Address by Nelson Mandela at International Women's Forum Conference

30 January 2003

Ms Radebe, President of the Forum
Madame Speaker
Members of the Women's Forum
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a progressive nation and people is the ability to learn, to modify positions and to advance to newer and more progressive points of departure.

South Africans, and particularly those that come from the liberation movements, have demonstrated this progressive trait by the manner in which they acknowledged the need to deepen their understanding of certain key social issues and at times significantly alter their position on those issues.

Our understanding of gender relations and the position of women in society is one such case in point. The position we hold and the approach we adopt towards this very central social issue today, is almost radically different from that held even as recently as a decade ago. And we continue to learn and to be educated and to advance to more progressive understanding.

For this we have to thank and pay homage to the assertive presence of brave women in our society. Men on their own would not have come to that understanding and could not have led society to the relatively progressive stance taken by South Africa in these matters.

It is for that reason, amongst others, that I am so delighted and honoured to have been invited to be a speaker at this conference of the International Women's Forum of South Africa. It provides me the opportunity to publicly express my personal indebtedness to the many women who have contributed to my education out of the gender backwardness of my background to a somewhat more progressive understanding of gender relationships.

And I am confident that I can speak on behalf men in South Africa generally when paying this tribute to the women of our society. At the recently held 51rst conference of the African National Congress under the leadership of President Thabo Mbeki some significant decisions were taken with regards to our understanding of male backwardness and towards liberating us all from the consequences of that backwardness.

I often hear white South Africans expressing their thanks for being liberated from the class role of oppressors by the attainment of non-racial democracy. I think that progressive thinking males in our society have a similar attitude about steadily being emancipated by the emancipation of women in society.

Not that we have nearly reached the end of the road or that the structural oppression of women has been eliminated. But you, the women of our society, have firmly set us on the road to mutual emancipation.

The topic for this session, I have been told, is "Courageous leadership for reconciliation and peace". The example of women in the way that I have alluded to, is the best illustration of such leadership that one can think of.

Those that suffer discrimination, oppression and exploitation are invariably the ones that give the firmest and most decisive leadership towards fundamental change, towards reconciliation and towards ultimate peace.

I can tell you about the examples of my comrades and fellow prisoners on Robben Island in those long years that we were prisoners of the racist apartheid regime. It would have been the easy way out, and the natural response, to resort to a generalised hatred of the oppressor and to have closed ourselves off from their representatives - the wardens and prison officials.

We did not do that. Instead we soon discovered that there were amongst those warders persons who were prepared to listen to our side of the story; who were less secure in the arrogant belief that they were right, superior and destined to rule for all time.

We, the prisoners on Robben Island, and the members of the liberation struggle generally, always said and knew that our struggle was against racial oppression, exploitation and white minority rule. It was never intended or targeted against white people. Our struggle was against the structures of oppression, domination and exploitation; not against individuals or groups of people.

In liberating the oppressed we could therefore be confident that we had liberated all of our countrymen and women. Reconciliation was not an afterthought or an add-on of our struggle and our eventual triumph. It was always imbedded in our struggle. Reconciliation was a means of struggle as much as it was the end goal of our struggle.

We know that too about the struggle of those searching for the emancipation of women in society. It is a struggle for the emancipation of all of us, women and men. It is a struggle for a world in which the potential of all can be realised for the common good.

In all parts of the world where strife and conflict occur women are amongst those sectors - together with children and the aged - who bear the brunt of the suffering caused by such conflicts. And in many cases we have seen how the efforts of women as members of civil society organisations had taken a lead in putting pressure on the warring and war-mongering leadership.

We are again today facing the threat of a war that can disastrously affect the lives of all people across the globe. The apparent determination of the United States, with Britain in tow, to wage war against Iraq poses the most serious threat to world peace that we have experienced in a long while.

I have spoken publicly and I have spoken privately to the American and British leadership, warning against the disastrous effects of such military action outside the framework of the United Nations.

It is encouraging at least to see the increasing tide of public opinion against the war. That these demonstrations of opposition to war occur within the United States as well is further cause for giving one hope that the world can still unite in seeking for peaceful means of co-existence.

Once more, the compassionate and wise leadership and participation of women will be critical. And I am proud to be at this gathering of women, reflecting upon such important matters as leadership towards peace and reconciliation.

I wish you well in your deliberations and in the work of your organisation.

I thank you

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation