Africare In the News

The following speech was delivered by Graca Simbine Machel upon her acceptance of the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, presented by Africare at the Africare Bishop Walker Dinner on Sept. 27, 1999, in Washington, D.C. Machel is president of the Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique and chancellor of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She is also the former First Lady and former Minister of Education of Mozambique, the former First Lady of South Africa and director of the groundbreaking 1994-96 United Nations Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

After all that has been said tonight I shouldn’t be speaking now. But I will speak, and the reason is that tonight we celebrate women — all the women of the world, but especially we celebrate the women of Africa.

Tonight I have been entrusted to give them visibility, to give them a voice and to take this platform on their behalf. Because it’s not “me” — it is us.

So, yes, we are proud to take the platform.

I feel extremely humbled at having to represent millions, literally millions, of African women in our townships and in our rural areas: those who, often, we believe to be anonymous but who really sustain our universe. That we are still here, we owe to them. It is a tremendous responsibility for me to give that face and that voice to those women.

We have a solid and stable family life in Africa. We owe it to our women.

We manage poverty with dignity and shared values. We owe it to our women.

We bring together communities. We manage diversity in our communities. We end up building harmony. We owe it to our women.

We are caring people. We care for the young; we care for the elderly; we care for the sick. We care for each one of us as one extended family. And who instills those values, this chain of solidarity across generations? The women of our continent! When you talk of Africa, and especially the success of Africans, please applaud the women of Africa!

On a more personal note, I would like to pay tribute to three women who played a tremendous role in my life: my mother, my eldest sister and an American missionary from Pennsylvania without whom I would have never entered university.

It still makes me sad to say this, but I was born 20 days after my father died. I am the youngest child in my family. My mother was left with a family of six of us. She brought us what she could manage from her work. But all of us were able to go to school, and we gained a strong sense of the importance of sharing in our family and in our community.

My eldest sister took me from my mother at the age of six, far away to where she was teaching, because it was the only way I could start school at the right age. Literally, she is my second mother. And she was a good mother to me, as well as my mentor. She managed to make me feel secure emotionally although I was very far from my mother. She also opened my eyes to knowledge, to science. She is typical of those women who take charge of their siblings as their own child.

So, I wouldn’t be what I am and I wouldn’t have learned the lessons I have learned of caring for others, without the examples of my mother and my siblings. Whatever in life I have learned to do and am trying to do, they are my main point of reference and inspiration.

And when I speak of “millions of African women,” it is because my mother’s story and my sister’s story are replicated millions and millions of times on our continent.

The American lady was a missionary from Pennsylvania. She has since passed away but she remains for me a tangible example of solidarity between Africa and America. She trusted me. She knew that I had some potential and she advocated that I should get a scholarship. That is how I went to Portugal.

At a time when the United States government was not supporting our struggle, I had in my own life this example of what American people can do, caring for other people on our continent. And like me, hundreds of thousands of Africans can tell these kinds of stories. So when we say we are united and we are one, it is not mere political rhetoric. It is something that has directly touched our lives. We shake hands, we embrace and we feel, “Yes, we are one!” That is why I feel very much at home tonight.

From those days of my poor upbringing in my village, I now stand here. I could say that many things have changed since then. Indeed they have. But at the same time, I also feel that much is unchanged. Many of the girls of my village with whom I grew up, did not achieve adulthood. They died of various diseases. Some did not reach secondary school. Now they are in their fifties, like me, but they look as if they were in their seventies, drained by all sorts of suffering. There is still tremendous work to do in our country.

And we are here to say this. We are at the end of the century, at the end of the millennium. We are proud of the tremendous progress the human race has achieved. But we are a human society full of contradictions. We have tremendous wealth in our hands, concentrated in a few people, a few corporations, a few nations. Yet the majority, billions of people not only in the developing world but also here, go hungry and without a home. Many children cannot reach school.

We say: Why do we have this wealth, if it doesn’t serve human beings? We have knowledge, and as human society we made tremendous progress in science and technology. We can research and investigate almost every single issue if we so wish. We have the resources and the knowledge, but billions of human beings cannot get access to that knowledge. There is a revolution in information technology which could bring us together. But we run the serious risk that, instead of building a common village, we might develop two different worlds: those who can have access to these resources and knowledge, and those who cannot.

And we must ask ourselves: How many young girls, as in my village, are still living like that? Are we prepared to accept it? Is this the legacy we want to carry with us to the new century?

We have developed sophisticated systems to promote democracy. But the reality, if you will bear with me, is that in many instances, even where national, regional and global institutions are elected, people are distant from those institutions and even from the people they have elected. We do have formal democracy. But at least on my continent, our institutions are very much urban, middle class, middle-aged and male dominated. They exclude rural people, who are the majority of our population. They exclude women, who are at least half of our population. And they exclude the young, who in many cases on our continent can be as much as sixty percent of the population. What kind of democracy is this, which excludes majorities?

We have what we call judicial systems. Ask the ordinary citizens of my country and my region whether they know how to get the courts to help them get their rights respected and to help get the law to protect them. In the seventies when we were in the liberation struggle, we talked about people’s participation and we talked about people-centered development. But now, if we consider carefully, it seems as if power is not centered in people, and that wealth is not centered in people. What went wrong?

