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South Africa: Address by the Deputy Chairperson Hon Tau, on the occasion of the women’s Charter Review Conference. 20 August 2018

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Address by the Deputy Chairperson Hon Tau, on the occasion of the women’s Charter Review Conference. 20 August 2018:

Chairperson of the NCOP Deputy Speaker of National Assembly House Chairpersons Members of Parliament Delegates and Distinguished guests

I am very pleased and honoured to have been given a small role in a much needed and overdue initiative of reviewing and locating the 1954 women’s charter. In doing so allow me to go through memory lane and contextualise the road towards the 1954 women’s charter.

It is only over the last three or four decades that women’s role in the history of South Africa has, belatedly, been given some recognition. Previously the history of women’s political organisation, their struggle for freedom from oppression, for community rights and importantly for gender equality, was largely ignored.

The reason for this invisibility of women, was largely due to conventional patriarchy. In other words, it was the men who had authority in society: women were seen as subordinate to men. Women’s role was primarily seen as a domestic one, amongst others it included child rearing and seeing to the well-being, feeding and care of the family. They were not expected to concern themselves with matters outside home –that was more properly the domain of men.

By the beginning of the twentieth century in South Africa all the previously independent African polities had been conquered and put under white settler control. Furthermore, the economic independence of these African societies had been destroyed and African men had been drawn into a labouring class on the mines and on white-owned farms. The discovery of minerals (diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886) had unleashed huge changes in the developing South African economy, and these were to become very significant for the roles played by women, particularly black women.  

The turning of events in the early 20th century, led women to form community based organisations. One such community organisation was the Alexandra Women’s Council (AWC) which was established in the mid-1940s. the AWC become active in issues relating to squatter movements, and in 1947 it demonstrated against the Native Affairs Commission, which wanted to remove squatters in Alexandra Township.

The pace of urbanisation which was taking place throughout the country changed the female employment patterns. The clothing industry become an important area of industrial employment for women, as were the food, drink and Tabaco industries. Through their employment in industry women become drawn into trade unions, and this too, become a significant motivating factor in women’s resistance against gender inequality and social injustice. The influence of trade unions began to be felt by the 1920s and it increased rapidly in the 1940s, with women such as Ray Alexander, Frances Baard and Bettie du Toit, taking the lead and thus empowering the women’s movements. Early female activists such as Charlotte Maxeke, the leader of the Bantu Women’s League (BWL), also had close links with the industrial and Commercial Workers Union.

It was in 1953 when three women decided amongst themselves that the time was right to call women to a meeting to discuss the formation of a national women’s organisation. The three women were Frances Baard, Ray Alexander and Florence Matomela. No record was kept of the informal meeting, but Ray Alexander later said that it had been attended by about 40 women. Ray Alexander pointed out the advantages of an umbrella body that would devise a national strategy to fight against the issues of importance to women: every day matters such as rising food and transport costs, passes and influx control. The women were enthusiastic in their response and Ray Alexander was asked to pursue the matter further. 

Honourable Members and Delegates:

It is events like the 1913 demonstration against passes which was held in Bloemfontein, the 1930 protest action led by women in Potchefstroom which was against lodger permits and the third campaign being the 1956 pass law march which shaped our icons like Mama Albertina Sisuslu.

Albertina Sisulu was a political activist and nurse and one of the most important leaders of the anti-Apartheid resistance in South Africa. She was often referred to as the “Mother of the Nation” She acted on her ideal of human rights throughout her life.  In 1948 Mama Sisulu, joined the ANC Women’s League and in 1950 she began to assume a leadership role- both in the ANC and in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). She was one of the organisers of the historic anti-pass Women’s march in 1956 and opposed inferior Bantu Education. Her home in Orlando West in Soweto was used as a classroom for alternative education until a law was passed against it.

The Federation of South African Women was launched on 17 April 1954 in the Trades Hall in Johannesburg, and was the first attempt to establish a national, broad-based women’s organisation. One hundred and forty-six delegates, representing 230, 000 women from all parts of South Africa, attended the founding conference and pledged their support for the broadly-based objectives of the Congress Alliance.

The specific aim of FEDSAW were to bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed, as well as to remove their social, legal and economic disabilities.

A draft Women’s Charter was presented by Hilda Bernstein, and in complete identification with the national liberation movement as represented by the Congress Alliance.

The Charter called for the enfranchisement of men and women of all races; for equality of opportunity in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property rights, marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied women such equality.

It further demanded paid maternity leave and free and compulsory education for all South African children. These demands were later incorporated into the Freedom Charter that was adopted by the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown near Johannesburg. 

The evolution of Women’s struggle since 1954

Immediately after the 1954 Women’s Charter, women were integrated into many aspects of liberation struggle. They occupied positions of leadership in political organisations and trade unions.

