An activist's story

2007-11-14 00:00

I read Pregs Govender's book, Love and Courage, weeks ago on a plane returning from India and loved it. The story of an anti-apartheid activist of Indian origin, who became a member of parliament after 1994, reminded me that I may look like half the people on the Asian sub-continent but my heart and the essence of who I am is South African.

I also loved the book because the author's warmth and serenity shone through.

I knew Pregs from her student days and, unlike other activist acquaintances who became distant when they gained positions in government, she remained down-to-earth and friendly. There was always a hug on the rare occasions we met and an inquiry after old friends.

A family crisis delayed my writing a review on the book and in retrospect I'm glad. This review is against the backdrop of Mark Gevisser's recently published epic biography on President Thabo Mbeki, A Dream Deferrred.

So far I've only read extracts and a recurring theme is one of “disconnection” - the chasms in various aspects of Mbeki's life that have shaped his complex character and see him keeping his private and public life worlds apart.

By contrast, Govender's book is about connection. It is about the myriad threads in her life and how she has consciously woven together her values and experiences into shaping how she responds to the world.

Govender goes back to her roots and writes simply and directly about the influence of her indentured labour forebears, growing up in a dispossessed community in downtown Durban and the difficulty of living with an artistic father - playwright, Ronnie Govender. She writes openly and honestly about her failed first marriage and the power struggles and backstabbing that existed in the trade union and political movements.

All of this played a role in how she conducted herself as a member of South Africa's first democratically-led Parliament.

She remained a committed gender activist, was critical of government's HIV/Aids policy, and was the only ANC MP who abstained from voting on the multi-billion dollar arms deal. She argued that the money would be better spent on uplifting the poor. Her principled stance led her to her resignation from Parliament.

All of this may make Govender sound virtuous and boring, but she is far from it. Her book shows that it takes courage and tenacity to stand up to the powerful, especially those hellbent on pursuing their own personal ambitions. It shows that it is tough choosing to live a principled life, one where you are constantly challenged and can become an object of ridicule and scorn.

Govender's Love and Courage adds to the rich stream of voices that are emerging on South Africa's complex and fascinating political scenario. There's Gevisser's A Dream Deferred and Andrew Feinstein's After the Party - a basketful of good reads for the coming holiday season.

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