Pius Langa's role in advancing women's empowerment

14 August 2013

Phumla WilliamsThere is an old African proverb that says “when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground”. An elder was referred to as a library because he held the knowledge, history, wisdom and cultural background of the community. Elders earned their respect, they promoted respect for each other and resolved community disputes amicably. 

Former Chief Justice Pius Langa was such as an elder. He was an honourable counsellor, always humble and led our judiciary with distinction. He selflessly served our country and its people since being appointed to the Constitutional Court in 1994 and went on to become Chief Justice and Head of the Constitutional Court in 2005. 

His death is a great loss to the country and the legal fraternity. His commitment to the rule of law and human rights was unwavering. The former Chief Justice presided over the Makwanyane case that abolished the death penalty. In his judgement, he described the death penalty as being cruel, inhuman and a degrading punishment.

President Jacob Zuma described the former Chief Justice as someone who was committed to his work. He stated: “We have lost a patriot, a freedom fighter and an accomplished jurist who dedicated his life to making South Africa a better place for all, especially the poor and downtrodden.”

His impact on the judiciary and on society stands as a beacon to us all. The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe recently spoke of his commitment to human rights: “His commitment to human rights and the rule of law was demonstrated through his relentless participation in various organisations and structures advocating for the practice of government regulated by a Constitution."

The former Chief Justice also championed women’s rights which are central to the economic and social transformation of our country. His wise words while presiding over a graduation ceremony for Masters Degrees in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa still ring true today. “Women constitute about half of Africa’s population and whilst they remain marginalised and victimised we cannot talk of meaningful progress in removing some of the other problems that impede the realisation of human rights,” he said.

He was at the coalface when the Constitutional Court ruled in 2004 on the constitutional validity of the principle of primogeniture in the context of the customary law of succession. The court set a precedent that continues to be followed to this day that states that the “exclusion of women from succeeding to the family head can no longer be justified”. It declared the rule of male primogeniture as it was applied in the ingenious law of succession as unconstitutional. 

This ruling upheld the supremacy clause of the Constitution. The constitutional supremacy states that all laws and legislations are subject to the Constitution, including indigenous law. The equality clause on the other hand envisions a society where there is equality between men and women and “people of all races so that all citizens shall be able to enjoy and exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms”. We salute the former Chief Justice for his role in transforming our society towards being a truly non-racial and non-sexist democracy.

South Africa is today a constitutional democracy where gender equality is also a constitutional imperative. Our Constitution recognises women as equal citizens, with equal rights and responsibilities. On Women’s Day/,/ 9 August 2013 South Africa marked the 57th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s Anti-pass march and the fight for equality.

The Department of Home Affairs also formally honoured the women who were at the forefront in the struggle for peace, freedom and democracy in a unique way on Women’s Day by naming four machines that will produce smart ID cards after Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn and Rahima Moosa.

Thanks to these brave women, the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment are today central to all efforts aimed at combating poverty and stimulating sustainable development. While South Africa deserves to be congratulated in its successful initiatives to empower women in a number of areas; research shows more still needs to be done especially in the areas of income inequality and preventing violence against women.

According to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) 2011 report on Gender Statistics, women are more likely than men to be found in the two lowest quintiles of households with the lowest income. The report showed that 27 per cent of women as opposed to 16 per cent of men are found in the first quintile while 26 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men are in the second quintile.

The report, which was released this year also showed that managerial positions still remain skewed in favour of men with 10 per cent as opposed to 6 per cent of women. On a positive note the report indicated that the percentages of both women and men in the top category (manager, professional, and technician) increased at a higher rate for women than for men.

As we celebrate Women’s Month, we should not become complacent about our achievements in empowering women both in all spheres of South African society. This is the time to work even harder to translate relevant legislation and the equality clause into reality. This cannot be done by government alone; it is a societal responsibility. We should heed the words of former Chief Justice Langa: “Like constitutions, with high sounding phrases and great ideals, these instruments are written on paper and their observance and real impact depends on the will of governments, stakeholders, activists and a vigilant civil society.”

More importantly we need to ensure that we remove all obstacles that prevent women from being full participants in all facets of life. We have to rally together as men and women to challenge the patriarchal values and practices within our society, communities and families head-on.

Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)