In a fair and just world, no one is left behind.
These were the words shared by the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Chancellor Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the 17th annual Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture.
The event, hosted by the Faculty of Humanities, the Centre for the Study of Race, Gender and Class (RGC), and the UJ Transformation Unit, was attended by Ambassadors, staff, students and members of the public.
The keynote speaker highlighted that it was important to leave no one behind as the people who are most likely to be left behind are in the majority – and repeatedly find themselves spoken about and on behalf of, while their issues remain unaddressed.
Drawing from her rich experience as former Deputy President of South Africa and former Executive Director of UN Women, Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke to the inter-generational and intersectional imperatives of contemporary struggles for gender equality, and their indebtedness to the visionary work of Helen Joseph and other local and international women activists.
“We live in a country that in many ways looks vastly different to the one that Helen Joseph encountered. And we live in a country that looks profoundly similar to it, too. While we insistently celebrate the many global gains and hard-won victories that have allowed us to realise a more equal world, we are living in an unprecedented time that requires the vigilant defence and protection of these gains as gender and other rights are being eroded in ways that deeply affect the lives of women, girls and non-binary individuals, and those who are most marginalised in our societies.”
The Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture, which took place on Thursday, 10 August 2023, has sat in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg since 2005.
Named in recognition of the British-born anti-apartheid activist, the Helen Joseph Memorial lecture was spearheaded by the Centre for Social Development in Africa and Professor Leila Patel, with the intention of speaking to Joseph’s legacy and that of the wider terrain of women’s movements in South Africa.
“Across the globe, both data and experience reveal that no country has achieved gender equality – and as such, the universal struggle for gender justice links us across generations. As part of a generation of anti-apartheid activists who endured its brutal, wide-reaching and consistent persecution – albeit in different ways – Helen Joseph’s life came to be defined by her commitment to the connected racial, gendered and classed struggle for freedom, in a country far from her birth and the conditions that defined her upbringing,” added Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka.
The event was further enriched by the thoughtful provocations of UJ Vice Chancellor, Prof. Letlhokwa Mpedi; Faculty of Humanities Executive Dean, Prof. Kammila Naidoo; and Prof. Victoria Collis-Buthelezi, Director of RGC.
The lecture is often held in August in commemoration of the 9 August 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings against pass laws that Joseph led, along with other leaders of the Federation of South African Women, such as Lilian Ngoyi. Tried for treason and held under house arrest for over two decades, Joseph was a strident critic of apartheid and a champion of the rights of women, children and families.
“For every aspect of life – including the cultural, social and economic realms and private, public and political spheres – are spaces where gender equality matters. Therefore, we are required to attend to and care for people as whole human beings, particularly girls, women and those marginalised by their gender identity in our societies – seeing every aspect of who they are, including gender, sexuality, race, nationality, ability and class as characteristics that matter to our interventions.”
The lecture attracted a diverse audience, including representatives of embassies, cultural agencies and foundations.
Dr Mlambo Ngcuka called on all members of society to respond to the vision and legacy of Helen Joseph and other local and international gender advocates, and to actively undertake the intersectional, intergenerational work of undoing patriarchy.
Amongst others, Ambassador José Costa Pereira of the Portuguese Embassy, and Minister Elia Sosa Nishizaki, Chargée d’affaires at the Embassy of Mexico, expressed their deep appreciation for the Chancellor’s address, and their commitment to positive collaboration and transnational dialogue around the global struggle for gender equality.
“It is critically important for our movement (for Gender equality) to be one that consistently renews and regenerates itself because it nurtures the ones who are coming after, and honours the lifework of those who blazed these pathways before,” said Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka
The Chancellor’s words were reinforced by Prof. Victoria Collis-Buthelezi (Director of the centre for the Study of Race, Gender & Class), who re-emphasised the need for a radical social and political overhaul, rather than surface-level adjustments, as we seek to collectively transform the normative crisis of GBV and rape culture in South Africa.
In conclusion, Prof Suzanne Graham (Vice-Dean of Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Humanities), expressed the University’s indebtedness to the Chancellor, as a deeply committed gender-advocate whose work honours the historical legacy of the Women’s March, as well as the struggles and radical imagination of younger activists.