africa. 

These speeches also remind us that our constitution commits our society to the equality of women, which is one of the most important milestones in South Africa - to build a non-sexist society that Madiba stood for.