Speech to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry – Coffee Club | Artscape Women’s Humanity Festival 2023

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Members of the Coffee club

It’s so very fitting that you, the members of the Coffee Club of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, are joining us today, the first day of August, Women’s Month. Because, as I understand it, your goals are to network, inspire and showcase. As we prepare for a month-long celebration of women through our Women’s Humanity Festival, we echo those goals. We, too, aim to inspire, to showcase and – as with you here today – to network, specifically in all that relates to women.

To those goals, we add raising awareness of the arts – because, as it has often been said: “With no art, a country has no soul,” and, “Practising art is a way to make your soul grow.” So, a country that ignores its artists, risks losing its soul. The arts are also a means through which we can express ourselves and our emotions – the ultimate way to communicate thoughts and ideas – and, with communication so often challenged, this is of increasing importance.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Milestones: Celebrating, supporting and empowering women of yesterday, today and tomorrow”.

So, there are a number of questions I would like to ask. Firstly:

Where have we come from? Here I would like to echo the words of former public protector Thuli Madonsela, “Let’s not allow acknowledging women’s besieged status to unprecedented violence against them, make us lose sight of the women’s epic leadership behind Women’s Day. Let’s see women as leaders, hear their voices, see them represented in all decision-making.” But let’s be honest: women across the world, and no less in this country, have faced many challenges, as victims not only of heavy-handed patriarchy, but also of apartheid and injustice; undoubtedly as victims of violence, but also – and in far too many cases – of abject poverty as a result of all the above.

Where are we now as women? Undoubtedly, we’ve come a long way; women are in roles that were previously unattainable: airline pilots, judges, heads of institutions, etc. Younger women, too, are glimmers of hope with education. Some doors are opening, but so many doors remain closed through lack of finance, support and understanding, as well as – and again, let’s be honest – deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes, at home and in the workplace. And here there is the ongoing question:

How far have we really come? For example, in terms of economic empowerment of women with disabilities, what legislation is in place to ensure this? Are women living with disabilities given equal opportunities to access employment in your company? Is your organisation making sure its building plans incorporate structural innovation to enable access for employees and clients who live with disabilities? In my experience, there seems to be reluctance within the business world to truly implement the legal framework at our disposal to ensure we remain true to our country’s proud constitution, which “guarantees the right of every person not to be unfairly discriminated against, directly or indirectly, on the basis of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origins, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, etc.”

Further, with regard to disability, as a person who has lived with a disability all my life, I have the following specific demands, and appeal to you for help with these, to:

  1. Address misperceptions about disability. Disability does not mean inability. Society in general, individuals, business and employees must learn that people with disabilities are also able and should not be written off. Given the opportunity, they can accomplish, even excel in, many tasks.
  2. Create a conducive, welcoming workplace environment. Remove barriers by eradicating hostility, both passive and active, towards people with disabilities. Treat people as people and judge them by what they can do, not by what they cannot.
  3. Be intentional about employing or bringing on board people with disabilities. Slogans, rhetoric, manifestos and conferences must translate into implementable policies that can be monitored and evaluated. There must be consequences for not implementing policies or meeting targets. Bias in recruitment processes must be detected and stopped.
  4. Budget for tools of the trade that will enable people with disabilities to perform. Workplace infrastructure, including offices, kitchens, toilets, etc, should be upgraded to accommodate people with disabilities.

More generally, other demands for women include the issue of workplace leave:

  • Women have different biological needs as a result of their natural contribution to society by giving birth. These come with their own challenges and maternity leave, in particular, requires careful consideration from leaders who are conscious of the well-being of their staff.
  • Maternity leave apart, many countries have a form of menstrual leave as part of their legislation, with one example where the state’s social security system takes responsibility for funding this leave. South Africa would do well to learn from such examples.

