It is time for women to stand their ground, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said at the University of Johannesburg on Tuesday.
"It's our time to act. There's a Zulu saying that says "Indela ibuzwa kwabaphambili" [the way forward is asked from those who are in front]," she said in the seventh Helen Joseph lecture at the university.
"We should learn from the likes of Helen Joseph, Ruth First, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela amongst others," said Madonsela.
The lecture was titled "Following in the steps of Helen Joseph: The place of South African woman leaders in our democracy".
Madonsela said women had been given power since the years of apartheid and racism, and it was up to them to change the environment they were in — just as political activist Helen Joseph had done.
"We complain about maladministration, but we should ask ourselves, are we part of the problem or the solution?"
She criticised women who held positions of power, but failed to take a stand for what was right.
"Are we still tea-makers dressed as decision-makers?" she asked.
This reference arose from a conversation in 1989, when Joseph told her the day had come when women, whose job was to provide tea to men as they held their important meetings, said they wanted role reversals.
Madonsela said women should encourage dialogue, rather than protest, when faced with problems such as service delivery in their communities.
"We have a right to blame a lot of [socio-economic] problems on apartheid, but can we blame it all on apartheid? Maladministration in government [cannot be blamed on apartheid]," she said.
She further encouraged women to learn to stand up against corruption and the abuse of power.
University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg said the lecture came at a time when South Africa was faced with difficulties — a reference to the shooting deaths on Thursday of 34 protesting workers near Lonmin's Marikana mine, in North West.
"South Africa is in trouble. We should ask ourselves what would Helen Joseph do in this particular situation?"
Comparing Madonsela to Joseph, Rensburg said she was faced with challenges of the poorest of the poor, but she still tackled her tasks with courage.
Joseph was one of the women who marched to the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956, to protest against the pass laws. She was vocal about sexism and racism and received the ANC's highest accolade, the Isitwalandwe medal, for her dedication to human rights. She died at the age of 81 in 1992.
Among the dignitaries at the lecture was Zanele Mbeki, the wife of former president Thabo Mbeki.