2001• Public Service Award

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Rita Edwards, the recipient of the Public Service Award, has struggled most of her adult life, as a grassroots activist and in development organizations, to create a new South Africa, where women are safe and equal.

Rita has worked in a variety of different, largely rural, communities. In the townships of Imbali in Pietermaritzburg she worked with youth in a Community Arts Project; in the townships of Ocean View in Cape Town she organized parents of pre-school children in a major fundraising initiative; in Edenvale in Pietermaritzburg she organized pre-school teachers to work with tenants in Lotus River.

Rita is currently the director of the Women on Farms Project in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. This project works with women, men and youth who live or work on farms. The goal is to build capacity, strengthen organization and to advocate on behalf of farm workers in order to improve their living and working conditions and to promote gender equality in the home, workplace and community.

The Women on Farms Project is active in the Farm Worker Coalition, an organization that advocates on issues such as a minimum wage for farm workers, and amendments to the Basic Conditions of Service legislation. The Coalition works with other organizations to explore the impact of globalization on agriculture and the effect of this on farm workers. Her concerns extend beyond specific farm worker issues.

Rita was instrumental in launching a Road Safety Campaign after many farm children were killed in motor vehicle accidents. She was also successful in launching the Domestic Violence Campaign when a woman was killed by her partner. Of her work at the Women on Farms Project Rita notes: “At the Women on Farms Project I began to understand the agricultural context and the position of women farm workers in an extremely patriarchal and paternalistic sector.”

These activities are a logical growth from Rita’s earlier work with the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), where she served as both Deputy Director and Director from 1988 to 1999. The work of the Trust is rural development; with branches in Phalaborwa, Grahamstown, King Williamstown, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg and Cala, Rita had an excellent opportunity to acquaint herself with conditions in the rural areas throughout the country.

While at the Trust, Rita initiated discussions with the National Land Committee, Rural Development Services Network and SANGOCO and formed the Rural Development Initiative. This Initiative hosted a Rural Convention in April 1999 attended by 600 delegates from rural areas throughout the country.

Of her experience at the Trust, Rita said: “I believe the experience at TCOE where we worked with Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans, Pedi, Shangaan speaking communities and staff have prepared me for forging unity and to build a truly South African nation.”
Rita’s life has been energetically devoted to community involvement and organization building: she has co-founded a community newspaper, a housing committee, residents and tenants associations; she has established a community arts project and 1996 co-founded the New Women’s Movement. Rita has delivered a number of papers discussing, among other things, strategies for women’s economic empowerment, advancing the fight against violence against women, strategies for building a Rural Peoples Movement, and women and the African Renaissance.

She is currently completing her Masters Degree in Public Administration with the School of Government at the University of Western Cape. The subject of her thesis is “Obstacles to Women’s Participation in Local Government.”

South African Women for Women is proud to recognize Rita for her tireless work – and remarkable achievements – on behalf of women in rural South Africa.