We owe it to Mama Ruth to build on the sacrifices she made

Monday, June 1, 2015

By Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu

Since the beginning of time every generation has been given the opportunity to carve its legacy into the annals of time.  South Africa is home to the inspiring legacy of OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and countless others.   

Our history reverberates with the heroic and selfless deeds of women and men who refused to cower in the face of the murderous apartheid regime. They stood up and refused to take a backward step at a time when activism amounted to more than just a feel-good hashtag, a series of tweets or engagement on social media.

These women and men confronted tyranny head-on. They were prepared to die so our nation would have freedom and democracy.  This is the generation of Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati, who sadly passed away on Tuesday, 12 May 2015. She was 89.

Mama Ruth as she was affectionately known, was one of the central figures in organising the historic August 9, 1956 march by over 20 000 women of all races, to Pretoria.  Their march in defiance of pass laws shook the apartheid regime to its core.

Their bravery laid the foundation for a movement that would eventually morph into an unstoppable behemoth that would crush the iron fist of apartheid and white minority rule. The echoes from that memorable day still reverberate loudly today. Each year we celebrate Women’s Day and Women’s Month in commemoration of the strides we have made since 1994.

Twenty-one years after the fall of apartheid, it is all too easy to forget the untold sacrifice of Mama Ruth and others.  Their actions helped to deliver what we now take for granted. We dare not forget that our freedom was not free.  

Democracy has ensured that we all live in a nation where no person shall be judged by the colour of their skin.  The Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantees our humanity. They affirms the democratic values of dignity, equality and freedom. 

We are fortunate to live in a country where everyone has the right to freedom of expression, and where the freedom of the press and other media is guaranteed.

The inspiring story of Mama Ruth began on 14 September 1925, when she was born in the Ganyesa Village in the Vryburg district. In 1944, at the age of 19, she started teaching at the Dithakwaneng Primary School near Vryburg. In 1948 she was transferred to the United School in Vryburg, where she continued her teaching career.  When she got married in 1952 she lost her job as a teacher because the apartheid laws regulated that married black female teachers were not allowed to teach.

She moved to Johannesburg in 1952 and officially joined the ANC, becoming a member of the Orlando branch.  In 1953, she took up employment as a secretary with the first black law partnership, Mandela and Tambo, Attorneys at Law. Oliver Tambo, who later became president of the ANC, famously remarked: “Sis Ruth is the best secretary we had”.

In 1954, she became a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC Women’s League and, together with Helen Joseph and Lillian Ngoyi, was among the founding members of the Federation of South African Women.

She was amongst the first women to join Umkhonto we Sizwe and underwent military training in the Soviet Union in 1963.  While in exile she held office as Secretary and Head of the Women’s Section of the ANC. Between 1966 and 1973, she served on the Executive Committee of the Women’s Section.

In 1990, she was part of the ANC delegation that negotiated our peaceful transition to democracy.

In 1994, she was elected to the National Assembly and served as a Member of Parliament from 1994 to 1996. In 1996 she became the Ambassador to Switzerland and served in that capacity until 2000.

On her return to her hometown, Vryburg in 2000, she contested the position of Mayor of Naledi Local Municipality and she won with a handsome majority.  After serving two terms as mayor she retired from full-time political life. She continued to serve the community in various capacities until her death. 

Mama Ruth is survived by her niece and several grandchildren, and several other children she nurtured as her own.

Her passing has robbed the country of a true and selfless patriot.  There is no doubt South Africa that has made giant strides since 1994. Out of the ashes of apartheid has risen a nation and a people who stands tall in the global arena.

Mama Ruth lived to serve the people of South Africa. Together we must continue to build on her legacy and those of countless others. What we have achieved as a nation since 1994 is truly remarkable and we should take pride in our achievements, yet we cannot rest easy.

We all have to build on the country’s progress. Our common fight now is to defeat the still-hobbing legacy of apartheid that manifests as the triple threat of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Mama Ruth and others have shown the way. Her long walk is over – but our journey to greater social and economic equality has just begun.

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