Gender balance was the topic of discussion at the Robben Island Museum Imbokodo lecture, held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Wednesday August 22.
The museum held the third instalment of the lecture series to end off Women’s Month.
Themed Balance for Better, the aim was to honour women who played a role in the Struggle against apartheid, as well as women who had thrived in careers that are male dominated.
Robben Island Museum spokesperson, Morongoa Ramaboa, said the lecture prompted a conversation on living in a gender-balanced world, and how women have made strides.
She said while women who played pivotal roles in the Struggle – specifically the ones who led the march against apartheid’s pass laws to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on August 9 1956 – were honoured, as well as 10 women who work in what is considered to be male-dominated industries.
“It’s important to show that they have done well,” said Ms Ramaboa.
She said the lecture was also an opportunity for women to reflect on where they are now, more than 60 years later, and ask uncomfortable questions.
In the keynote address, Health MEC, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, said her interpretation of the theme was “equality is our goal and access is our right”.
She said gender equality in South Africa is unfinished business, and there was still a long way to go until the country reaches that point.
“Africa is one of the most unequal societies when it comes to equality, and there are many spheres where women are still left far behind.
“In South Africa, we have this wonderful Constitution that supports equality, and while we have made progress, why is it that we have the highest levels of discrimination and violence when it comes to women?
“Women are the face of unemployment and poverty in a country with a Constitution that preaches gender equality.”
Dr Mbombo said if you empower a woman, you empower a nation.
“Are we putting women in leadership positions for them to be leaders, or just to tick the boxes? Research shows that if you put women in decision-making positions, projects multiply and grow.”
She said during apartheid, it was women who hid the men under their petticoats when the police came to look for them. She pointed out the bravery of American civil rights activist Rosa Parks who had refused to give up her seat in a bus to a white passenger in her time.
“We have many competent women, women who fight this struggle. But the reason why things don’t change is because we have lost activism.”
She said women should empower themselves and be the agents of change. “Become the power, join other women and become the voice. We need to get back into advocating for women’s rights. Be like Rosa Parks – don’t give up your seat, and don’t give up.”
Looking back, the families of the women who led the march to parliament in 1956 and other activists, including Charlotte Maxeke, Sophia Williams-de Bruyn, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Dulcie September and Coline Williams, were given certificates of appreciation on behalf of Robben Island Museum.
Among the young women who were doing well in male-dominated industries who were honoured was Siviwe Gwarube, one of the youngest members of Parliament in the National Assembly.
Ms Gwarube, who lives in Sea Point, grew up in the Eastern Cape.
She said she was raised by her grandmother – who she described as a fierce feminist, someone who fought through apartheid, managed to raise her children and then also raise her.
She said she completed her undergraduate degree in law, politics and philosophy.
She cut her teeth in politics when she became the spokesperson for the then DA parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, and then worked in provincial government before she was elected as a member of Parliament earlier this year.
She said politics in South Africa was still an “older male-dominated space”. “People talk about Parliament now being a 50/50 representation and that should be applauded, but are we really changing things?”
She said women’s issues should stop being an exception and left on the sideline until Womens’ Month is celebrated.
“Young women and youth should have more space in the political sphere to show that we are here and we are tackling issues.”
Nomathamsanqa Mtingeni is Robben Island Museum’s first and only female skipper.
She grew up in the Eastern Cape and moved to Gugulethu to live with her grandmother. When she finished school, she worked at Robben Island Museum as a cashier, and during that time, the workplace wanted to give someone underprivileged an opportunity to do a course.
“Due to my dedication and curiosity, I was encouraged to do the course, and became the first female skipper in 2005.”
She said at first, she felt she was undermined by the men, but they soon warmed up to the idea and started helping and supporting her. Fourteen years down the line, she is still the only female skipper.
“I think there should be more of us. There is nothing a man can do that a woman cannot do – I am living proof of that.”
Other young women honoured included Chelsea van Wyk, the first South African female Audi master technician; Candra Shanice Pedro, the first female South African shipbuilder; Okhela Gambu, the first female coordinator of operations at the Zeitz MOCAA; Arlene Wehr, the first female head of operations at the Fire and Rescue Service (“Firefighter blazes new historic trail”, CapeTowner, July 18); Laurien Johannes, first female Springbok rugby coach; Suga, first female Heart FM radio presenter; Nomazwe Ngwanya, first female Robben Island bus driver and Tammy Langtry, first female assistant curator at Zeitz MOCAA.
Robben Island Museum council member, Vuyokazi Menye, said the museum saluted their forebearers who were at the forefront of the emancipation for women. “We are here standing high on their shoulders, on the shoulders of all those female heroines,” she said.