Women’s Day is celebrated at various times throughout the year, depending on where you are in the world. In America, the UK and Australia, it’s commemorated in March, while the Canadians celebrate it in October.
In South Africa, we recognise August 9 as Women’s Day, in tribute to the more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on August 9, 1956 to protest against the extension of the much-hated Pass Laws to women.
The march was co-ordinated by the Federation of South African Women. It was led by Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams de Bruyn, and supported by thousands of mothers, daughters, sisters and friends who had come together to try to initiate change.
They delivered petitions to then Prime Minister JG Strijdom’s office that had been signed by over 100 000 women to show their frustration and anger at having their freedom of movement curtailed.
The march was peaceful, and was followed by a moving and extremely powerful 30 minute display of unity as the women stood outside the Union Buildings in silent protest.
The first National Women’s Day was celebrated in South Africa in 1995 and remains an extremely important day on our calendar. It draws attention to many of the issues still facing women in Africa today, such as discrimination, domestic violence, harassment at work, education for girls, unequal pay and more.
Throughout South Africa’s history, women have played vital roles in the struggle for freedom and equality. In 1913, for example, Charlotte Maxeke was instrumental in the establishment of the ANC Women’s League. And pioneers such as Amina, Cissy and Jaynab Gool were among the first leaders of the National Liberation League and the non-European United Front of the 1930s.
In 1946, Gadijah Christopher and Amina Pahad were among the first to occupy the site of the Passive Resistance Campaign on Umbilo Road in Durban.
More recently, we have seen modern women heroes make a difference in South Africa as they stand up against corruption and government incompetence.
Professor and president of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Glenda Gray is an award-winning pioneer in the study of HIV and AIDS.
However, she recently made headlines in South Africa for all the wrong reasons.
In May, when we were still struggling with one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 lockdowns, she said, “E-commerce doesn’t cause COVID-19, and making people exercise from 6am to 9am causes congestion. There were compelling reasons for the lockdown. But there comes a time when the value of the lockdown becomes negligible, and we are now at that stage of the pandemic.
“[The Government’s] job is to make sure that hospitals are ready for this pandemic. The grey areas come in the narrative of regulations. Let the children out, they won’t be adversely affected, protect the vulnerable, and keep them safe, and let us go out and do what we do. We have reached a point of no longer having additional benefits of keeping the lockdown.”
Needless to say, this did not go down well with Minister Zweli Mkhize or the Health Department. Gray was accused of causing “unnecessary sensationalism,” and of having made “a number of false allegations against the government.”
Acting director-general of the Department of Health Anban Pillay ordered the SAMRC to conduct an investigation into Gray’s conduct, saying it had significantly harmed South Africa’s COVID-19 response.
The SAMRC later released a statement saying, “We did not find a transgression of [the Council’s] policies by Professor Gray. The Board has decided that it will not be instituting any further investigation on this matter.”
Jennifer Ntlatseng is the first woman to be appointed as Executive Director for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).
Commenting on her appointment, Ntlatseng, a 20-year veteran of the criminal justice and community-policing systems, said, “I want to steer this ship in the right direction and at the same time be open and transparent while trying to rebrand the IPID to win back the confidence of the community,” she said.
Career Advocate Shamila Batohi took up her role as National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) in February 2019, the first woman ever appointed to this position.
She recently told the Portfolio Committee on Justice that South Africa is not yet winning the fight against corruption.
“The amount of work that needs to be done is astronomical,” she said, “but we have to keep fighting, and we have to continue doing everything we can to address this.”
She says one of the main problems is the lack of skilled investigators and prosecutors.
“The NPA has been weakened, deliberately, over time. In my first year, time had to be spent on repairing the lack of skills, the lack of confidence and internal structures,” she said. “Unless government deals with this in a serious way, we are not going to win this fight. But it is nevertheless one we will fight until the very end.”
Sadly Zanele, former director of South Africa’s National Treasury, passed away in May 2019. But in the nine years she worked for the Treasury, she did incredible work in the fight against fraud and corruption, setting up the first forensic investigation unit in the country.
“We are helping the country investigate foreign bribery,” she said. “My unit is capacitated with advocates, chartered accountants and cyber specialists, and we have 10 forensic firms assisting us throughout the country. I believe that we will conquer, and we will succeed.”
In 2015, she was named as Certified Examiner of the Year by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE). At the award ceremony she said, “As South Africans, we have a responsibility to prevent fraud and corruption. It is a struggle that must be fought by all of us.”
The significance of the award, she added, was increased awareness from the public about the National Treasury and its work in fighting fraud and dishonesty.
“No one talks about the National Treasury in terms of dealing with fraud and corruption in the country,” she said. “No one knows that we exist; no one knew where to report fraudulent activities. Now that we’ve won the top awards, it means people will know that there are effective fraud busters at the National Treasury.”
I hope you will join us this Women’s Month as we celebrate the massive contributions of these women, and all the others throughout our history who have fought tirelessly, and often at great personal risk, to end corruption, discrimination and social injustice in our country.