Comment by Tina Joemat-Pettersson
It is an undeniable fact that women have always been the backbone of our society, and that while the apartheid laws denied them the chance of acquiring other skills, and took away men and sole providers from some families, the land came to play a huge role in fighting hunger.
This was brought forcefully back to mind by our 13th Female Entrepreneur Awards held in Johannesburg recently — an event where exceptional individuals received recognition not only for developing themselves but for taking part in the alleviation of poverty through agriculture.
African folklore is brimming with stories of young mothers working in the fields — another indication that the land has always been important to the survival of our people.
Working with the bare minimum equipment, young and old women tilled the land and provided for families.
The women who participate in this competition every year continue in that vein. They show the same resilience and tenacity as their forebears.
These mothers, daughters and grandmothers are operating at a larger scale than their predecessors — and they are creating employment and putting food on more tables, sending more children to school.
Their sometimes backbreaking work is paying off because they are providing for whole communities. They are grabbing opportunities that the women who were oppressed by apartheid laws could only dream of.
The current crop of woman is taking those dreams to both domestic and foreign markets.
As the government we are faced with the triple legacy of challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality and they are challenges we have pledged to take on.
Over the past 14 years, however, we have seen these huge challenges being tackled by ordinary women like the ones we honour through the awards.
And these often unsung heroines are doing it within the communities they come from and for the benefit of their communities.
Those of us who choose to get up and work for the good of our people epitomise what the leadership of this country means when we say “unity in action towards socioeconomic freedom” and what we envision when we say “together we can do more”.
Everyone is a winner
Since the inception of this programme we have saluted the achievements of these great women and as the department and the government of South Africa, we pledge to continue doing so.
This year 49 finalists were pain-stakingly chosen from all corners of the country, and while only eight walked away with prizes, the achievements of each in their respective communities make them all winners.
As the government, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of their impact in these small communities.
It is heartening to see the response that we receive from the courageous women of our country who take the risks they do, not out of craving recognition.
They do not put themselves out there and do battle with seemingly insurmountable odds year after year, taking leadership, because they expect reward.
And for this reason we commend them — the communities they come from are all better off because of their efforts.
Through its Labour Force Survey, Statistics SA has confirmed that the agricultural sector was the largest contributor to job creation between January and March 2013. This sector, as studies the world over have shown, can educate our children and put meals on the table through subsistence farming.
It is also important to note that among our judges we have women who have walked the same path, faced the same odds and beat them.
We hope that their continued participation in the agricultural sector will lead the way for generations to come and that this is passed on so we can conquer the grip of poverty in our less developed communities.
The law that created poverty
The government has declared a fight against food insecurity — statistics however, show us that more than 12-million people (22.7% of the population) have insufficient access to food.
In trying to fight this unpalatable reality, the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has developed a food and nutrition policy aimed at reducing hunger to zero by 2030.
This year saw an implementation of the Integrated Food Security Production Intervention which will enable smallholder farmers, communities and households to increase production of basic foods, therefore increasing access to food at local and household level.
The diversity of the projects undertaken by the nine winning entrants, which range from egg and cheese production to putting Karoo lamb steaks on plates, proves once again that women are more than capable of leading the fight against hunger.
The laws in this country are also changing everyday and opportunities are created for the previously disadvantaged.
These women recognise this and they make the effort to familiarise themselves with the changes, get out there and do it for themselves.
While some do not own, but lease, their land, they do now have access to it, whereas many women before them were denied that right by law.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the promulgation of the cruellest of laws, the Native Land Act of 1913, which was used by the apartheid government to take land from our people — in many instances by force.
This law was a major contributor to creating poverty in our communities, but women like these show us that there are ways around this.
They teach us that, armed with enough knowledge, solutions can be found and that there are ways to redress inequality in our societies.
In a small, but not insignificant, way their achievement is celebrated by the government — for one night we honour them and hope they become an inspiration to others.
We celebrate them for the beacons of light that they are and this is the vision behind these awards.
Also important to mention is the partnership between the department and Total South Africa over the years, which is responsible for the continued celebration of their blood, sweat and tears.
Without it, we as the department would be hard pressed to fund this initiative.
In Total South Africa we have the perfect partner who understands our vision and shares our commitment to this cause. They have walked this path with us and we are grateful to them.
As we leave women’s month — a celebration of other great women who continue to inspire many generations after them — behind we invoke the spirit of those women who took the fight into their hands and say: wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo (you strike a woman, you strike a rock).
Tina Joemat-Pettersson is the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries