standing up for women

Once she gets going there's no stopping her. And you had better be brave to try to cut short this energetic woman once she starts talking about a topic that means a lot to her.

Counting our blessings when we were being "squeezed" in to speak to the new Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, during a tea break, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya devotes two hours to talking about her plans to "deal with the real issues that are facing real women" in the country.

The minister relaxes and takes a long sip of her tea when asked how this Women's Day was different from previous years, considering South Africa now has a minister for women, a first for the country.

"It's going to be a vibrant month for women," said the soft-spoken Mayende-Sibiya, reflecting on the number of activities that have been planned for women from all walks of life across South Africa.

Tough questions

She said women should use this month to be "the best at whatever they do" and "raise their voices on issues affecting them without fear".

"Today is much better than yesterday and the future will be even better.

"Wherever you are as a woman, let's unite and realise this."

Mayende-Sibiya projects the image of a woman who is not shy to stand up for all women, especially marginalised women, as she did in 1990 when as a shop steward she led a strike by all workers at the Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.

She makes no bones about the fact that as minister for women she will monitor all government departments to ensure that women became part of every programme in each department.

And she will not be afraid to ask tough questions, such as what benefits the National Health Insurance system holds for women.

Equity targets

So keen is Mayende-Sibiya to become strict on having women represented in at least 50 percent of key positions in government and business that she is to introduce a bill in Parliament later this month to that effect.

The government has always battled with not having the teeth to ensure implementation of its 50-50 target and South Africa is not meeting employment equity targets, especially not in the private sector.

The bill will be a major tool to ensure women are given equal opportunities in decision-making and playing a meaningful role in running the country.

The draft bill is still being finalised but will make provision for penalties to be imposed on businesses and government departments that do not comply.

Soon after being announced as the minister responsible for three vulnerable groups in society, the former professional nurse with 22 years' experience and her new team lost no time in getting down to work.

They began touring the country and meeting various groups, NGOs and other stakeholders to introduce her department and find out what they would like to see in the new ministry.

Highest achievement

In the next six months the department will establish the Women Empowerment Fund, which will enable women to start developing their own businesses and assist NGOs and civil society to undertake women empowerment programmes.

The former National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) president hopes the unions will set an example of efforts taken to employ women in leadership positions.

The minister points to her time with Nehawu as having played a major role in her growth as a leader, equipping her with the skills needed to reach decisions quickly and to interact effectively with people.

"The skills and knowledge I picked up will assist in building a strong ministry for the most marginalised in our society," she said.

It seems this very strong woman has over the years managed to find the time to raise three equally capable woman - her daughters - who have become a medical doctor, a lawyer and an accountant, respectively.

She cannot resist telling us with pride that, though she has achieved a lot in becoming a cabinet minister, "that becoming a mother is the highest achievement for a woman".

The minister's cellphone rings but she doesn't answer it. Instead she allows time for one last question - how does the minister spend her leisure time?

"I listen to jazz music, read, have a get-together with friends and family members. Or I go to a spa for a massage and relaxation - of course when I get the time!"

- BuaNews