Jean-Jacques Cornish

On our Women’s Day a modern tragedy unfolds in Afghanistan

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There is something about a brave woman that leaves me grappling for words.

Growing up in the Boys Own generation, I was conditioned to respect and emulate courageous men.

The women came later as I learned about women fighting and dying  against the Nazis.

And even later as we learned about the women standing against apartheid.

“Strike a woman and you strike a rock.” I have seen those words hundreds of times climbing the steps in the Union Buildings amphitheater.

It is that demonstration against the coldest-eyed apartheid defenders that we commemorate today.

The courage it took to conquer the fear of the unknown and make their voices heard is indescribable. It leave one in awe.

I have since been privileged to meet hugely valorous woman of my generation.

They were here in South Africa  fighting apartheid later during its half-century blight on our country, and in societies where defending unjust systems is exacerbated by cruel misogyny.

A quarter of a century ago there was Algeria where women seeking to work and pursue careers were attacked and often killed by Islamist terrorists.

I spent weeks with two of them. One was from a strict fundamentalist family who wore the hidjab but pursued her career rather than bow to pressure to get married and surrender to domestication. Her colleague, who had been raised in Paris, wore Western clothes knowing it could earn her abuse, insults and worse as she waited for her bus every day.

Both of them were professional and efficient in what they did. 

They chuckled and blushed when I called them the bravest women I knew.

In Afghanistan 20 years ago I encountered women politicians and administrators who had survived the taliban and were hoping  to advance their careers after Western armed forces drove out the fundamentalists.

Again, the bravest women I knew.

So, on Women’s Day in South Africa I cannot help thinking of them.

The NATO forces have all but quit Afghanistan.

Like the British and Russian forces in the previous century they found the legendary great game too expensive in terms of domestic political cost to continue playing.

Of course, one may argue that their involvement took place in  an entirely different world  and that they should never have got involved in the first place.

That is a debate for another day.

On Women’s Day I hear that the taliban has taken a sixth capital in a matter of days.

The areas under occupation are to the north, west and south of Kabul.

When the taliban move in, girls schools are closed. Women are forced to wear the all-covering burkha. Government officials are tortured or killed in revenge and as a warning to other contemplating becoming functionaries.

It is axiomatic that the Western forces could not have stayed there forever.

But surely they could have considered the consequences of their involvement and taken better steps to safeguard the systems they were trying to put in place.

The price of their departure now is the destruction of 20 years of democracy, women’s rights, gay rights and the rule of law.

It is a modern tragedy.

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.