The President of the South African Supreme Court of Appeal on 19 September 2018 delivered the annual Helen Kanzira Memorial Lecture on maternal health at the School of Law at the University of Venda (UNIVEN). This event is co-hosted annually by the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, and one of the partner universities of the Master’s programme in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa. Helen Kanzira, a graduate of the Master’s programme in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa, passed away in 2007 due to complications arising from giving birth. This year’s Memorial Lecture addressed the theme ‘Safe and voluntary motherhood a matter of human rights: We can do more’.
The Honourable Justice Mandisa Maya, President of the Supreme Court of Appeal, who acted as the guest speaker, highlighted how the topic resonates with her personally, in that her first two births had complications that nearly resulted in a fate similar to that of Helen Kanzira. In honouring Helen Kanzira’s legacy, Justice Maya remarked that there should be much effort given to defining maternal health as a human right, to ensure that women do not die from avoidable causes while performing the most natural life-giving act.
She argued the need for the realisation of sexual and reproductive health and rights women as comprehensively guaranteed in their normative legal framework both in the international and South African context. She cited some of the non-pregnancy related factors that lead to this form of mortality, in particular HIV infection resulting in AIDS. She expressed the conviction that in most cases the maternal death could have been preventable.
Justice Maya explained further that, in 2013, South Africa was ranked in the top 40 countries with the worst maternal health cases in the world, alongside small countries such as Haiti, Ethiopia and Liberia. She added that internationally, maternal health is an indicator of a country’s health system, and that the overall development of a country can be severely impacted by maternal mortality.
Justice Maya indicated in her address that the Constitution of South Africa entrenches the right to life. Therefore, mortality resulting from the inability of women living in the rural communities to address reproductive health facilities is simply unacceptable. In her view, it is important that such people should have access to emergency facilities. She revealed that even today, women continue to be the victims of sexual assault and violence in societies in which women are regarded as mere sex objects. Justice Maya alluded to the fact that the major solution lies in using education to empower women and girls on their reproductive rights.
Justice Maya commended UNIVEN for being one of the few institutions offering a degree in Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
During his opening and welcome address, UNIVEN’s Acting Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof Jan Crafford, congratulated the School of Law for hosting these lectures and bringing high profile guest speakers within the legal profession to share and impart knowledge to students and communities at large. He acknowledged the relevance of the theme for this year’s memorial lecture given the legacy of patriarchy. Prof Crafford also highlighted that after so many years of not having a distinct building, the School of Law will finally have their building, funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training.
Answering the question: “Why the Helen Kanzira Lecture?” was the task of Dr Nkatha Murungi, Assistant Director of the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She explained that the aim of the memorial lecture is to raise awareness that women across the world suffer from sexual and reproductive complications. Dr Murungi explained that this Memorial Lecture honours the memory of Ms Helen Kanzira, a member of the pioneering class of the Masters in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa, which is offered at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. The late Ms Kanzira studied at the Centre in the year 2000. “In 2007, Ms. Kanzira lost her life due to complications arising from the birth of her daughter. Through this memorial lecture, the Centre for Human Rights seeks to create and enhance awareness on the challenges that women across Africa face in the exercise of the sexual and reproductive rights,” she added.
The annual lecture is organised in collaboration with universities that partner with the Centre to offer the Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation. The School of Law of UNIVEN is a partner in this international partnership. Previous lectures have been hosted in other partner universities including the the University of Ghana, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, and Makerere University in Uganda, the home of the late Kanzira.
Dr Murungi further highlighted that they have also been lucky to have distinguished members of society, who are at the forefront of the advancement of rights of women in Africa in their various capacities, to deliver the lecture. The lecture this year takes place eleven years after the death of Ms Kanzira, and we are, once again, very privileged to have a highly distinguished speaker, the Honourable Justice Maya deliver the lecture.” She thanked Justice Maya for honouring the invitation to present the memorial lecture.
The Honourable Judge Legodi Phathudi of the High Court of South Africa, Limpopo Division, Thohoyandou, introduced the guest speaker. He sensitised the audience to the several accolades of Madam Justice Maya, including her rise to the Presidency of the Supreme Court. The address by the guest speaker was followed by the question and answer session which was facilitated by Dr Emma Lubaale and Ms Zama Mopai where students asked many interesting questions related to the theme of the memorial lecture.
The Dean of the School of Law, Annette Lansink, gave the vote of thanks, extended her gratitude to the Justice Maya for an inspiring memorial lecture. The Dean commended Justice Maya as a beacon of humility, judicial wisdom and integrity as well as for her exquisite ability to convey the depth of the challenge that we are facing in the protection of women’s health and rights on the continent. Dean Lansink further appreciated the willingness of Justice Maya to lend a strong voice to confront the global burden of maternal mortality borne by women the world over and her lively and thoughtful engagement with the students. She also thanked Judge Phatudi, the Acting Vice Chancellor, and Dr Nkatha Murungi, Assistant Director at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, for the collaboration. The Helen Kanzira Memorial Lecture was made possible by the generous funding of the European Union through the Global Campus of Human Rights.