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Success in science depends on women development

- Wits University

South Africa’s success in science depends on the intellectual development of women says Dr Brigalia Bam.

Bam, a former chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission and well known advocate for women’s rights, was speaking at Wits after the University conferred on her the honorary Doctor of Literature (DLitt) degree. The degree is in recognition of her contribution to justice, freedom, gender equality and democracy. 

In her acceptance speech on Wednesday, 27 March 2019, Bam spoke about the role of women in science and pleaded for their freedom in academia. She also shared her views on events around #FeesMustFall and the role of intellectuals in society.

“The intellectual development of young women is the score by which this country will be judged in terms of its advancement as a scientific society amongst the communities of nations,” she said.

Tackling on patriarchy in academic institutions, Bam made a plea for women to be “set free from becoming victims of rape culture, free from being destined only to play subordinate roles as students as well as academic staff.


Brigalia Ntombemhlophe Bam was born on January 2nd, 1933 at Tsolo in the former Transkei, Eastern Cape South Africa.  She studied at Shaw Bury Methodist Institute and Lovedale Teachers College in South Africa. She thereafter pursued studies in Social Work at the University of Chigago with a Masters in 1973.

Although Brigalia Bam was trained in social work and education, her career and work trajectory have straddled varied responsibilities. She has worked as a teacher, a social worker, a feminist and gender justice advocate, an Ecumenist and a Democrat who has played a central role in the re-imagination and transition of South Africa from apartheid reign to post-apartheid democratic era.  

As a feminist and an advocate for justice, Brigalia worked in the 1980s for the Women’s Workers Programme (Africa Region) which was part of the International Food and Allied Workers Association in Geneva. She later took executive and leadership positions in a variety of International Ecumenical Organisations such as the World Council of Churches (WCC) and The World Young Women’s Association (YWCA). In 1988, she was elected as the Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches, a position she held until 1997, when she became the commissioner with the Independent Electoral Commission.

During her time at the World Council of Churches (WCC), she steered women’s and anti-racism work as part of the program to combat racism in South Africa and the world over. It was at this moment that she also joined the Ghanaian Feminist Theologian and New Testament Scholar to promote the establishment of an intellectual and epistemic community referred to as the Circle of Concerned Women Theologians. This movement was central to the training and mentorship of emerging and established Theologians, especially to help them write and publish scholarly work, from the perspectives of African women feminist experiences in Africa and in the Diaspora. In particular, Mercy Oduyoye and Brigalia Bam promoted the idea or methodological approach referred to as “Doing Theology" which in essence called for an engaged, contextually grounded theology with a strong theoretical articulation. Her books, ‘Angry for Peace’, ‘What is Ordination Coming to? / Report of a Consultation on the Ordination of Women Held in Cartingny Geneva, Switzerland / 21st-26th September 1970’,  and ‘Democracy: More Than Just Elections’ demonstrate this lens and approach to theological work. Equally important in her work are the recurring themes of justice, freedom, gender equality and democracy. 

Bam has demonstrated a commitment to the broad development of South Africa and the continent through her varied interests in women’s empowerment, demonstrated by her participation as one of the founding members of the Women’s Development Foundation. In 1998, she became the foundation’s president. She was actively involved in the democratisation of South Africa, and used her role in the leadership of the South African Council of Churches to establish it as one of the foremost organisations, which agitated for social justice, reconciliation, social cohesion and improved relations between the churches, state and civil society.  

Upon her return to South Africa, she became the first woman appointed to the position of General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches. During her tenure, she promoted critical dialogues on church and state, resulting in the South African Council of Churches members deciding on the notion of critical Solidarity with the state." This resulted in the South African Council of Churches acknowledging that the democratic state is a government of the people, by the people, unlike the authoritarian apartheid regime.

Given this, they agreed to work with the state critically calling for justice and speaking truth to power in instances where they felt the state was unjust. This was Bam’s key contribution to South African Ecumenical thought and views on engagement in a democratic Era.

Bam went on to become the Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa. Dr Bam’s leadership entrenched the principle of regular ‘Free and Fair’ elections with electoral outcomes accepted by all political parties and local and international observer missions. Her continued leadership of the commission entrenched the principles of democracy in South Africa, laying a solid foundation for future elections.