Being a black woman in apartheid South Africa was hard; every day was a constant struggle for survival against a ruthless regime and system. Each day would bring new challenges and the promise of more humiliation and suffering.
Stripped of their rights and facing constant harassment women often bore the brunt of apartheid brutality. It is this reality that led Mama Albertina Sisulu and other courageous women to confront the regime head-on during the 1956 women march.
Today the reality is very different, but being a woman in South Africa is still hard. Even today many remain marginalised from the economic and social mainstream and face a constant threat of violence and abuse.
Changing these realities must be our common goal. Those fearless women we celebrate during Women’s Month have shown us that nothing is impossible. The ground has been made fertile by their sacrifice and now it’s our turn to continue challenging and fighting injustices, marginalisation and gender-based violence.
Silence is not an option; the women of 1956 knew it would condemn them. Often our silence when women are exposed to abuse is deafening. We can no longer turn a blind eye and a deaf ear when our homes are being turned into war zones. We have to end this scourge, and we have to end it together.
During Women’s Month we have a perfect opportunity to reflect on how far we have come. Were Ma Sisulu still alive what would she make of our progress? In the year that we celebrate the centenary of her life this question is more relevant than ever. Great strides have undoubtedly been achieved and the status of women has shifted in this country.
Since 1994 we have much greater women representation in Parliament, the government and civil society. However, gender representivity is still below the 50% mark for positions of influence.
According to the 2018 Grant Thornton International Business Report, women still lag behind their male counterparts in business. It shows that although almost one third (29%) of senior roles in South Africa are now filled by women, one in five local businesses (20%) still have no women in senior positions.
Therefore we must continue to work to transform our places of work and homes into places where women can develop and reach their full potential. We should celebrate those women who have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling, and we should challenge instances where women are held back purely because of their gender.
Recently Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng became vice-chancellor of the University Of Cape Town, while Dr Judy Dlamini was appointed chancellor at Wits University. These appointments affirm that women are taking their rightful place in all spheres of society.
South African women have also flown our flag high on the international stage. Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was the first woman to chair the African Union Commission, while former deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the executive director of UN Women.
During Women’s Month we celebrate them and all women who daily continue to make a difference in their communities. Every day ordinary women do remarkable things in our homes, communities and places of work. Their contribution to a better society is part of the new legacy we are building.
South Africa has made progress towards the realisation of a non-sexist society. But we still have a long way to go before the aspirations of those who took part in the 1956 march are achieved.
Their sacrifice has enabled us to live in a society where we are not defined by our gender. Let us therefore continue to work towards a safer and brighter future for all women.
*Williams is the acting director of the GCIS