UDF Women’s Congress was formed on 23 April 1987 by all women’s organisations that were affiliated to the UDF and included women’s cooperatives, women’s sections of youth and civic organisation, unions and church groups. The congress was formed as a body that would uphold the Freedom Charter and the 1954 Women’s Charter. It was aimed at teaching men and women in the UDF about women’s oppression, methods of how to do away with all forms of discrimination based on gender and talk about women’s problems.

Soon after the unbanning of the ANC and its structures toward the end of 1990, the ANC Women’s league approached all women’s organisations to set up a coalition. Seventy organisations joined and the Women’s National Coalition (WNC) was formed in April 1991 and officially launched in April 1992.

 During the negotiations for a democratic South Africa in the early 1990s a women’s coalition was formed in order to strengthen the demand for gender justice. Women across political parties and non-partisan activists formed a coalition to conceptualise the content and form of gender relations in an era of democracy. The coalition became busy with research, co-ordination, and drawing up a Women’s Charter that was going to be inclusive and premised on the foundation of the 1954 Women’s charter.

 The charter was completed in 1994 and accepted at a national convention held in February 1994.

It was handed over to the State President, Nelson Mandela, in Parliament on 09 August 1994 which subsequently led to 9 August declared National Women’s Day.

Most of the issues raised in the 1994 women’s charter where then incorporated into the new Constitution and in particular the Bill of Rights.


In line with the Women’s Charter of 1954 and finally with the 1994 Charter, women are not seen as forming a society separate from men. There is only one society, and it is therefore incumbent on everyone together, women and men, to join forces to eradicate patriarchal practices and stereotypical attitudes. The engagement of men and boys is invaluable and incalculable in advancing women’s rights and empowerment and in achieving gender equality.

The progress we make as a society can only have full and deeper meaning if it is accompanied by significant progress in the struggle for the emancipation of women.

I believe that we should accept the proposition that we must measure the success of progress towards social transformation by advances we make in the struggle for a non-sexist society. Indeed, we must measure the progress towards a democratic transformation by the progress we record in the struggle for gender equality. 

The ideology of patriarchy has surpassed the ideological construct of racism. We need to address the issues as two different constructs. We need to decolonise our thinking, deconstruct the idea of patriarchy and begin to reconstruct a new way of thinking about gender equality as a norm –in other words we need to move for total paradigm shift in our thinking, practices and perspective. The struggle against patriarchy is therefore a struggle within the struggle and it cannot be forged by women alone. All of us have to bring our forces together both men and women.

What needs to be done:

 We need to build with speed the developmental state that provides basic services and with capabilities to take forward a far-reaching agenda of national economic development whilst at the same time placing people and more especially women at the centre of this process.

We need to build effective, integrated planning and service delivery system.

We need to ensure civil society works with the state in achieving gender equality and not see civil society as the enemy of the state.

We need to increase our capacity to plan, co-ordinate and monitor and evaluate the implementation of policies and charter’s approved by our government and the impact they have on the people and in particular women.

What this conference needs to achieve is the following:

This conference will serve as a launching pad to engage women across all sectors of society, on the most pertinent challenges still facing women today. These inputs will culminate in the adoption of a contextually relevant Women’s Charter in March 2019,

Create a platform to report back on the status of women in South Africa, with particular reference to the processing of resolutions emanating from the women’s parliament events hosted during the fifth parliament.

The review and adoption of a thematically relevant women’s charter, which will thematically focus on the advancement and implementation of the most catalysing policy imperatives, so as to accelerate vast improvements in women’s quality of life. The reviewed charter will also take into consideration common issues raised by women since the inception of sector parliaments in 2004.

The newly adopted women’s charter will underpin the work of the Multi Party Women’s Caucus (MPWC) in the sixth Parliament, as one of the guiding manuscripts and mandates to meaningfully accelerate the women’s transformation agenda

Launch of a Sector Parliament Resolution Processing Mechanism, comprising of political champions, committee chairpersons and administrative officials, in order to accelerate the implementation of sector Parliament resolutions, accompanied by effective oversight and accountability timelines 

Launch of an e-democracy monitoring and evaluation oversight mechanism, which will enable joint efforts with all relevant stakeholders in monitoring the advancement and implementation of resolutions across all provinces and localities. This mechanism will also enable regular feedback to the public, on progress made and expected implementation timelines

Lastly, allow me to salute a committed activist in her own right, Mam’ uSobukwe. A woman experienced suffering that no human being should ever have to endure at the hands of another. She underwent immense suffering and sacrifice merely because she believed in and fought for equal rights and equal treatment. Rest in power Mama Sobukwe. You have not died by multiplied.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Republic of South Africa: The Parliament.

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