While we’re planning after-work trips to Instagram the Christmas lights at Rolf’s, tens of thousands of people are gathering in Johannesburg to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela, who passed away last Thursday aged 95 years old.
And wet weather isn’t dampening the celebratory mood there either. A symbol not just of South Africa’s anti-apartheid regime but of global conciliation, Mandela’s humanist efforts were relevant to an entire spectrum of disenfranchised groups.
And they remain relevant today. An intersectionalist who saw saw women’s rights as inextricable from a society’s success, there’s a lot more that we can take away from this 95-year-old man than how to wear a paisley shirt.
“Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression… Our endeavors must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child.”
One of Mandela’s greatest strengths was his intersectionalist values. At the opening of the first parliament in 1994, he made it clear that all struggles are interconnected. After being elected to president, Mandela appointed over a third of women to his cabinet — including journalist and politician Frene Ginwala as the Speaker of the House.
“The women were courageous, persistent, enthusiastic, indefatigable and their protest against passes set a standard for anti-government protest that was never equalled.”
August 9, 1956, 20,000 women, roused by the ANC Women’s League and representing all racial backgrounds, marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest legislation requiring black women to carry passes in urban areas. In his autobiography, A Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela recounts the bravery of those women, and in 1994, he honored them by declaring August 9 Women’s Day, a national holiday.
“The presence of so many women from so many parts of our land underlines the weight of the pledge for women of South Africa to join hands with government for Unity, Peace and Development.
That is a daunting task. The legacy of oppression weighs heavily on women. As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”
On the third South Africa Women’s Day, in 1996, Mandela called for full equality, more women in the South African government, and an end to sexual violence against women. Though South Africa still faces many challenges regarding violence against women (teeth condom, anyone?) he remained dedicated to the cause throughout his presidency. Offering free prenatal and postnatal care to mothers in the public health system, as well as free health care to children up to the age of six, were both imperative in advancing women’s rights.
“As long as we take the view that these are problems for women alone to solve, we cannot expect to reverse the high incidence of rape and child abuse. Domestic violence will not be eradicated. We will not defeat this scourge that affects each and every one of us, until we succeed in mobilizing the whole of our society to fight it.”
Mandela was keenly aware of the need for men and women to work together to fight gender based oppression. Speaking at a National Men’s March in Pretoria in 1997, he urged that if dedicated groups of individuals could bring down apartheid, they can likewise work together to end the global oppression of women and girls.
“For every woman and girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity. For every woman forced into unprotected sex because men demand this, we destroy dignity and pride. Every woman who has to sell her life for sex we condemn to a lifetime in prison. For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women. For every woman infected by HIV, we destroy a generation.”
Mandela remained dedicated to ending violence against women throughout his life — not just his presidency. During the 46664 AIDS charity concert in 2005 he reiterated that the way a nation treats its women is the ultimate measure of that nation’s success.
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