Letter To The President

We must act now on women empowerment

Mr President,

Our country can do better on issues related to women. I’m optimistic!

South Africa will soon be celebrating Women’s Month, an initiative that I thoroughly appreciate as it gives women the opportunity to rethink their position and contribution to society as a whole.

For me personally, it is quite a sacred moment to reflect on the sacrifices and opportunities brought about by the courageous acts of, particularly, heroines of our beautiful land who came before us. I am humbled to come from a province that heroines like kgošigadi mma Manthatisi, mma Lilian Ngoyi, mma Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke, Kgošigadi ya Pula, mma Makobo Modjadji (to name but a few) also called home.

All these revered women displayed, in their diverse ways, undisputedly fearless, unapologetic and visionary leadership qualities worthy of being mimicked. Of course, these are but a few examples and do not, by any chance, trivialise the significant contributions of other powerful heroines from the rest of our land.

While the fact that the month of August is set aside to celebrate women, it is also a no brainer that that does not take away the fact the women continue to exist even outside the month of August. Now that the country had warmed up to the issues of women through, among others, initiatives like those that come with Women’s Month, I believe it’s an opportune time to assess how we are legitimately doing as a country on issues related to women on any other time of the year.

Speaking as a woman in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who tasted a work environment when it was still not fashionable for women to be in this predominantly male workspace, I can attest to the drift that happened between then and now.

I know what it feels like to have a male colleague waiting at the door to an ablution facility just to make sure that no other male colleague enters the same space while I was in there, as many workplaces were not built to accommodate women at that time. While there might still be issues related to the facilities in that regard, I’m pleased to say that we’ve certainly turned the corner (at least in my view).

I also know what it is like to be sidelined because my physical capability was deemed to be in question, something like “we can’t be sure of the nut that she had tightened”, or “whether she’ll be able to lift that load”. Indeed, I know the pain of being declined a job opportunity because I declared my pregnancy during the recruitment process. But of course, a lot of ground had been covered since then.

We’ve seen the introduction of new regulations ushering in the much-needed transformation in, especially, the engineering environment, while at the same time the shift in technology played a significant role in levelling the playing field to the benefit of women. Consequently, there were a number of options to lift loads that one would ordinarily have to wrestle with; while on the other hand, the following great developments are also deservingly acknowledged:

  • The growth of women representation in leadership positions, including in Parliament and in the global sphere;
  • Growth in women representation, particularly in STEM positions, including senior positions;
  • Improved government policies and programmes in favour of women;
  • National Policy Framework for Women Empowerment and Gender Equality that was approved by Cabinet in 2000; and
  • Ministry for Women in the Presidency as a way of elevating women’s issues and interests, according to what the ministry is stating.

I’ve also listened with keen interest during your 2018 State of the Nation Address (SONA) when you said: “We will improve our capacity to support black professionals, deal decisively with companies that resist transformation, use competition policy to open markets up to new black entrants, and invest in the development of businesses in townships and rural areas.”

It was also heartwarming to hear you say:

“Radical economic transformation requires that we fundamentally improve the position of black women and communities in the economy…”

The country also watched with appreciation as you followed through on your promise and convened a summit on gender-based violence and femicide that you indicated its goal as being “to provide a firm basis for a co-ordinated national response to the crisis of gender-based violence and femicide”.

Of course, the above developments are appreciated as a step in the right direction, and in fact as a demonstration of willingness to deal with pertinent issues affecting women in our country.

Despite the good quantitative efforts made so far, it was a saddening realisation to hear the former minister of women stating during her budget vote of 2018 that:

“It cannot be said that improved government policies and programmes have improved the living conditions of women.” This is, unfortunately, one statement that none of us could argue with the minister on, particularly because it remains unclear as to what the objectives and measurements of progress for her ministry were. As a consequence, the desperate state of affairs with relation to women issues remains largely unattended.

The minister also laid the blame for ineffectiveness of her ministry on insufficient budget. I am going to turn a blind eye to the budget issue in favour of issues related to government policies and programmes, for now. Government policies and programmes at stake here, I assume, are mainly those that are underpinned by National Policy Framework for Women Empowerment and Gender Equality, which also speaks to economic and labour relations issues.

