President Cyril Ramaphosa fought back tears before calling for a moment’s silence on Women’s Day on Thursday to remember women who have been brutalised by violence and exploitation.
“As men, we hang our head in shame,” Ramaphosa told the thousands of people attending the national Women’s Day event in Mbekweni, Paarl.
He said that South Africa should build a society where the “daughters of our nation” will be able live in peace, dignity and security and said the scourge of violence against women, and their exploitation, should end.
He said women should feel protected whether they are in the streets, on village pathways, at university, at work, or just going about their daily lives.
“But particularly those women who have died recently, either through deep depression or who have been killed,” he said, before asking the audience to stand to observe a moment of silence.
“Let the sadness that is felt by the women of this country seep into our consciousness, seep into our hearts.”
Ramaphosa’s speech was preceded by a small protest by a group of women bearing small posters calling for an end to farm evictions who filed into the front of the stage as he was about to take the podium. Some of their placards read, “This is our land” and “We want our land back”.
A woman addressed the group separately as Ramaphosa told them they would be heard, and they filed out again quietly.
Ramaphosa said that Land Reform programmes must make sure that women are treated equally, and that women are empowered.
“The land should not only be parcelled out to men,” he said.
Ramaphosa said that many young women were leaving school before completing the full 12 years and although they may “stumble and fall” due to a range of reasons, they should be encouraged to finish their schooling.
He said South Africa is now a country where women should be free to march to the Union Buildings in a protest, unlike the women who marched to the seat of government in 1956 over apartheid pass laws and who were arrested, banished, or even died in the struggle against apartheid.
He said the women who marched to the Union Buildings during the #TotalShutdown march last week had the right to do so, and he had personally instructed that action be taken against police officers who slapped a woman and insulted another.
“Our nation is hungry for the leadership of women and we must move in that direction,” he said.
Earlier, Sophie De Bruyn, one of the last surviving leaders of the women’s march of 1956 hit out at Ramaphosa and his government for the handling of sexual offences and violence against women.
She said the women didn’t march for democracy to find perpetrators of violence being treated “with kid gloves”.
“This fills me with a lot of pain and sadness,” said De Bruyn.
Minister of Women in the Presidency Bathabile Dlamini received a rousing welcome.
The former Social Development Minister who is also the president of the ANC Women’s League struck a chord with her condemnation of a society that makes single mothers struggle to get the fathers of their children to pay maintenance, and support their children.
She was also horrified by the rape of 23-year-old Khensani Maseko, a Rhodes University student, who committed suicide on Friday. Maseko had been battling depression after she was allegedly raped by her boyfriend.
She was laid to rest in Johannesburg on Thursday while the Women’s Day speeches in Paarl were under way.
Dlamini wanted to know why universities allow rape-accused men to remain on campus and demanded that universities develop a new policy to deal with this.
“Wake up, our children are killed every day,” said Dlamini.
Women’s Day marks the 1956 march to the Union Buildings by women who resisted the pass laws of the apartheid government. This year the theme is a tribute to struggle stalwart Albertina Sisulu.
Ramaphosa also announced that there will be a summit on gender violence on August 31.