Address by President Nelson Mandela at the Symposium for World's Rural Women's Day, Umtata

15 October 1998

Premier of the Eastern Cape;
Master of Ceremonies;
Members of Zenzele;
Women of South Africa,

Through centuries of oppression, the formal education that our people received never included their own history. We learned nothing of our societies' values, practices or culture at school.

It was only through the oral tradition and the culture of story-telling that many of us learnt of our proud history and value system. And it was the women who were mainly responsible for passing on our legacy. This is the strength that Professor D.D.T Jabavu recognised when he helped to establish Zenzele Women's Association in the 1920's. This is the strength that has held the women in this province and in the country bound together in a common struggle against oppression and hunger. This is the strength that has seen women participating in their own upliftment, learning new skills and planting seeds to give their children a brighter future.

And so I am honoured to be with you today. Although this is a gathering of one of the most vulnerable sectors of our society it also brings together the sector which holds the most powerful potential in its hands.

As rural women, you know how much damage was caused by apartheid and colonialism. You know too well the difficulties of being able to get clean water, sanitation, health care, housing, welfare services and proper education.

Apartheid also had other costs, like the loss of family life due to parents having to leave the rural areas in search of work.

The result is that today in South Africa, there is a wide gap between rich and poor, between those in the cities and those in rural areas, between the educated and those who cannot read, between the healthy and those who are malnourished.

Government, in partnership with the private sector, business and workers, is doing everything in its power to make that gap smaller. This is why we are steadily shifting more and more of our national resources towards improving the lives of the majority of our people, especially the most vulnerable, including women, and in particular rural women.

The greatest impact of our programmes for socio-economic upliftment are being felt in the country-side.

People in the rural areas form the bulk of the 2,6 million people who have received access to clean water; the people who can now walk to one of the more than 600 clinics which have been built; the 5 million children who receive nutritional meals at schools; the people whose lives have been changed by the electrification of over 2 million homes and the connection of over 1 million telephones.

Government's Poverty Relief Programmes are also focused on empowering rural people and especially rural women.

Last year government put aside R300 million for poverty relief, and this year we have allocated another R500 million for poverty relief. Much of this money, as well as other funds for infrastructure development, will go towards building access roads in rural areas. Other Poverty Relief funds will boost the water supply programme, assist emerging farmers, and improve our welfare and nutrition programmes that are focused on assisting households which are run by women. Most importantly these and other infrastructural projects create opportunities for people to build a better life for themselves.

Many of you will be familiar with some of the projects that are already operational in the Qumbu and Tsolo areas. One feature of the programme is that the majority of people employed should be women. This is being done because we know that unless women are involved first hand in development, it will not be genuine and lasting.

To change the lives of women and to achieve our goals as a nation, we must also ensure that women participate fully in every sphere of the economic and political life of our country. Democratic government and the policy of affirmative action, is beginning to make an impact. We have confirmation of this in a report just released by the United Nations Development Programme. Because of our past, South Africa still ranks number 89 in comparison to the general development of countries. But when we were rated in terms of our efforts to empower women, we came in at number 23.

All these figures that I have quoted show how seriously government takes the role of women in the education, training and all-round development of our nation. It is of course only a start to an enormous change that is required before the situation of women is properly addressed, and Government is committed to continuing in this direction. But it is also expected of you as leaders of our nation to play your part. You must now seize the opportunities that are made available to you to care for your health; to educate yourselves; to familiarise yourselves with new technology; to play your rightful role in the economy and government of your nation - in short; to assert the rights you now have as women, which you were denied before. Our nation is depending on you to help put our economy along a path of lasting growth so that we can continue to expand the improvements in the lives of our people.

We are also counting on the women of South Africa to make a strong contribution to the building of our new nation. By dividing our country and making us strangers to each other, apartheid took away the freedom of all; oppressed and oppressor alike. It is therefore of great importance that this gathering is providing an opportunity for women who were once set apart to talk to each other about how to build a better life for all and how to shape the South Africa of tomorrow.

I wish you well in your proceedings.

I thank you

Issued by the Office of the President

Source: South African Government Information Website