On the empowerment/economic front – my observation is that the challenge of fronting continues unabated and the undue incentives thereof counter the little progress made from time to time as those who receive such incentives do so to the detriment of the real women issues to be addressed.

It is, therefore, not surprising that corporates continue to show off the same individuals like trophies each year during Women’s Month, whereas at the same time this practice remains unchallenged as caution is exercised not to dent relations.

The question that remains, however, is if those individuals were credible transformation agents in those companies, how are they the only ones to be shown off as trophies year after year during events to celebrate women? Thoughtlessly, their share allocations and/or their monetary worth are equally shown off in the same fashion. That should be a cause for concern.

Shouldn’t their credibility, at least, translate into further women empowerment to allow for new faces to emerge in succeeding years? I hope we don’t miss the point here as many of these women are not perpetrators, but victims of fronting. Could this perhaps be one of the underlying reasons why the minister said:

“It [could] not be said that improved government policies and programmes have improved the living conditions of women”?

On the equality front – it might sound harsh to suggest that women continue to be treated as shadows of their male counterparts in many workplaces, but I’ll nevertheless go ahead and say that because that is my authentic observation. While I celebrate the shift as outlined above, the brutal side of things remains the unfounded and stubborn stereotypes that continue to terrorise women to date, especially, in the STEM environment. Subtle as they may be, it’s undisputed that numerous slip-ups from some prominent persons in STEM, including those in positions of leadership, offered something that we can work with on this matter, notwithstanding the worrying nature of those slip-ups.

We continue to question the concerning male-to-female ratio in the STEM environment, but neglect to pay attention to the women who are being driven out of the same as the stereotypes and other patriarchal tendencies continue to ransack their space.

Someone may ask, where are policies and organisational processes to take care of such challenges? I am almost certain that we will all recall the undisputed words of the former minister above where she suggested that such policies and processes are ineffective in dealing with real issues facing women.

The risk of speaking out as well where the issues cannot be resolved by these ineffective policies and practices is in most cases not worth taking for women, considering the resources required to do so. The confidentiality clauses that seem to be designed to tame women to comply while hideous acts are activated to suppress their meaningful contribution are also not helpful.

Sadly, the stereotypes are at times also fuelled by some women in our midst. You’ll hear things like “South Africa is not ready for a woman President”! I’ll admit that I will never get to a point where I’ll eventually understand that statement. What are the criteria to assess our readiness? And who came up with those criteria? Where have we been as women when men were busy making progress on issues that some believe we must catch up on?

This is the biggest modern-day “own goal” by women. What does that say about the formidable women like mma Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and mma Sophie de Bruyn? I thought these women were ready for leadership in as far back as 1956 already! How do we forget the fearlessness of mma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nontsikelelo Sisulu, and many other such leaders?

It will, indeed, be careless to forget about the ultimate price paid by women like mma Ruth First in her daring act to ensure our liberation. That statement is an unfortunate insult to all women, especially those who contributed immensely to our liberation, to say the least.

The women of today are expected to take the baton and sustain liberation. How are we going to do that with all these self-destructing utterances? Could these, once again, be the reason why government policies and programmes are not effective in improving the lives of women in our country?

The real issue – it is difficult for me to see more than one issue that needs to be addressed. Will it make a difference and dignify the ordinary women of our country if they are to be given real opportunities to earn the benefits of such participation? Is their real empowerment a possibility if women at the top echelons of the economic structures remain subjects of fronting and continuous exclusion?

What I’m trying to say here is, women must be given real economic opportunities, because with that comes the resources that will enable them to fight challenges related to injustices and inequality that are currently terrorising their spaces.

The women of our country are going to miss the spot in the much talked about “acceleration of inclusive economic growth” if they continue to be sidelined and excluded from key corporate activities due to the patriarchal tendencies that continue in a chronic fashion at workplaces.

Former US president Barack Obama said:

“The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal […] and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens”.

He further said: “If you want your country to grow and succeed, you have to empower your women.”

