We honour and salute the women of our country!

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Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela. Photo cred: Sandile Ndlovu.
Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela. Photo cred: Sandile Ndlovu.

“Strijdom, you have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock, you will be crushed!” These are the words of the song composed by the women of 1956 as they staged a peaceful march to the Union Buildings on 09 August 1956 to confront the might of the ignominious apartheid regime that had enacted a law designed to extend the cruel and iniquitous ‘pass law’ to African women.

Since that historic march, much has been achieved in restoring South African women's dignity and humanity. However, despite the great strides in women's advancement, much more still needs to be done to transform our society to a classless one in which women can make their rightful contributions and be acknowledged and celebrated for that.

As we commemorate the sacrifices made by over 20 000 women from all over the country and from all walks of life and different racial, social and economic backgrounds, we pay homage to the women of our nation – the mothers, the wives, the sisters and the daughters - who continue to make sacrifices for the greater good of our society in many and diverse fields of human endeavour.

As a nation, we recognise the immense contribution made by women at various societal levels and recommit ourselves to their advancement, particularly in the academic sector. Today we salute the students and staff who make Rhodes University a distinct and distinctive institution of higher learning. At Rhodes University, many pioneering women contribute to making South Africa a just and sustainable society. We salute all Rhodes University women on this Women’s Day as we do to ooMama Lillian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Sophia Helen-De Bruyn and many others who led the 1956 historic march.

As we celebrate the women in our society today, we must also be cognizant of the harsh realities that face women today, especially those in the rural areas and townships who bear the brunt of poverty and economic hardship daily. These women's lives were, and, indeed, still are, characterised by low literacy levels and inequitable access to education, health services, housing, water and employment opportunities. Every day, they are mired in desperate routines of seeking an existence.

Many of the women of this country continue to experience sexual and gender-based violence and are the worst affected by the scourge of HIV/AIDS. They carry the painful scars of their suffering, often in solitary silence and without adequate counselling and support.

Together we must bring the insidious scourge of sexual and gender-based violence to an end. In this regard, we as the University continue to engage staff and students on how to rid our campus of this pernicious scourge permanently. As a society, we must end the cycles of abuse and violence against women and children that have become so endemic in our homes, communities and society.

As we mark National Women's Day today, let each of us ask ourselves why we keep silent when we witness violence against women; why do we keep silent when we are daily subjected to intolerable abuse? Emperor Heile Selassie reminds us that:

“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph”.

If and when we fail to act when we can, if and when we fail to stand up and speak out against the evil of sexual and gender-based violence, we become complicit in its perpetuation in our homes, communities and society, and we allow it to triumph.

I call on all of us to pause and reflect on the incalculable damage that this violence has inflicted on our society, how it reduces us to less than human and destroys the possibility of rebuilding the fabric of our society.

Let us draw courage, strength and inspiration from the women of 1956 who were prepared to risk their all for the greater and collective good of our country. Let us confront, challenge and eliminate those systemic, social and cultural beliefs, myths and practices that normalise and perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence in our homes, communities and society.

We owe it to the past, present and future generations of bold and courageous women of our country that we spare no effort in building a more humane, more just, more equitable, more inclusive, fairer and compassionate society.

Wathint'abafazi; wathint'imbokodo! You strike a woman; you strike a rock!  


Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor, Rhodes University