Minister Anroux Marais' speech on women who have inspired me
WESTERN CAPE MINISTER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS AND SPORT, ANROUX MARAIS
WOMEN WHO HAVE INSPIRED ME
10 SEPTEMBER 2018
It is indeed a great honour to be at this auspicious gathering this evening and I am even more humbled to share with you the stories of women who have inspired me on my journey.
I have to admit that it was a rather challenging task to pin down only a few inspirational women to share with you this evening as my list is quite endless as I come into contact with so many women of strength each day. With each engagement, I always leave more enriched, taking valuable lessons from each one’s experiences and understanding my own strengths and weaknesses a bit more.
From as early as I can remember, my mother has always been my pillar of strength and groomed much of who I am through her being.….
Similarly, another woman who has shaped my thinking and being was also raised and groomed by a stern and rigid mother, was and still is through her writing, Olive Schreiner. Starting from humble beginnings in the Eastern Cape, Olive Schreiner’s childhood in the 1850s was unsettled and harsh, yet she was mostly self-educated and bright despite their poverty and her poor health as an asthma sufferer. At a very young age she rejected her parent’s Christian beliefs and rebelled against stereotypical images of women as dependent on men.
Olive Schreiner was a writer and feminist and one of the first campaigners for women’s rights. She did not agree with British imperialism in South Africa or with the Anglo-Boer war that was fought to achieve it. She opposed racism in whatever form, whether against Boers or Black people, both of whom were ‘underdogs’ in the early part of the 20th century. In 1883, her free thinking and progressive views about marriage, premarital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, were all themes in her first book, “The Story of an African Farm, which dealt with the lives of three characters, first as children and then as adults who lived on a farm in the Karoo. Fully aware of the staunch patriarchy at the time, Schreiner did not allow the hegemonic system to intimidate her and she cleverly then wrote the book under a pseudonym, Ralph Irons, because of prejudice against women authors in those years. She was only able to reveal her true identity when the second edition was published in 1891. Needless to say, the book was praised by feminists who approved of the strong heroine who controls her own destiny.
Not only did Schreiner suffer under the discrimination of a patriarchal society but she was further victimised for standing up against its inequalities, speaking her truth and remaining true to her values and principles. She later wrote a number of political works which attacked British imperialism and racism in South Africa and championed the causes of the Boers and Black people. She was particularly critical of Cecil John Rhodes and his policies when he was prime minister of the Cape. When the South African (Anglo-Boer) War broke out in 1899, the English burned her house and her manuscripts and sent her to a concentration camp for several years because of her public support of the Afrikaner cause. This, fortunately, did not derail Olive Schreiner from her cause, who then published “Women and Labour” in 1911, which influenced the women's emancipation movement in England and America in the 1910s-1930s. Women, she wrote, tended to be ‘parasitic’ and social conditions ‘robbed them of all forms of active, conscious social labour . . . reducing them, like the field tick, to the passive exercise of their sex functions alone’. She looked forward to the day when women shared in governance and external affairs, and believed that when that day came, there would be less war as a way of settling differences. Women, she said, ‘understand what unites the races better than men because of their common experience of mothering’.
I am still in full support of these statements today and although we still have a long way to go in achieving gender equality, Schreiner’s early voice was eloquent, steadfast and could not be ignored. She was indeed a forerunner of gender equality in a man’s world. A powerhouse who had very little but achieved so much. She could have easily become despondent with the increasing challenges, sat idle and simply accepted the state of affairs of the time, but she did not. She was not groomed in that way, to think so narrow-mindedly and to not act when injustices were inflicted upon her and others. We can all take a page or pages from her book and learn from her lasting legacy.
Two centuries later, our struggles as women competing in a man’s world still continues. It is women like my mother, Olive Schreiner, Coco Chanel and the likes who motivate and inspire me to challenge, dismantle and transform the systematic, institutional and ideological patriarchy still legitimately oppressing women in South Africa today. There is no force more powerful that a woman determined to rise and remember as Eleanor Rooseveldt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior, without your consent”.
I thank you.