And of course, I can’t agree with that more! In a country that has more women than men as per Statistics South Africa (STATSA)’s data, it makes no sense that the contributions of women will be undermined by few thugs, who are controlled by their patriarchal tendencies, to the detriment of the entire economy.

After all these, someone may be forgiven for wanting to reassess my eagerness to still celebrate Women’s Month! Certainly, I’ll forever cherish the opportunity made possible for me by the gallant mothers of our liberation, to roam around this country as a liberated woman. I’ll honour especially mma Sophie de Bruyn while she’s still in our midst, by demonstrating how important her contribution is to me today that I can freely speak out in pursuit of a better country. In fact, I will be dedicating this Women’s Month to flag what I see as issues of importance that are hampering progress on the emancipation of women, particularly, at workplaces.

Indeed, Mr President, many of us awaited the new dawn, that I still believe is bestowed on you to see through, with bated breath. I eagerly awaited your maiden speech in February 2018, and I must say, I was not disappointed. It was particularly heart-warming to hear you providing developments, on the promises you made during your maiden speech, in your SONA of February 2019. I doubt there was any expectation from anyone that you’d come with a plan, set in stone, to solve all issues impacting on women at workplaces.

Of particular value to me was the fact that you invited parties to collaborate and help you usher in the new dawn. While I almost got discouraged by the output of the Ministry of Women, I was encouraged to hear you mentioning after the announcement of your Cabinet in May this year that ministers will be signing performance contracts that you are going to monitor closely. I do take note that the action items you shared in your speeches, especially those related to women’s issues, may be fragmented in different departments for implementation.

It is, however, still my wish that the Ministry of Women be used as a vehicle to consolidate and provide an easy nodal point for women-related issues to the benefit of all women, with the view to later allow this ministry to evolve into a knowledge hub that will facilitate the understanding and solidarity required to address women’s issues. It is also my wish that this ministry to be closely monitored until the vision of equalityjustice and freedom for women is realised.

As I conclude, we continue to hear phrases like, “we reaffirm that no liberation can be complete and no nation can be free until its women are free”, while at the same time the challenges facing women continue unabated without any meaningful counteraction.

On the other hand Mr President, I know that most women in positions of power in this country require no babysitting! I believe their being there is a result of their hard work, sheer determination and many sacrifices. I however believe, in the spirit of collaboration that you emphasised several times during your speeches, we as women in leadership positions particularly, need to take you up on your offer on this one.

You stated during your SONA of February 2018, that: “We have been given the responsibility as South Africans to build a new nation, to confront the injustices of the past and the inequalities of the present,” and the plight of the women of this country, particularly at workplaces, remains the greatest injustice and inequality of the present times.

I, therefore, in line with your invitation would like to request that the Ministry of Women be put to more meaningful use in line with the stubborn nature of the challenges faced by the women of our nation. It is my opinion that to build the new nation that you referred to, meaningful targets and their close monitoring will need to be facilitated through the Ministry of Women. I firmly believe we owe it to the rest of the women of this country to ensure we take up the role of making the realisation of equality, justice and freedom a reality.

I’ll therefore also challenge the captains of industries to come on board and be a part of this new dawn for women because who else employs women? I’ll further challenge them from a morality point of view to collapse the walls of secrecy and all such unnecessary boundaries that are intended to undermine women at workplaces. It is well understood that there is organisational competitive information, but it’s not correct to suggest that everything about security-sensitive organisations is top secret.

There’s no real transformation of women until the women of this country are afforded the dignity and economic space to contribute and benefit in an equal fashion to their male counterparts. That can only happen if we allow our country to be a haven for broadened moral imaginations because inclusivity for women is more a moral issue than can be measured by scientific tools.

Muranga phanda wanga, ndo humbela we! Mavhungo a vhasadzi na one, ndi a ndeme. Kha ri tendele duvha liswa uri li tshi tsha, li swike kha vhasadzi vha shango lashu.


(My leader, I’m asking! Women’s matters are also important. Let us allow the new dawn to reach the women of our land.” 

  • Cillia Molomo-Mphephu is a professional mechanical engineering technologist and a mother.