‘I’m not Sonia Gandhi’

2012-01-20 00:00

As a young girl growing up in Newcastle, Shameen Thakur Rajbansi worked hard towards her dream of some day becoming a politician. She headed her school’s debating teams and excelled in sports and academic work. She was elected head girl of St Oswald’s High School in 1982, before moving on to complete a degree in pharmacy at the then University of Durban-Westville, and serving the Phoenix community as a pharmacist for two decades.

But the newly-elected leader of the Minority Front (MF) told journalists at a press briefing yesterday that it was only after meeting her late husband that her political career aspirations really started taking shape.

“My installation as the leader of the Minority Front is my lifelong childhood, cherished dream that I wanted to be a politician,” she said.

“My fateful meeting with Mr Rajbansi in 1998 shaped me politically and my life with my leader and husband was one incredible adventure of increasing public involvement, first as Mrs Rajbansi, then more and more in my own right.”

Still, she views herself a little differently from Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the former Indian president Rajiv Gandhi, who was elected leader of the Indian National Congress a few years after his assassination, she told The Witness.

“She was never in politics and was unfortunately thrown in the deep end, but she’s done a good job at it so she can be a role model that one could look up to,” she explained.

“I was a little more fortunate because I entered politics not as Mrs Rajbansi, but in my own right because I just wanted to be a politician from the time I was a child so for me it was a passion, and marrying a man like Mr Rajbansi and getting trained and mentored by him was even better and I think that is what really shaped me politically to do this job today.”

Thakur Rajbansi is serving her third term in the KZN Provincial Legislature having previously been elected to do so in 1999 as well as in 2004. She also serves in various portfolio committees in the legislature, including health, welfare, environment as well as in the Women’s Caucus thereof, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award given to people of Indian origin in New Delhi in 2007. She was also recently awarded a Gay Oscar International Lifetime Award in Durban for championing the cause of gays.

“She is a dedicated, committed and practical person who works with many community, social and religious organisations for the upliftment of the lives of people and the poor,” said MF councillor, Patrick Pillay. “She is a strong activist in the empowerment of learners, women and youth.”

Thakur Rajbansi described her late husband as a “grassroots leader” and said she hopes to emulate him in this regard. “I will continue to deal with vulnerable communities in bread-and-butter politics.”

She intended working towards improving the South African education system and highlighting the cause of widows. “Mr Rajbansi used to talk to us about looking after widows. I did some research about this, and the UN is really struggling with this issue, particularly in Africa where there are so many widows due to things like conflict and HIV/Aids.

“We launched a widow’s support group in Phoenix and plan on doing so in Chatsworth.”

She said that she chose to take on a leadership role because the time was right for her to do so. “If you look at women around the world who are involved in politics, you’ll find that they have always taken to politics when the time is right. If they are mothers or they are married, they take to it much later in life, leading from behind until the time is right.”

“For me now the time is right.”

But she admitted that the road ahead as a leader could be challenging.

“I think it’s a very difficult role because I have lived as a leader’s wife and as a colleague as well so I know how much of pressure it puts one under. I also have to establish how to reconcile my public obligations with home responsibilities.”

However, the 14 years she spent learning the tricks of the trade from Rajbansi stand her in good stead to deal with the pressure, she said.

“The thing is that I have learnt to cope over the years to deal with all that pressure and I always worked side by side with Mr Rajbansi and I always helped him so I’m going to depend on that ability of mine to continuously work and to develop a good cadre of men and women who can assist me like I used to assist Mr Rajbansi.”

Pravhil Koblall, Thakur Rajbansi’s son, told The Witness that his mother is a tough cookie, who his stepfather trained well. “It’s a lot of hard work, and she did the hard work on the ground. She’s a very strong person, she will be a capable leader.

“Mr Rajbansi was great because you learnt hardship from him and you learnt how to do things quickly and how not to lose your head quickly but to work in a manner that got work done — she learnt that 100% from him.”

Thakur Rajbansi said that the excitement she should be feeling about her new role has been somewhat subdued due to the death of her husband.

“I’m not as excited as I should be because of the circumstance I find myself in — I’m taking on a leadership role in a period where I’m still mourning the loss of my husband because he was first and foremost my husband and I’m still dealing with that, and dealing with the fact that he’s no more there, to guide us as a party.

“But then I am excited for one reason and that is Mr Rajbansi has trained us so well and his spirit is present because everything that has happened would never happened if he was not helping us from above, and that is what I draw comfort from,” she said.

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