Where do we want to be? So, our list of wishes, or demands, is long, and in addition to the above there is an urgent need to address GBV, other challenges in the workplace, and escalating poverty, crime, safety, etc. But above all, we require a change of attitude. How do we socialise our children – the next generation? How do we inspire our young women, and educate both girls and boys to see that the future can accommodate a balanced approach? We want companies to extend opportunities for internships and jobs for newly graduated young women, and to work harder at transforming perceptions that certain skills are not meant for women. Women are every bit as passionate as men about learning new skills and applying them. Their creativity and desire for growth are boundless – as we hear in the words of some of the young women interns at Artscape:

  • Alyssa Daniels (31) from Elsie’s River: “Some of us may well be the first in our family to have attained this level of education or earning potential, and as a young professional trying to break the mould in the working world, in general it is definitely harder as a woman.”
  • Sive Wana (26) from Brown’s Farm in Philippi: “Being a young, professional woman at work creates a space that encourages and empowers me to express my creativity fully.”
  • Abenathi Zukelo (25) from Khayelitsha: “As a young, professional woman in the workplace, I’m learning as much as I can in areas that interest me, and even in some that don’t. I’m expanding my mind and viewpoints by working with people who have diverse experience and different ways of seeing the world.”

At Artscape, we strive to be all-inclusive with our artistic programmes, infrastructure and partnerships, and our Women’s Humanity Festival is a great example of this. IseeU is a mentoring programme aimed specifically at young women from the troubled Cape Flats. We are giving them a platform – just one of many we are offering to a range of artists and activists this month.

Which brings me not just to other events of the festival, but to the arts in general. This is the one area where there is the possibility for complete equality; show me the discipline where women can’t perform every bit as well as – and differently to – their male counterparts.

But the role of the arts in business, we see as vital in the following ways:

  • Partnering with the arts through a company’s marketing or promotional budgets is a cost-effective avenue for companies to reach their target markets and communicate effectively with clients. It assists with building corporate image and a strong brand.
  • As today’s business landscape continues to shift, companies need talent that can respond to an ever-changing world of work. Participation in creative expression fosters and incubates the essential skills and leadership needed in today’s world. Innovation can be defined as applied creativity, and partnering with arts organisations and artists unlocks pathways to that innovation.
  • This, in turn, leads to job creation and a stronger economy not only onstage, but offstage, too, within the disciplines of technical assistance and administrative assistance, as well as the role of fiduciary.

In addition, other reasons for partnering with the arts include:

  • Engendering diversity and empathy – assisting an inclusive workforce;
  • Amplifying skills – cultivating creative thinking skills, resulting in retaining talent; and
  • Driving innovation – inspiring and engaging employees, resulting in an ever-evolving economy.

Finally, partnering with the arts sets your business apart. Leveraging a partnership with an artist/arts organisation will help you communicate your company’s story by engaging with customers and clients, and conveying your unique values.

JazzArt performed at the event.

And so, while throughout the year Artscape promotes the arts in all disciplines, including ballet, opera, musicals, contemporary dance, including jazz and hip-hop as well as differently abled, and a range of music styles, including international cultural, African indigenous and so much more; because of historical imbalances, in our Women’s Humanity Festival we choose to address inequality by showcasing the work of women in particular. This is because Artscape is committed to commemorating the Women’s March of 1956 – an event characterised by the peaceful but assertive stance it took in demanding justice, dignity and the repeal of the pass laws. With the challenges women still face, not least gender-based violence, this historic event remains as significant today as it was all those years ago, which is why 9 August, now declared Women’s Day, is such an important date on the South African calendar.

