Luthulis led by integrity, compassion, selflessness and revolutionary morality

Thank you for the opportunity to deliver the 2020 Chief Albert Luthuli Memorial Lecture, in this momentous year where we are also celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. I’d like to pay my respects to Chief Albert Luthuli and Mama Nokukhanya, who was a leader in her own right.

We salute both of them and appreciate deeply the contribution and sacrifices they made for our country and our liberation. We are thankful for the ANC presidency of Albert Luthuli and its contribution to the foundation of our democracy, both in character and in substance.

Our Constitution reflects the values that Chief Luthuli stood for, and through it, his legacy lives on.

The theme for this lecture is “The 1995 World Conference on Women: Where to for South Africa and the rest of the African continent?’

Let me begin by reflecting on our participation in Beijing, 25 years. South Africa had a strong and formidable delegation; it was in 1995, and our delegation was led by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. We were coming fresh out of our 1994 first democratic election and we were idealistic, determined, and eager to contribute to the global discourse on gender equality as well as to change our own circumstances in our country.

In Beijing, the African women stood strong together and with other African women influenced and shaped the 12th critical areas that were adopted during the Beijing Platform for Action BPFA which included:

1. Poverty. 2. Education, 3. Health, 4. Violence against women, 5. Armed conflict, 6. Economy, 7. Power and decision-making, 8. Institutional mechanisms, 9. Human rights, 10. Media, 11. Environment and 12. The girl child.

Since then, we have seen some significant progress in all these areas, progress that is life changing and at the same time brittle. However, we still have a far way to go.

Gender equality is a public good – not a project for NGOs who have shouldered much of the responsibility in many countries. It affects more than half of humanity. And it has an intergenerational impact. Gender equality determines the level of development as well as the type of development that countries undergo and therefore it cannot happen without significant involvement of government. So, the progress that we have seen has been influenced by these factors.

25 years since Beijing- progress and challenges

The greatest progress in the past 25 years took place in those countries where people remained engaged. Women remain engaged and governments invested significantly in the areas they prioritized. For example, some countries invested significantly in girls’ education and made sure there was significant increase in enrolment at the primary level. They invested in women’s health and managed to decrease maternal deaths by up to an average of 38% by 2019. They also created institutions and mechanisms such as women’s ministries and women’s commissions, to push the gender equality agenda in spaces that were gender blind. We did that too in South Africa.

Many countries also changed their legislation and passed laws that addressed gender inequality. They also changed their constitutions in order to ensure that they were in line with promoting and supporting gender equality in an unprecedented way. In South Africa, we were strong in this area, though not perfect. Because of our Constitution and because we passed laws in the first democratic parliament.

To date, 131 countries have participated actively in changing their laws and 35 constitutions have been amended to address systematic discrimination against women and girls. In South Africa, we also have to be decisive and not rely on customary laws and practices that discriminate against women, for example we have to address Ukuthwala which affects young girls and robs them of their rights.

We have also seen some positive changes over the past 25 years, within women’s participation and leadership, which was top of the agenda in Beijing, though this too has been slow and uneven. While most countries and political parties have promoted women’s leadership, in some cases, it has been the electorate who has reversed those gains. We have, however, witnessed sustained progress in countries where there are temporary special measures such as targets or quotas.

Data tells us that the global average of representation of women in parliament is only 25%. This means that 75% of all the laws in the world that govern us are made by men.

The number of women in leadership positions in corporate boards is, on global average, 25% too. Most countries have underperformed in the economic development of women as their economies are not structured to change and attain gender equality. Even when they have passed the laws to support women economically, the structure of the economy has worked against women. Violence against women has also continued to be a problem in South Africa and all over the world. This is an area where countries have engaged but not with required ambition.

As of September 2020, 155 countries had passed laws against domestic violence and140 countries had passed laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. But effective implementation and allocation of resources required for the gender-based violence to be made history has fallen short. While we do acknowledge the significant progress in this area, it is not deep enough.

Targeted interventions are required where we can use the lessons learnt in the past 25 years, hence the Generation Equality campaign. This global multi-stakeholder initiative, in which South Africa is also a part of leadership, intends to continue the unfinished business of the Beijing Platform for Action. And now, in addition, it will also fight the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is not only a health crisis but has also proven to be an economic crisis as well.

Impact of Covid-19 on Women and Girls.

This pandemic threatens to erode the modest gains that have been made since Beijing.

We must reconnect with Chief Albert Luthuli and his legacy. His presidency had many of the important qualities that are needed at this time. During his tenure, theANC mounted a defiance campaign and fought and mobilized people from all walks of life for the changes we needed. The defiance campaign was inclusive in unity and action.

I can only say to Chief Albert, Malibongwe:

It was under his leadership that the ANC attended the Bandung Conference, also known as the Afro-Asian Conference, which led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. This action distinguishes him as a non-sexist and non-racist democrat and revolutionary.

He also was a leader who grasped the importance of global outreach and formed relationships with civil rights icons such as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. He was the awardee of the Nobel Prize which also positioned him as a global icon. He was the first South African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and that also validated our struggle.

He was supported by a strong wife, Nokukhanya, who might not have been in the limelight like he was but was very strategic and skilled in her own way.

It was through her efforts and with her support that their money from the Nobel Peace Prize was used for our comrades in exile, they bought land and they supported scholarships. That generosity of spirit and investing in what truly mattered distinguished them then and would distinguish them now. They were able to think about what is needed in the nation.

  • This is an extract of a lecture delivered by Under-Secretary General and Executive Director: UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the Annual Chief Albert Luthuli Lecture on November 28, 2020.

OPINION: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka