Machel, Sankara and gender equality

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During the past week, on October 19 to be precise, Southern Africa commemorated 34 years since the murder of Samora Moisés Machel.

On October 15, the African continent marked the 33rd year since the murder of Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara.

The likelihood of anyone being brought to justice for Machel’s assassination is increasingly unlikely on this side of eternity. In Sankara’s case, there has been a notable effort to get to the bottom of the assassination and to accord him a burial befitting his contribution to the African political and economic liberation agenda.

Both Machel and Sankara are often spoken of within the context of their political and economic beliefs.

Both were military men: Machel rising to become head of the Frelimo’s armed resistance to Portuguese colonial rule; and Sankara a captain in the Burkinabe military and commander of the Commando Training Centre.

Both shed their military uniforms to assume civilian office: Machel as the first President of an independent Mozambique; and Sankara as the first President of a newly renamed Burkina Faso (meaning Land of Upright People/Incorruptible People).

Both were cut down in their prime: Machel at the age of 53 at the hands of apartheid; and Sankara at the age of 38 at the hands of a modern Judas called Blaise Compaoré.

A similarity between the two that is rarely is mentioned, though, is that of their position on women’s rights, gender equality and a truly egalitarian society.

Jorge Cardoso, the director of the Organ of Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation at the Southern African Development Community made a remark this past week which should prompt the continent to revisit and reacquaint itself with the tenets of a just society as espoused by Machel and Sankara.

Cardoso, as reported in this edition of The Southern Times, says gender-based violence is the most common form of violence in Southern Africa.

GBV affects both men and women, but the reality is the latter are in the vast majority of cases the victims and so discourse on the subject tends to make reference to violence against women.

Across Southern Africa, violence against women has become a topical issue of late.

In Botswana, in Namibia, in South Africa and in Zimbabwe, how women are treated and what society does about those who abuse them is under scrutiny.

We are not concerned with the argument as to whether or not GBV is on the increase or greater awareness of rights means more criminal complaints are now being filed, hence the growing tide for greater action to be taken against the problem.

As far as we are concerned, every case of GBV is one case too many.

So, back to Machel and Sankara.

In his opening address at the First Conference of Mozambican Women on March 4, 1973, Machel – in his capacity as president of Frelimo – placed women at the centre of the liberation agenda.

If anything, the singular fact of Frelimo holding a conference on women in the middle of a war says a lot about how the region’s leading lights viewed the matter of equality and equity as far back as half a century ago.

Machel told the conference: “The liberation of women is not an act of charity. It is not the result of a humanitarian or compassionate position. It is a fundamental necessity for the revolution, a guarantee of its continuity, and a condition for its success.”

Powerful and insightful!

Unfortunately for Mozambique and Africa, Machel never got round to implementing his  ideas on gender equality as his nation remained gripped in war throughout his life right until agents of progress killed him.

As for Sankara, described by some as “Africa’s Che Guevara”, he had a bit more time and latitude to implement his policies on gender equality.

Sankara instituted many sweeping social and economic reforms in his four years as the leader of the Land of Upright People.

The ones often spoken of related to famine prevention through agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, a nation-wide literacy campaign, strengthening of public healthcare, a massive housing programme, and large-scale afforestation and reforestation schemes to halt the spread of the Sahel.

Others that have continued to attract the admiration of progressive Africans included asking top civil servants and military officers to give a month’s pay to help fund social development projects; and selling off the government fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles so that the Renault 5 - the cheapest car in Burkina Faso at that time – became the official car for ministers.

He walked the talk to: when the modern African Judas killed him, Sankara’s salary was US$450 a month and his most valuable assets were a car, four motorcycles (he had a soft spot for bikes and jazz), a refrigerator and a non-working freezer.

And through it all, he emphasised that Burkina Faso would not develop outside of women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Sankara outlawed female genital mutilation and banned forced marriages and polygamy. He appointed many women to senior government positions and encouraged women to work and stay in school - even if pregnant.

He also introduced a day of solidarity on which men and women swopped traditional gender roles. Men would go to the market, do the household chores and generally do the work that is often associated with women.

This was to help people appreciate each other’s daily contributions to the home, to the community and to the nation, and thus engender mutual respect.

His widow, Mariam Sankara, once remarked: “Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through willpower, courage, honesty and work. What remains above all of my husband is his integrity.”

As we celebrate the lives and works of Machel and Sankara, let us remember their teachings on equality and universal dignity.

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