Previous productions hosted by Artscape that have paid tribute to iconic women include Ruth First: 117 Days (2018), Krotoa (2019 and 2022), Cold case: Revisiting Dulcie September (2021) and Dance of the La Gumas (the life story of Blanche La Guma) (2023), among many others. This year, we honour the playwright, poet and director, 75-year-old living legend, Fatima Dike, the first black South African woman to have had a play published and performed – The sacrifice of Kreli (1976). We also honour internationally acclaimed prolific writer – also a living legend – Sindiwe Magona on her 80th birthday this month, as well as Sophie de Bruyn, the last surviving member of the four women who led the Women’s March of 1956. And lest we forget the women on whose shoulders we stand, we honour and remember the lives of, among others, the late Cissie Gool, who symbolises the 100 years of women in law; activist Amy Biehl; musician Madosini Mpahleni; women’s champion Kimendhri Pillay; and poet Primrose Mwebi. You can see their images on our Wire woman statue in the Marble Foyer, which has been dressed for the festival as Mama Milestone.

In the 17 years that Artscape has been hosting the Women’s Humanity Festival, we have collaborated with a number of organisations supporting and empowering women, among them Woman Zone, who have a women’s library on the ground floor. The overall intention is to promote, celebrate, support and empower women in all spheres, all walks of life, all cultures and capabilities – ultimately, to ensure an equal, balanced society for all, now and in the future.

In conclusion, I want to emphasise the vital role the arts play in reflecting on history and envisaging the future. The recent award-winning Netflix film The woman king depicts the importance of portraying women as visible, strong and courageous. This historical epic film – so needed in present times – is inspired by true events and celebrates the strength and courage of women. It is based on the all-female unit of warriors who in the 1800s fiercely and skilfully protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), once one of the powerful states of Africa and associated with the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The bottom line for all of us is: be part of the change. We need a strong movement that has everybody on board – the “tea party” is over! Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo! (You strike a woman, you strike a rock!)

Very finally, we invite you to visit our exhibitions in the Marble Foyer: She had a name by Carin Bester, 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day by the NGO KnitWits, and a Women’s law exhibition celebrating 100 years of women in law. Also, in the brochure, see the details of all the events and productions coming up at the Artscape Women’s Humanity Festival, which we trust you will attend (see list below).

I thank you and look forward to seeing you here in the Women’s Month of August.

Marlene le Roux

1 August 2023


Some of the activities at this year’s Women’s Humanity Festival:
  • 1-31 August: Exhibition in the Marble Foyer, including Carin Bester’s digital She had a name
  • 3 August and 5 August: My kroon se krank (drama) by Veronique Jephtas (boasting a Slurpie Prize at the 2023 KKNK Kanna Awards) and Lynthia Julius
  • 5 August: Interview and interaction celebrating veteran playwright Fatima Dike
  • 6 August: Knit & Natter, a stitch-along in aid of Noah (homes for the elderly); donations of wool or scarves welcome
  • 8 August: 1 000 Women celebrating 20 years, with music by Women Unite Marimba Band
  • 9 August (National Women’s Day): Stalls; interfaith prayers; music by the Cape Whalers Field Band; opening address by Marlene le Roux and judge Rehana Parker; Women’s Humanity Walk, with poetry performance by Elzana October, Diana Ferrus and Lebo Mashifane; performances by Jazzart, Cape Town City Ballet, South Roots International and Zip Zap Circus; and a special concert by internationally acclaimed Cape Flats hip-hop star Dope Saint Jude. FMR radio will broadcast a special, hour-long Woman’s Show, produced and presented by Woman Zone.
  • 9 August and 11 August: Do not fear the past: A mother’s words, commemorating 30 years since the murder of Amy Biehl, staged in the Artscape Arena
  • 11 August: ABFAB Drag
  • 12 August: Book launch of W is for witness by Karen Lazar; meeting of The Story Club, presented by Balisa Nathi.
  • 14-19 August: He had it coming by Mike van Graan, performed by Kim Blanche Adonis
  • 26 August: Launch of two books recently released in honour of Sindiwe Magona, marking her 80 years: I write the yawning void and Sindiwe’s gift; presentation by IseeU, the young women’s mentoring programme
  • 27 August: FMR concert at Guga S’thebe in Langa

Photographs provided.

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