Smashing the Glass Ceiling – July 2008
Speaker: Beryl Kerr
Master of Ceremonies,
And, especially, ladies
I WOULD like to speak about a virtue that explains why so many women are present here this evening.
It is a virtue that stays hidden in our hearts and minds – until we most need to use it and show it.
It is a virtue that we never recognize in ourselves … and yet, we always see it in others.
It is a virtue that enables us to push a toe in a previously shut door … followed by a foot and then a leg … and, finally, our whole being … until we can say, with a determined, firm voice: “Yes, I can – and so I will!”
Honoured guests, gentlemen … ladies – the virtue I am referring to is COURAGE, spelt out slowly and deliberately, in bold, capital letters.
The great American author and commentator, Maya Angelou, who has such a wonderful way with words, said: “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. [Without courage] we cannot be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest.”
I am certain that most of you will agree that our beloved country needs a strong injection of kindness… of truth … of honesty … of generosity of spirit … and of the trait of being merciful to others … as it moves – slowly, and sometimes far too cautiously (for the liking of many of us), towards the brighter future we all dream of.
South African women have a proud history of inspiring courage in others….
Less than two weeks ago, on 9 August, we celebrated the 51st anniversary of one of the seminal events in the long, painful struggle against apartheid – the march, in 1956, by 20,000 overwhelmingly black women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, in protest against the pass laws.
To me, that march will always be synonymous with courage – the type of courage that I am trying to highlight here this evening.
True, some people may ask: “In the end, what, exactly, did the march to the Union Buildings achieve? After all, more than 30 long, bitter, tragic years would pass before a mainly new generation of activists would finally engineer the collapse of the evil system of apartheid.
But, friends … comrades – the march did two things for an established and emerging new generation of black South Africans.
It ushered in the dawn of a new type of leader – a leader who was outspoken, a leader who was fearless and, yes, a leader who was female.
And it persuaded tens of thousands of ordinary women that they could make a difference – if they stood together … if they marched together … and if they demanded their rights as members of the human race, together.
I would like to mention just two of these leaders who lit up the struggles during those difficult years of the 1950s.
The first was Lillian Ngoyi….
Trade unionist, vice-president of the Women’s Federation, the first woman on the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress and the Transvaal president of the ANC, she was described in a 1956 article by Drum magazine journalist Es’kia Mphahlele as “the most talked of woman in South African politics”
Mphahlele wrote further: “Mrs Ngoyi is a brilliant orator. She can toss an audience on her little finger, get men grunting with shame and a feeling of smallness, and infuse everyone with renewed courage.
“Her speeches always teem with vivid figures of speech. Mrs Ngoyi will say: ‘We don’t want men who wear skirts under their trousers. If they don’t want to act, let us women exchange garments with them.”
Ngoyi led the 20,000 protesters to Pretoria, singing uMkhosi weMithida – a song originally composed to commemorate the Bulhoek Massacre, in 1921, when police opened fire on a black religious sect occupying government land in Bulhoek, near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, killing 183.
Translated into English, the song went something like this:
“I saw them come out, I saw them come out….
I came close and asked, whence do you come?
They passed in single file.
They drank dew with their own hands, with birds they awoke
Oh come here the footsteps of the great march
Oh hear the melody, singing their songs…
They passed in single file.
According to eye-witness accounts recorded in the excellent book, Women in South African History, Ngoyi led a delegation of the protesters right to the door of the office of the South African Prime Minister, JG Strijdom.
When “a voice behind the door” told her that her delegation would not be granted an interview with the Prime Minister, Ngoyi said: “The women of Africa are outside. They built this place and their husbands died for this.”
Then she left, returned to the waiting throng and reported that “Strijdom is too much of a coward to meet with us”.
The second woman I would like to acknowledge this evening, like Ngoyi, also had a trade union background. Her name was Elizabeth Mafekeng – and she became a fearless fighter against injustice in the Paarl area of the Western Cape.
According to Women in South African History (for which I again express my gratitude for providing me with such excellent background material), Mafekeng married a worker at the Langeberg Cooperative in Paarl in 1938. She took a month off for the birth of each of her 11 children, returning to work “with the baby on her back”.
Her activism came to a head in 1958 when, shortly after she became vice-president of the Women’s League, she was banished to the little village of Southey in the Northern Cape.
More than 3,000 supporters in Paarl reacted to her banishment with fury – marching, chanting, “Mrs Mafekeng will be avenged … Kill Verwoerd”, and clashing with police.
Rather than kowtowing to the intentions to the State, Mafekeng fled into exile into present-day Lesotho, leaving her supporters with this message: “The struggle must go on. There must be more Elizabeths to carry the struggle along. Even in the desert there will be no place left because we will never stop saying: ‘Africa must come back.’”
