‘Collectively, we can each help to create a gender-equal world’ – Women’s Day Message from the Vice-Chancellor

Posted on August 09, 2021

Every year on Women’s Day we celebrate the strength and tenacity of women, honouring their contribution to democracy and society in general, in commemoration of the Women’s March of 1956. Every year we reflect on what we still need to do to build a just society for all.

This year the South African government named 2021 “The Year of Charlotte Maxeke”. As we mark what would have been this icon of struggle and achievement’s 150th birthday, there can perhaps be no better time than now to focus on a call to service-driven leadership. We are living in a time in which we seek to revive our communities and lift our society up, by prioritising the needs of others as we build the future we want to see.

On 9 August 1956, nearly 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings to demand their right to freedom of movement. They were committed to ensuring that our society did not become even more oppressive than it already was through the extension of pass laws to women. These laws were designed, among other purposes, to limit the movement, access to housing, and the livelihood of black people in apartheid South Africa.

We owe the generation of Albertina Sisulu, Rahima Moosa, Lillian Ngoyi, Fatima Meer, Sophie de Bruyn and Helen Joseph – who cleared paths that transcended the social, gender and political oppression they faced – immense reverence for the contributions they made to enable future generations of South African women to flourish. The march on the Union Buildings was a brave and extraordinary act of defiance against one of the most destructive pieces of apartheid legislation. Through this march the women of 1956 demonstrated their firm rejection of apartheid. Their march popularised the slogan ‘Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo’ (‘You strike a woman, you strike a rock’).

On Women’s Day and during the month of August we remember them for their courage, sacrifice and brave actions. Since that historic march, and in particular over the past 27 years of democracy, many doors have been opened for women. But, even though we have seen great strides in the advancement of women, much more is still required to eliminate discrimination and transform our society to the egalitarian one with enhanced equity that we would like to see. 

At the University of Pretoria (UP), we are proud of the many women researchers who have continued in this tradition of highly impactful work across a wide spectrum of fields. They provide scientific rigour and solutions to issues which affect society as a whole. Women researchers at UP are making today, and every day, matter by changing perceptions, leading society and debate, and contributing to knowledge production and research. Their work impacts on the lives of all our students and our broader South African and global society. Additionally, in recent years there has been a rise in the numbers of younger women among our academic and support staff. The number of women being appointed in senior positions at UP has also risen steadily.

Over the course of the more than 60 years since the Women’s March, South Africa and the African continent have made progress in advancing the rights of women, increasing their representation and voice in society.

Still, much more needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the academic world. At UP we need to continue and increase the pace of appointment of more black women to the University Council, to senior management roles including the Executive, and as senior academics – and especially the professoriate – across all disciplines. Our diversity and inclusion programmes and employment equity plans have set targets to achieve these goals. Currently black women make up 31,6% of senior management and mid-management positions across the University, and we hope to achieve a 35% target by 2025. Additionally, 11% of all black female staff members hold a professional qualification, and we aim to reach 21.5% by 2025.

We are also concertedly working towards having 50+% women professors and NRF A-rated researchers, to set an example for society and bring women into the top leadership mainstream.

We know that by having inspiring, strong women leading us in academia and as support staff, we are able to transform lives and society by giving women intellectual and economic freedom through gainful employment and cutting-edge research opportunities.

However, as a nation we need to take stock of a variety of factors, including the very high levels of violence against women in our country. Women and girls not only live in fear of violence, but society has also normalised such violence. Economic and cultural disparities continue to limit the life, health and choices of women. We owe it to Lilian Ngoyi and her comrades to ensure that all hurdles are removed so that women can take their rightful place in our democracy and on our continent. As a university community, we owe it to ourselves and our communities to promote and champion causes like our #SpeakOut campaign against gender-based violence. Our commitment to anti-sexism and dealing with the scourge of gender-based violence is how we LIVE THE UP WAY.

On Women’s Day we salute all the women who stood up for their rights in 1956, and all those who have made sacrifices over the years to open doors for the women of today. We thank them for inspiring us to change the world.

Collectively, we can make change happen.

Collectively, we can each help to create a gender-equal world, as women have a critical role to play in the world’s development.


Professor Tawana Kupe

Vice-Chancellor and Principal

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