We all agree that this is man made. We did it, so we can undo it. We must undo it.

I want you to come with us on a beautiful journey in which the next century is Africa’s century.

It is ours.

We are determined to recapture the glory of our ancient civilizations — from Monomutapa to Benin to Ghana to Egypt (Remember? That is our Africa, too). We are determined to vindicate the fact that scientific knowledge is something that was once a shining example of African creativity. Yes, we developed math, physics, medical knowledge, astrology — from African soil. That is what we are.

Then came the nightmare of slavery, of colonialism, neocolonialism, the effects of the Cold War, mistakes we have made — all of this rendered Africa what it is today.

But I tell you, we came to understand: “Enough is enough!”

We are going to change the face of our continent and we are going to bear our children to live, not to die.

We are going to put our house in order.

We are putting our house in order now.

Yes, we do still have problems of conflict. But we — our leaders together with our civil society organizations — are working very hard to settle the problems in the Great Lakes and to settle the problems in West Africa, in the Horn of Africa, in Rwanda, everywhere. We are in charge and we are going to bring this conflict to an end.

We are still very poor, and we are counted only as representing “Third World” trade. But we want to say: In the next century we are going to transform our continent. In the first place, we are not going to accept being counted only as a market. We want to affirm ourselves with the dignity of the human beings that we are, prepared to interact with the rest of the world, to give and to receive for the benefit of the human beings on our continent.

Yes, we do have serious problems with the AIDS pandemic. There is no need to talk about statistics, nor about particular countries. We all acknowledge and recognize that this is a problem. But we are taking serious measures, which means that behavior, attitudes and people are changing.

We have to change ourselves first of all. Messages have to be communicated to inform everyone, and we need you to help us get the messages across. But it is our responsibility to educate our women, our men and especially our young people, and to say, “Yes, you can protect yourselves, you can live.” We will not allow Africa to continue to be the worst point of reference for AIDS. We have to reverse it, and there are good examples: Uganda, Malawi and others. We have started. We will get there.

Yes, we also do have some shining examples of economic growth. There are countries on our continent which have had sustained growth for the last decade — modest, it is true, but a test. It shows that we can do it, and that builds our self-esteem, our self-confidence to be once again in charge as we have been before.

As we say, the next century is Africa’s century.

But I want also to share it with my sisters. The next century has to be women’s century, and I challenge every one of you. We no longer want to walk behind a man. We want to walk side by side.

We don’t want to continue saying, “We play an important role in the informal sector of the economy.” Why only the informal sector and not the formal sector? We also want to be in the formal economy.

We want our seats and our place in our parliament, in our government, in our judiciary, in all decision-making bodies. We want to be there. South Africa is an example and Mozambique is an example. Yes, we are starting to get there. South Africa has one of the highest rates of women in parliament and women in government. Probably the only countries better than us are the Scandinavian countries. We are determined. We are serious about it and we will make it.

We don’t want to be absent any longer from our regional organizations, such as SADC and ECOWAS. We want to be there, especially for the peace-making process. Especially for that. If we are very good at managing diversity in our families, where we manage the differences between the elderly and the young and we keep our families harmonious; if we are good at the grassroots and community levels, then why not at the national, at the regional and at the global levels?

Yes, we know how to do it. We just need that greater visibility and that broader platform that I spoke of at the beginning. We want to be visible. We want to speak loud. We want to be assertive. Especially, we want to be very proud of ourselves. And we can, because we have done it before.

But I want to conclude, in the next century, we Africans have a special gift to humankind, some of those beautiful and good things that so-called development and progress have lost: our sense of humanity; our sense of sharing and caring very profoundly about each one of us; that way of organizing our society into family, extended family and community.

Yes, we want more knowledge, we want economic development. But we also want to preserve those values. We don’t want to break up our families. And that is the gift we have to bring to you. We want more capital flow in the form of investment, but we will give back to you the best of ourselves, the best in human beings, to help you to go back and develop those networks and support systems that progress and development do sometimes break.

Now, I know that I am talking to converted people in this room. The things I am saying are not necessarily directed at you. That is why you are here: You love Africa and Africans and you are committed to Africa. (But when I talk about women, I’m not so sure — probably not!)

But the challenge as we leave this room tonight and reflect, is this: “Yes, we have been in partnership with Africa, but is that enough? Is there anything else we can do?”

I say this because there is a sense of urgency. We cannot postpone it any more. We cannot accept that we have 5,000 Africans dying every day and find it normal. They are not mere statistics — they have a face like any one of us here. They are our children. I have children around the age of 16. I do not know whether I will be able to spare them in the next 10 years.

What we are talking about must be done today, and be done better, and be done more. If each one of us says, “Yes,” side by side, everywhere at all levels then it will definitely change our society. We will not be able to continue to be cool to the suffering of others. We won’t be able to accept violence as a way of solving conflict. We will not accept poverty as something that we cannot overcome.

We need to join hands.

The movement has to grow and grow and grow.

Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.

Copyright 1999, Graca Simbine Machel. All rights reserved.

Read more from Africare’s annual Bishop John T. Walker Memorial Dinners