Let me share with you this wry joke I read in one of the social media platforms. A boy always got into trouble with his mom for going out with friends and arriving late at home. Out of frustration, he asked his dad: “I’m now 18 but my mom always threatens to ground me for having gone out with my friends at night. Am I not old enough?”

His father responded: “I’m not sure what age is considered appropriate for one to go out at night because I’m almost 50 and I still get into trouble for going out till late with my friends.”

This reminded me of my usual discussion with my 92-year old mother when I visit her in my Hammanskraal village and have to dash out to go see my friends: “My child,” she will say, “did you come to visit me or the village?”

I’ll explain I have to catch up with friends I grew up with. Then the writer in me will try to correct her vocabulary as it’s disempowering: “By the way, mom, at my age I’m not a child, I’m your son.”

She’ll retort: “Even at 80, you’ll still be my child. I’m your mother for Christ’s sake.”

Case closed.

This is about mother’s love and care.

So this week let me talk about women! Yes, I mean I’m raring myself to celebrate women from Sunday. No, let me make a fundamental correction to this last statement. I will intensify my effort in celebrating women as I do EVERYDAY because I am what I was, what I have become and what I will ever be because of women. My sister and comrade, HRH Debbie Dineo Raphuti, gave me a precious and profound piece of advice that I carry with me every second of my life: “Always remember that your first habitat was in a woman’s body.” Princess Debbie is the President of the World Women Leading Change – a global advocacy group for women’s empowerment – and was tacitly amplifying my mother’s argument. Why am intensifying my resolve to celebrate women from Sunday? It’s not that it’s month end – besides, as an entrepreneur, the construct of “month end” has lost its thunder. July 31 is celebrated as the African Women’s Day. For us in South Africa, the next day marks the Women’s Month as August 9 is celebrated as our Women’s Day. These two days saw gallant women converging and reminding the world they were captains of their destinies.

But looking at our history as a people, this wasn’t surprising. In my Setswana tradition, we have the construct of “letsema”. This was when a group of women from the village got together and work on the farm of one of them – and once done, they’ll continue to do the same in the farm owned by another member of the group. The Soviets also adopted this agrarian model and called it “kolkhoz”. 

Perhaps the modern day adaptation of it is a cooperative. The most progressive model of cooperatives for me is the one developed by Reggio Emilia – a rural small town (according to European standards) in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna Province, which has a population of 170 000 residents. Its economy is dependent primarily on agriculture and agro-processing industries. The city has developed what I consider, without belabouring the point, the best model of cooperatives which drive its economic development.

While in Africa cooperatives are ill-conceived as small projects largely for poor semi-literate rural women to eke a living out through small fruit and vegetable farming, beading projects and knitting, Reggio Emilia has brought together professionals from the community who established cooperatives that are managed like big corporates in key sectors of the economy. 

Today as we speak, the best Italian cheese (renowned globally), Reggiano, is touted to be produced in Reggio Emilia and Parma. Parma city is renowned for its food and rich gastronomical tradition: two of its specialties are Parmigiano Reggiano cheese) and Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham). Both “Parmigiano-Reggiano” and “Parmesan” are protected designations of origin (PDO) for cheeses produced in these provinces under Italian and European Union’s law. Reggio Emilia is also renowned as the home of Italy’s finest premium balsamic vinegar and olive oils. 

Furthermore, Emilia Romagna Province is the home to Coop – which is a system of Italian consumers’ cooperatives operating the largest supermarket chain in Italy. Its headquarters are located in Casalecchio di Reno.

Reggio Emilia is the home to the international fashion label, Max Mara, which was founded in 1951 by Achille Maramotti and his family. The store is headquartered in the city. The company prides itself as “one of the most prestigious international fashion houses, recognised worldwide as the forerunner of modern ready-to-wear: ‘haute de gamme’ women’s clothing produced using excellent industrial processes.” It’s now present in 105 countries with more than 2,500 single-brand stores and over 10,000 multi-brand stores.

This is the model of cooperatives I communicated in my quarterly reports to Pretoria when I served as South Africa’s Consul-General to Milan from March 2012 to end June 2016. I’m not convinced that those reports were considered when our national policy on cooperatives was developed – this despite Limpopo Provincial Government, Gauteng City Region and Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality having signed twinning agreements with this fraternal city. (I’m glad the disconnect between our diplomatic mission and our economic cluster departments will be done away with since DIRCO has established a Trade and Investment Directorate which will consolidate all the leads arising from the missions’ economic diplomacy programmes). The city of Reggio Emilia’s ties with us go back to our struggle days when they supported the national liberation movements – namely, the ANC, SWAPO, MPLA, ZAPU and FRELIMO – from the then frontline states. The city signed a “Partnership Pact” with the ANC in 1977 through which they, in addition to the material support, translated all the movement’s journals into the Italian language, published them and circulated them all over their country to conscientise people about the struggle against apartheid. Yes, we did recognise the contribution of Giuseppe Soncini post-humously in 2012 with a national order, “Friends of OR Tambo”, which was received on his behalf by his widow, Bruna Soncini – who, the way, was the English translator of the journals and continues to be a friend of South Africa to this day. Reggio Emilia was my home away from home during my stay in Italy. In October 2012, they launched their extensive archives of our liberation movements into a huge centre which was officially opened by our then Deputy President, H.E. Kgalema Motlanthe.

