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Albertina Sisulu Memorial Lecture

In honouring Ma Albertina Sisulu, I recall the solidarity with which she embraced us in the 1980’s and in SA’s first democratic Parliament, as sisters, daughters and granddaughters.

How would that solidarity express itself in present day SA? In my mind’s eye Ma Albertina moves from shock to action at the brutal murder of Duduzile Zozo, sole breadwinner of nine family members(with whom she shared a shack in an informal settlement) who is killed because she is lesbian. During the Traditional Courts Bill hearings, she listens closely when rural women protest at the threat of second-class citizenship; she stands with them as they assert our Constitution’s promise of full political, civil, socio-economic and cultural rights. She shakes her head in anger during a water and sanitation site inspection in an informal settlement, when a young woman explains that she crosses a busy road to public toilets. There, she leaves her wheelchair to crawl into the toilet, invisible to the municipality and the company it contracted to provide these toilets.

What calls us to solidarity and action in 2013? The 2011 Census reveals that Black African women in Apartheid’s former homelands, townships and informal settlements remain the majority of the poorest, the unemployed and those in precarious employment. Together with their daughters they bear the brunt of gender-based violence and HIV infection. In contrast to glowing national averages, disaggregated statistics more accurately reflect the lived reality of people who are poor.

Black African women still predominate in the poorest areas in wealthy metros and in Apartheid-era homeland areas in poor provinces. The Census shows for example that almost two-thirds of households in Limpopo lack access to sufficient sanitation. It also reveals that when water sources are a kilometer or more away, women and girls are almost twice as likely as men and boys to collect water.

In the run-up to the 2010 Local Government elections, (nicknamed the poo-election) the Commission received complaints against municipalities in DA-led Western Cape and ANC-led Free State.  The Commission ruled that both had to enclose their ‘open toilets’ to uphold dignity, privacy and clean environment. The Presidency, through its Department for Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME), had to report on the systemic problem of sanitation across SA and Government’s plan to address the rights of people who are poor. The Ministers of Human Settlements and Water Affairs had to report on eradicating the bucket system.

The Commission strategy on the rights to water and sanitation resulted in women being the majority of participants in the Commission’s nine provincial hearings who clearly conveyed the gendered impact of the lack of rights. Representatives from local, provincial and national Government had to listen before responding- for many participants this was a first; “Normally they present their speech and leave”.

Women described living with no piped water and toilets; sometimes despite living next to dams where they saw mining companies, tourist industries and agribusiness having unlimited access. They spoke of rapes when fetching water or using open fields as toilets; daughters who, when menstruating, stayed away from schools with unsafe or no toilets; endless battles to keep homes clean when sewage flowed in the streets and into homes. The exhaustion of caring for HIV positive family and children who got ill from water polluted by faeces or chemicals from big farms and mines. The elected representatives and bureaucrats who disrespected them, refusing important information, treating them like children and demanding sexual favours…

In site inspections we saw overflowing public toilets that were not maintained; containers of faeces and piles of refuse; dusty paths that passed for roads; crèches established with little if any state help and clinics with long queues and few nurses and doctors. Indigent policy was not applied in a uniform manner that upheld human rights across municipalities, resulting in many poor people paying for free services. The cost to women’s time and health of unequal gendered roles, responsibilities and power was crystal-clear.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon notes that ‘close to half of all people in developing countries suffer from health problems caused by poor water and sanitation’. Gender responsive policy should connect seemingly disparate elements revealing the indivisibility of rights. It will expose the long-term impact of short-term thinking and trade-offs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that ‘everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”.  We are far from such an order. Instead a global patriarchal world order, in which a handful of men (and their families) own most of the world’s wealth prevails. The earth’s resources - mineral, natural and human - are exploited for profit, often instigating war and violence. The cost to the earth, human health and life is devastating. Globally many in leadership have been corrupted by or collude with those who own the wealth of the world. SA’s infamous arms-deal is only one example.

The human rights impact of macro-economic policy choices including trade agreements and fiscal choices that operate in the interest of the privileged and powerful, can no longer escape scrutiny. FIFA, a massive global corporation, made the biggest profit it had ever made in SA, while the poor bore the cost. The recent Competition Commission ruling on the Construction Industry provides some insight into this.

Our Constitution commits to water as a human right, yet the General Agreement in Trade in Services treats water as a commodity. This mindset frames our priorities and shapes who pays. In a country such as ours that is water-scarce, large-scale users including mining companies and agribusiness use most of SA’s water, often polluting it, with little cost or consequence.

Creating human settlements that transform the spatial Apartheid geography of our country is possible. However, gender policy
rooted only in ‘vulnerability’ fosters charity not rights. Addressing women’s rights requires the state to address the structural causes of unemployment, precarious employment and poverty that destroy women’s power, drive vulnerability and entrench patriarchal culture. It requires scrutiny of who and what the state values. Women’s unpaid contribution, for example, whether in subsistence farming or caring work, is presently not counted as a contribution to economic growth, yet it is work that keeps families and communities alive.

In its work on water and sanitation, the Commission undertook a rigorous process aimed at securing Government accountability. Relevant Ministers, including Water Affairs, Human Settlements, DPME and Finance received and responded to the Commission’s findings and recommendations. The Commission urged the Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) “Women and Local Governance Conference” of mayors, deputy mayors, councilors and municipal managers convened by the Minister and Deputy Minister to use their power. It convened an inter-governmental roundtable with ten departments on the recommendations. The Commission tables its final report on water and sanitation to Parliament later this year, after which Parliament will need to exercise its oversight power.

A key Commission recommendation addresses the need for political will at Cabinet level to co-ordinate often-fragmented work. Another recommendation argues for capacity to urgently be built in historically poor municipalities. They often lack the skill and power to negotiate and monitor contracts with powerful local and global companies. To date, national programs have focused mainly on wealthy metros and municipalities. A third recommendation requires indigent policy to be applied uniformly across SA, so that the poor do not continue to pay for basic services, despite the post-1994 commitment to free basic services for the poor.

We are months away from the 2014 National election. Pre-1994 women united to ensure the negotiated transition and final Constitution reflected substantive equality, women’s rights and non-sexism. The 1999 elections was a crucial time before which to ensure Parliament enacted over 80% of women’s transformative priorities. It also was the moment in which Government made a National Budget commitment to making the entire budget gender-responsive. Women are the majority and in solidarity with the poorest, can assert an agenda that holds all party leaders, men and women, accountable.

It is time to use our individual institutional and collective power to honour all our ancestors. Beyond greed, hate and fear exists the possibility of recognizing the dignity inherent in each of us.

Pregs Govender (SAHRC Commissioner and Deputy Chair)

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