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Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Using our freedom to fight for gender equality

In 1991, at the first conference after the ANC was unbanned, I watched for five hours as Nelson Mandela debated affirmative action for women with many men who were very opposed to the idea. The proposal was that there be a 30% quota for women Members of Parliament. For hour after hour, Mandela held firm in favour of the proposal. Under his presidency, women’s representation in Cabinet increased from 2.7% to 27%. When it came time to choose his cabinet, he made sure one-third were women.

When our Constitution was being drafted Mandela again stood up for women, saying, “As a tribute to the legions of women who navigated the path of fighting for justice before us, we ought to imprint in the supreme law of the land, firm principles upholding the rights of women.” Indeed, the Freedom Charter, the cherished document from which our Constitution draws, states that, “Men and women of all races shall receive equal pay for equal work.”

So, how can it be that more than two decades later, the women of South Africa are paid one-third less than men?

This pay gap is unacceptable – not only because it is unfair, but because the fight for women’s economic empowerment is at the heart of the fight for gender equality. Violence against women – another huge challenge for South Africa – is directly linked to economic empowerment. Imagine the difference that that extra third of pay could make to a woman who is fighting for her right to live a life free of violence, who is trying to leave the man who beats her. It could help her pay for accommodation and food. For electricity and transport. An extra third of her income could be the difference between life and death.

The femicide rate in South Africa is well above the world average of 2.4 per 100 000 women. One in two of these women is murdered by her intimate partner, the person meant to respect and support her. Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has said that the meaning of Madiba’s birthday is a call to action. It is action that is sorely needed in South Africa.

As a member of the Mandela cabinet, I was in awe of President Mandela, and how at his age he could work around the clock. Tata didn’t mind calling and following up on urgent matters late at night or early morning if that was necessary. You had to ask yourself, “If he is still awake late at night or up very early in the morning, who am I to be asleep? I have not been in prison for 27 years and I’m much younger. I’d better get my job done.” We need that work ethic now. Mandela fought for our freedom, we must use that freedom to fight for gender equality, the great struggle of the 21st century.

If we are to win this fight, it is time that men and boys, especially, also take a leaf from Madiba’s book and get to work for gender equality. HeForShe is UN Women’s flagship initiative for engaging men and boys. It asks them to sign up to declare that they support gender equality and women’s empowerment. On the HeForShe website you can see how many men in each country in the world have signed up and expressed their support online. South Africa is being beaten by Rwanda, a tiny little country. It is being beaten by Cameroon and DRC. All three of these countries are in the top five in terms of commitments globally. South Africa has no excuse to lag behind. As Madiba said, when good people do nothing, that is conspiracy against women.

In just a few years of his life, Madiba increased women’s representation at the highest levels of government. Today, South Africa’s parliament is ranked tenth best in the world for women’s representation, with 41% women MPs. He got the ball rolling, and it has gathered momentum. Most recently, we’ve see this momentum in the #MeToo movement.

Today, in honour of Mandela, I ask everyone reading this, and especially the men and boys, to make a commitment to HeForShe. It is a commitment to fight for women’s equality. It is a commitment to action.

Madiba wrote to the people of South Africa when refusing to accept conditional release from prison in 1985, “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” Gender inequality hurts all of us. South Africans will not be free until they can say women enjoy equal opportunities and rights in every sphere of our society. This year, Tata would have turned 100. Let’s not make him wait another 100 years before we honour him with the gift of freedom and true equality for all.

* Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women and former deputy president of South Africa.

** Women’s march to the Union Buildings in August 1956 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Johncom)