Pardon my emotional detour. The one entrepreneur that I believe is doing something close to what Reggio Emilia is doing is Sarah Masunga from Limpopo. I have known her long before my Italian diplomatic sojourn from 2007 after I joined the then Trade and Investment Limpopo (TIL) as a General Manager: Marketing and Communications. As an executive, I had the privilege of learning from her as a member of the Board of Directors. Although she was one of the two only women in the Board of eleven directors, she was a highly assertive and outspoken advocate for the empowerment of women and argued for the agency to become a catalyst in mainstreaming issues of rural development across the entire economic cluster in line with our public service architecture. She walked the talk as I got to learn about her initiatives such as Shamiso Investments through which she empowered women in rural areas through skills development and transformation of the art and culture sector as a revenue-generating sector for the rural communities since they are poverty stricken and unemployment and hopelessness are extremely rife.

After I left Limpopo end 2009, I continued engaging with her and was in awe of her commitment to continuing to support rural communities. She also tapped into the incentives offered by the then national Department of Trade and Industry such as the Export Marketing and Investment Assìstance (EMIA) scheme which helped her open foreign market access for the art and crafts her institution produced. This deepened her international outlook which she gained as a Board member at TIL. This international outlook was premised also on Limpopo’s brand positioning as “the heartland of southern Africa – (where) development is about people”. This meant TIL adopted a sub-regional approach as the province had signed twinning agreements with Matebeleland Province in Zimbabwe and the Gaza Province of Mozambique.

So I’m so happy that she is now pursuing a project which will not only impact on her home province of Limpopo and two other provinces – Mpumalanga and Gaueng – but it will extend its presence in Zimbabwe during the first phase and later into Mozambique. While governments and multilateral organisations speak about continental unification into a common market premised on regional integration, it is entrepreneurs such as Sarah who are practalising these as the private sector and social entrepreneurs are the delivery vehicles of economic development as government only creates legal and regulatory environment for business to thrive. It goes without saying that the micro, small and medium enterprises sector is the backbone of any economy as it is the biggest job creator, and Shamiso Investments is one such catalyst for employment creation among rural communities.

There are three other developments besides the province’s relationship with Zimbabwe that give me comfort that her project will succeed. The first is that I have introduced her to the University of Venda’s Prof Joseph Francis who heads the rural development unit in his faculty and has already shown the university will be ready to help capacitate Sarah’s recruits. By the way, Prof Joseph is a Zimbabwean national immigrant in South Africa who has been spearheading cutting-edge projects geared to uplift our communities. Secondly, the establishment of the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone on the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe will serve as a nerve centre of trade between our country and countries north of the Limpopo river, this means Sarah’s products will have easier access to these markets. Last but not least, the head of South Africa’s diplomatic mission in Harare, High Commissioner Rejoice Mabudafhasi, is Limpopo’s daughter who is building on the strong fraternal relationship that the province, and the country by extension, has with that country. So I hope the mission will promote Sarah’s products as part of their cultural and economic diplomacy arsenal. 

Back to this Sunday, the Global President of the Circle of the Global Business Women, Sindi Tshabalala, recently shared with us in the group’s WhatsApp platform an inspiring historical piece on the origin of the African Women’s Day. It all began in July 1962 when women from 14 African countries converged in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in a conference and resolved to unite “and create a common platform for solidarity and mobilisation of their efforts for the rights and freedoms of Africans in their fight for independence and liberation from the yokes of colonialism, elimination of apartheid and segregation in all its forms as well as advocating for the participation of African women in political decision making structures.” The vehicle established to propagate these ideals was the Union of African Women. What’s worth noting and celebrating is that this was a year preceding the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in May 1963. The women then decided they were to celebrate July 31 as the African Women’s Day. Their organisation was then rebranded in 1974 to the Pan-African Women’s Organization (PAWO) – and has now a presence in all the 55 African Union (AU) member states and has thus gained a specialised agency status in the AU mechanism.

I have also learned that since its formation, four countries have hosted the headquarters of PAWO: Mali (1962- 1968); Algeria (1968-1986); Angola (1986-2008) and South Africa since 2008 to this day.

The theme of the month-long celebrations of PAWO is ”Towards the African Women’s Decade: Realizing Women’s Human Capital through accelerated social and economic development, addressing the scourge of violence, food insecurity and good nutrition on the African continent”.

Back home in South Africa, Women’s Month pays homage to those gallant women who marched on 9 August 1956 against apartheid legislation that subjected black women to pass laws. The women, across the colour bar, organised a protest march that culminated in presenting a petition to the Prime Minister, JG Strydom, in Pretoria. Legend says when he heard women’s chant, “wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo” (meaning “you strike a woman, you strike a rock”) approaching, he ran out of the back door and vanished into thin air. So today Women’s Month is about us as a country prioritising issues, initiatives, projects and programmes that empower our women and free them from all forms of oppression.

So for every weekly edition of Jambo Africa Online throughout August, we will be profiling women achievers, institutions empowering women and iconic events across all sectors of our economy. I do invite those interested in participating as partners – though advertising, advertorials or eventing to promote their programmes – to reach out to us.

We may all support women by affirming them through promoting them into higher positions; by supporting their businesses through buying their services and products; by promoting their hustles; in short: by walking the talk to show we are true to our belief, resolve and principle that women have to be empowered. 

While the vusenga bangles – which I bought from Sarah Masunga and I wear them every second of my life, 24/7 – are normally 59, from yesterday I increased them to 60 to mark the 60th anniversary of PAWO. So those who were planning to ask for one or a few, here’s one extra reason for me to polititely decline your request in addition to my usual reason: here are her numbers, please support her business.

Enjoy your weekend. Happy African Women’s Day on July 31. Happy Women’s Month to all South Africans. Stay blessed.

Saul Molobi (FCIM)

PublisherJambo Africa Online
Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer: Brandhill Africa™

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