South Africa: Nelson Mandela – champion of women’s rights

Date: December 6, 2013
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Johannesburg, 6 December: Gender Links learned of the passing away of one of the greatest statesmen of all time with profound grief and sorrow. We extend our heartfelt condolences at this time to Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, former wife and comrade, Winnie Mandela; his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as the millions in South Africa and globally touched by this towering figure and fighter for justice.

Mandela’s gift to South Africa is not only the first democratic elections, the peace and prosperity that we now enjoy, but also the opening of the door to women’s empowerment. He emerged from 27 years in jail in 1990 to a changed and changing world – politically and socially. As a leader he quickly realised that South Africa’s long walk to freedom did not end in 1990. As the struggle against apartheid ended so did South Africa’s long walk to gender equality begin.

We will never forget his profound words at the opening of the first parliament in 1994:

It is vitally important that all structures of government, including the President himself, should understand this fully: that freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression. All of us must take this on board, that the objectives of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) will not have been realised unless we see in visible and practical terms that the condition of the women of our country has radically changed for the better, and that they have been empowered to intervene in all aspects of life as equals with any other member of society.”

The proportion of women in South Africa’s first democratically elected parliament increased ten-fold from 2.7% to 27%. Today, this figure stands at 44%. Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, appointed over one third women to his cabinet, many of whom went on to occupy even more senior positions. For example, he appointed Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, then a teacher, to the post of Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry. She went on to become Minister of Minerals and Energy, then Deputy President, under Thabo Mbeki. She is now head of UNWOMEN – responsible for promoting gender equality around the world. Mandela appointed Geraldine Fraser Moleketi, previously his administrative assistant, to the post of Deputy Minister of Social Development. She went on to become Minister of Public Service, then to serve in senior posts in the UNDP and now the African Development Bank.

Though coming from traditional roots, Nelson Mandela made tremendous strides in his personal gender journey. Mandela’s second wife Winnie Mandela became a renowned freedom fighter in her own right; suffering repeated harassment and banishment at the hands of the brutal apartheid regime. We salute her for keeping Mandela’s light shining during his 27 years of incarceration.

In his third marriage to Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel, Mandela embraced the principles of equality that he spoke about in the public space. Machel retained her surname. They had a commuter marriage, between South Africa and her home in Mozambique. They frequently appeared together and supported each other in the causes they held dear, especially the plight of children. Through the long months that Mandela suffered, barely conscious, in hospital, Graca Machel remained the dignified presence at Mandela’s bedside. We thank Graca Machel for the joy, warmth and companionship that she shared with our beloved leader in his twilight years. We have no doubt that this love and care went a long way in giving us many more years with Mandela; the chance to solidify our democracy and deepen its roots.

Mandela’s greatness lay not only in what he did, but his willingness to admit error, to question his judgement, and to feel tremendous guilt as a father for not having given sufficient time to his children, some of whom have been embroiled in public spats that threatened his legacy – see this article. In the article GL CEO Colleen Lowe Morna writes: “I recall, as founding CEO of the Commission on Gender Equality, handing over the Commission’s first report, together with commissioners and staff, to the then President Mandela at Union Buildings in 1997. As he walked in the room, Mandela expressed his pleasure at being among so many beautiful women. One of my younger staff at the time had the courage to raise her hand and say, “Mr President that is not what this commission is about!” He paused, looked around, and responded: “You are so right! I am still learning!” This is the Mandela I will remember: the Mandela willing to admit error, willing to have the sins of the children visited upon the father, big enough never to want to be a saint.”

We grieve and we celebrate you.

Hamba kakuhle, Tata Mandela!

For further information please email Katherine Robinson:


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