Ma Sisulu showed us how. Now let’s do it

2013-08-13 10:00

In honouring Ma Albertina Sisulu, I recall the solidarity with which she embraced women as sisters, daughters and granddaughters in the 1980s and in South Africa’s first democratic Parliament.

In my mind’s eye she moves from shock to action at the brutal murder of Duduzile Zozo.

During the Traditional Courts Bill hearings, I picture her listening closely as rural women protest at the threat of second-class citizenship – standing with them as they assert our Constitution’s promise of full political, civil, socioeconomic and cultural rights.

She shakes her head in anger during a water and sanitation site inspection in an informal settlement when a young woman in a wheelchair explains she has to cross a busy road to reach public toilets that do not cater to her disability.

In the Eastern Cape, fewer than 70% of households have access to piped water in their dwellings while almost two-thirds of households in Limpopo lack access to sufficient sanitation. When water sources are a kilometre or more away, women and girls are almost twice as likely as men and boys to collect water.

The presidency, through its department for performance, monitoring and evaluation (DPME), had to report on the systemic problem of sanitation across the country and government’s plan to address the rights of people who are poor.

The ministers of human settlements and Water Affairs had to report on eradicating the bucket system.

The SA Human Rights Commission strategy on rights to water and sanitation resulted in women being the majority of the participants in the commission’s nine provincial hearings into this matter. Representatives from local, provincial and national government had to listen before responding – this was a first. Normally, they present their speech and leave at the start.

Women described living with no piped water and toilets – sometimes despite living next to dams where they saw mining companies, tourist spots and agribusiness enjoying unlimited access.

They spoke of rapes when fetching water or using open fields as toilets; daughters who, when menstruating, stayed away from schools with unsafe or no toilets; endless battles to keep homes clean when sewage flowed in the streets and into homes; the exhaustion of caring for HIV-positive family members and children ill from chemically or faeces-polluted water; and elected representatives and bureaucrats who disrespected them, refusing important information, treating them like children and demanding sexual favours.

We saw overflowing public toilets, containers of faeces and piles of refuse, dusty paths instead of roads, crèches set up with little if any state help, and clinics with long queues and few nurses and doctors.

Indigent policy was not applied in a uniform manner that upheld human rights across municipalities, resulting in many poor people paying for services meant to be free.

The cost to women’s time and health of unequal gendered roles, responsibilities and power was crystal clear.

The commission will table its report on water and sanitation to Parliament in September.

A key recommendation addresses the need for political will at Cabinet level to coordinate the work. Another argues for capacity to urgently be built in historically poor municipalities.

To date, national programmes have focused mainly on wealthy metros and municipalities.

Pre-1994, women united to ensure the negotiated transition and Constitution reflected substantive equality, women’s rights and nonsexism.

The 1999 elections was a crucial time to ensure Parliament enacted over 80% of women’s transformative priorities and a national budget commitment to making the entire budget gender-responsive. Women are the majority and, in solidarity with the poorest, can assert an agenda that holds all party leaders, men and women, accountable.

It’s time to use our individual and collective power to honour ancestors like Ma Sisulu.

»?Govender is deputy chair of the SA Human Rights Commission

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