Newsmaker – Susan Shabangu: Woman on the edge of time

2014-08-10 15:00

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Susan Shabangu has been at the forefront of the gender struggle for three decades and is ready for the challenge of the country’s brand-new ministry

When Susan Shabangu was growing up in the then dusty streets of Orlando, Soweto, boys knew better than to mess with her.

She wouldn’t hesitate to wrestle a boy to the ground if he dared to talk down to her or treat her badly.

But South Africa’s recently appointed Minister of Women in the Presidency says those days are long gone. She has no time for physical confrontation.

“With age and life experience I have learnt that talking and persuading people to understand your point works much better.

“If they refuse to be persuaded, I accept defeat and understand that I can’t always prevail.”

Speaking to City Press in her palatial corner office in the east wing of Pretoria’s Union Buildings, Shabangu says this language of debate and discussion is commonplace now – but when she was a child, it was a foreign concept.

She is her family’s eldest child and grew up believing it was her job to protect and defend her siblings.

“Because if you as the eldest succumbed, you got attacked by your peers and that meant your siblings would suffer all the time.”

In her late teens, when the local boys with romantic interests became pushy, the now 58-year-old kicked them to the kerb.

“I never gave space to any boy to abuse or bully me,” she says.

“Boys knew that when they tried to twist my arm or slap me I would fight them. If they win they win, if I win that would be it.”

Her involvement in politics during the torrid 1970s cemented her commitment to beating sexism – as well as racism and any other form of discrimination, she says.

In 1976, she was in Grade 11 – right at the forefront of the June 16 Soweto uprisings. She knew her involvement in the protests was putting her life and her family’s in danger, but says she could not “allow the future of a black child to be destroyed”.

As the flames in Soweto and other townships died down, Shabangu’s political career began.

She joined the ANC’s underground structures and, about three years later she and other activists were given the task of reviving the organisation’s women’s movement.

The movement had to be similar to the ANC Women’s League, which had been banned about two decades earlier.

She and her colleagues, all women, travelled throughout South Africa speaking to ANC stalwarts like Albertina Sisulu. Until then, they had only ever read about the struggle veterans in newspapers.

“We learnt a lot from them about advancing the interests of women and ensuring their rights are realised. Some of those lessons are still relevant in my current position and I will continue to use them.”

Indeed they are. Shabangu’s mandate in her new post – it was created by President Jacob Zuma in May as he started his second term in office – is to bring women’s empowerment and gender equality into the mainstream.

She has to do this by monitoring and evaluating whether the programmes government and the private sector have set up are actually working.

It’s too early for a scorecard, but the former minister of mineral resources and deputy minister of safety and security insists she’s more than capable of doing the job.

With a background in the male-dominated labour movement – she’s a former assistant secretary for the Federation of SA Women and the Federation of Transvaal and national women’s coordinator for the Transport and General Workers Union and served on Cosatu’s national women’s subcommittee – she feels well equipped to champion women’s interests.

“Being a woman in the labour movement was not easy those days. You had to work twice as hard to get the recognition, and the fact that our peers had grown up in a patriarchal society was not helping.

“But we pushed for equality and for men to understand that sometimes there are women who are more capable than men. My approach was that if we worked together we would succeed.”

She credits the governing party with teaching her about equality.

“The party has always been inclusive and recognised that women played an important role in the liberation of South Africans. When they looked at us they saw potential.”

Potential is one thing, but the ANC has never had a female president, nor even included a woman’s name on its presidential candidate list.

The Minister of Women is optimistic that things are changing fast.

“We are ready to have a woman for president. There are many women within the ANC who can lead the party and country. They have been groomed to take this position and I believe the time has finally come.”

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