What Ngoyi, Mafekeng, Charlotte Maxeke, Ray Alexander, Helen Joseph, Dora Tamana, Ellen Kuzwayo, Amina Pahad, Cissie Gool, Cecilia Makiwane, Hettie September, Frances Baard, Dulcie September, Jeanette Schoon, Annie Silinga, Victoria Mahabane, Winifred Siqwana, Ruth First, as well as untold thousands of ordinary patriots were prepared to do through words and deeds, was to show that when good people work in unison, even the greatest evil can be tackled.
And while it could never be claimed that they inflicted a mortal wound to apartheid, the value they brought to the struggle centred on their ability to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Belief – and unity of purpose, will move mountains, they preached … even if this meant that the granite mountain of legislated racism had to be chiselled away inch by inch.
Years later, the American children’s activist, Marian Wright Edelman, speaking during another time about another issue, unwittingly encapsulated the intentions of the campaigns initiated by Ngoyi, Mafekeng and other women in a way that they (had they been given the opportunity to reflect on what they did and achieved), would probably not have disagreed with….
You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation,” Edelman wrote.
Perhaps some people would consider a flea not to be the most attractive of analogies to use in this instance – but, I must confess, I would find a hop-along of bloodthirsty fleas feasting on certain body parts of HF Verwoerd, JB Vorster or PW Botha an image that I would comfortably be able to live with.
Friends, comrades, ladies – we have defeated apartheid and overthrown the yoke of oppression, and for that we must be thankful – but ever vigilant.
What happened to our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers, must never be allowed to happen again.
It would be easy to say, “It won’t.” But as Professor Karl Elliger of Tubingen University in Germany, pointed out in the course of a lecture series in1950s about the rise and fall of Nazism: “Evil never comes from the same direction – wearing the same face.”
So, the warning for all of us is: Don’t relax!
A little more than 13 years into our new democracy, we find ourselves facing a range of new challenges – as women, as wives, as partners and as mothers.
And some of these challenges are as grave as some of the worst excesses of apartheid.
HIV/AIDS is wiping out hundreds of thousands of South African women – rich and poor … in every province of our country … and from the biggest cities to the smallest villages.
Ladies, 50 years and more ago, an earlier generation of women marched together hand-in-hand to take on another enemy. More than 50 years ago, Lillian Ngoyi bluntly told men to act like real men.
And they squirmed.
We must do the same today. The men of this country must be made to take the responsibility that men – and husbands should take.
South African women want the respect that wives, mothers and partners deserve. In fact we want to be respected as members of the human race. Fullstop.
Today we say to men: take your responsibilities seriously – or face the consequences.
We are sick and tired of being used as “sexual objects” or as objects of physical and mental abuse. Fifty-one years ago, an earlier generation of our number told JG Strijdom, “Strike the woman – and you strike the rock”.
They meant it then – and if we are serious about carrying forward their legacy, we should certainly make it clear that we mean it now.
Friends, comrades – there are two other challenges that are tearing us apart as mothers – and often as single-parent head of households: the emergence of drugs such as tik (especially in the Western Cape), which is destroying the lives of our children … and the horrific rise in instances of child abuse.
Again, I say, we must take the lead to ensure that action is taken to rid our communities of the scourge of drugs and the evil criminals who inflict such harm on our children.
Let us join hands in this new time of crisis … let us form networks of support … let us speak with one another … let us share experiences … let us provide support to one another – across provinces … across the length and breadth of our biggest cities … across our towns … into our smallest dorps and villages … from our biggest mansions to our smallest informal dwellings … from workplaces … to taxi ranks, bus depots and train stations … and in our schools and universities.
Let us help to turn our country into the democracy we all dreamed of when we went to the polls in 1994.
Friends … comrades – my strengths are in the business field. I am in a businesswoman – and I am concerned that our attempts to establish our credentials in business has closely mirrored our fight to be treated as equals in all the other spheres of life that I have just mentioned.
I’m not surprised therefore that the glass ceiling is still very much in place – 20 years after the term was coined by the American newspaper, the Wall Street Journal … and despite improvements here and there.
The fact is, we, as black women, are faced with a classic chicken and egg situation. Do we have to resolve the social challenges I’ve just outlined before turning our attention fully into getting our proper share of the business pie? Are all these problems having the effect of sending us into battle for a proper corporate share, with one knee chopped off, and one hand tied behind our backs?
But hang on, if we wait to fight and win our other battles, won’t we miss the business bus?
I began this address by speaking about courage. In wrapping up, I would like to return to the subject….
It has been said of South African women throughout the long years of struggle that “they remove boulders and cross rivers.”
In 2007, where the scale of the challenges is mounting all the time, this seems to me to be a definition of “Superwomen”.
Well, should those of us who care first have to be Superwomen? And if the answer is yes, do we have the armoury and the courage to rise to all the new challenges?
I thank you.
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