Winning Women: Former deputy minister fighting the good fight

Nosizwe Madlala-Routledge. Picture: Elizabeth Sejake
Nosizwe Madlala-Routledge. Picture: Elizabeth Sejake

Civil society is facing new challenges at a time when we need to build a vibrant democracy, according to Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, former deputy minister for both defence and health, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

A desire for justice, mixed with passion and determination, runs thick through Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge’s veins.

At an age when others might think of cutting back on their activities, this brave woman who stood up to a president and later refused to be the head of the ANC’s parliamentary caucus has just taken on her next challenge.

“I want to help rebuild civil society organisations in South Africa,” says Madlala-Routledge on her 63rd birthday as she takes on the mantle of executive director of Inyathelo.

The NGO aims to build a vibrant democracy and Madlala-Routledge has spent her life fighting for a more just world. So it is a coming together of a great need with a strong resource. She, like Nelson Mandela, embodies Inyathelo, named after a concept that is a combination of ubuntu and philanthropy.

Many South Africans who never thought of justice or morality now reach for it in the ruins of Marikana and the wake of our government flouting its own laws in favour of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir.

As we chat over coffee, it’s hard to believe this dignified, delightful and quietly spoken woman once travelled surrounded by sirens and motorcades in her roles as deputy minister of defence and health.

She’s not the type to miss them. She has a “roll up your sleeves and let’s do it” personality.

“In any vibrant democracy, you need the elected representatives – parliamentarians – to be accountable to those who voted for them. It’s the duty of civil society to ensure that happens,” she says.

She defines civil society as “the nongovernmental sector ... churches, media, arts, sports and business, to a variety of associations. If we don’t keep elected representatives accountable, democracy will fail. Then the government can do what it wants.”

As an MP, Madlala-Routledge always kept her doors wide open to civil society, called herself an activist and marched to Parliament on the issue of ending violence against women.

“Even as I sat in Parliament making laws, I needed to stand alongside the people I was representing,” she explains.

Inyathelo: The SA Institute for Advancement has pioneered the development of a philanthropic movement here. It provides information on how to access and sustain funding for thousands of civil society organisations and universities.

Madlala-Routledge accepted an offer to apply for her new post “because civil society is facing new challenges. International donor funding is no longer secure, government support has decreased and there is a continuous drain in the leadership pool.”

She talks about the millions of South Africans who go to bed hungry, about money being wasted, collapsing bridges and schools not being built, and says “that’s why I appreciate organisations like Equal Education and Right2Know”.

“They’re calling for transparency from the government.”

At Inyathelo’s new, bright building in Woodstock, Cape Town, organisations looking for donor funds are able to access the correct sites, enlist in programmes such as Get Resourceful, and share ideas and tips on how to make their outfits more visible.

The feisty woman grew up in Umzumbe, rural KwaZulu-Natal, in a poor family, “but in a community that had intrinsic values at its core”.

It was her upbringing, her formative years at Durban’s Inanda Seminary, that created her values. She joined the then banned ANC in 1979. She was detained three times, the last of which saw her spending a year in solitary confinement.

“But it gave me time to think and reaffirmed my decision to join the struggle to end apartheid.”

She was a delegate at the Codesa talks that paved the way for the transition to democracy, worked with Nelson Mandela and, in 1999, became the deputy minister of defence for five years. She was the first woman to hold that position.

In 2004 she became the deputy minister of health. But her outspoken opposition to the HIV/Aids policy of her boss, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, followed by her denouncement of Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape as a “national disaster”, did nothing to change her unpopularity with the minister.

A supposedly “unauthorised” trip to an Aids conference in Spain resulted in then president Thabo Mbeki suggesting she offer to resign.

“I refused, as it was a form of blackmail. So Mbeki fired me.”

For a year, she was deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, but in May 2009, she resigned as an MP.

For the past six years, Madlala-Routledge has continued with her unwavering support for the rights of women.

She’s done this through the organisation she founded, Embrace Dignity. It aims to end the criminalisation of prostitutes, “which is an unbalanced approach. It ignores patriarchy and gender inequality – the root causes of violence against women.”

She also set up a grass roots movement, Democracy from Below.

As if that were not enough to fill a busy woman’s day, she is also the nonexecutive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – International.

“[Trafficking] is profitable, as you can sell a person many times. We’re now increasingly hearing of girls being trafficked in rural Northern and Eastern Cape.”

This compassionate and unflagging fighter for human rights momentarily shuts her eyes and then is back on her feet, making her quiet way to yet another meeting.

Career tip: I’ve learnt to trust my instinct, to explore and take risks.

Mentor: My mother. And a teacher who said: ‘Always tell the truth and face the consequences. People will forgive you.’

Favourite book: Mandela: The Authorised Biography by Anthony Sampson.

Inspiration: Nelson Mandela. He had a clear vision of where he wanted to take South Africa and stuck with it.

Wow! moment: Voting for the first time, in 1994.

Life lesson: Women have the power. It’s time for us to lead in every sphere.

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