Pregs Govender | A tribute to Frene Ginwala, from a protégé and friend

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In 1994, you, Frene Ginwala - a black woman of Indian descent, in apartheid’s almost all-male, all-white Parliament, stepped into the most powerful position in the House, wearing a sari that reclaimed culture as celebratory and liberating. Photo: Gallo Images
In 1994, you, Frene Ginwala - a black woman of Indian descent, in apartheid’s almost all-male, all-white Parliament, stepped into the most powerful position in the House, wearing a sari that reclaimed culture as celebratory and liberating. Photo: Gallo Images

Dear Frene,

At 90, your heart remained that of the courageous 28-year-old who joined the fight for freedom and helped ensure the safe passage of ANC leaders like OR Tambo. In exile, you refused to be a subordinate secretary taking notes while men spoke. Instead, you, with other powerful ANC feminists, ensured that his speeches and other key documents addressed not just class and race but gender oppression and committed to both non-racism and non-sexism. You analysed the world and acted to change its injustice. You were an internationalist standing in solidarity with countries fighting for freedom, including Palestine, against Israel’s apartheid.

After 1994, you presided over a secular democratic Parliament that instituted a moment of silence in which in Mandela’s words, we could 'use the silence… to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die'.

In silence, we can overcome fear and think critically and creatively. We can learn to listen to and trust ourselves and each other. We can reconnect to the dignity inherent in every single one of us–recognised as our Constitution’s first founding value alongside equality and social justice.

The greatest tribute we can pay you isn’t to deify you or put you on a pedestal. You would have hated that and would have said so. You would want to focus on policy options, captured in your writings, for our country to transform the patriarchal, capitalist apartheid state’s spatial geography that still traps millions in brutal poverty; and the principles and values needed to achieve this.

You were a historian who worked to record the role and relevance of the presence of black women’s powerful challenges to colonialism and economic injustice – Herstory. Your paper (with MacIntosh and Massey) entitled Gender and economic policy should be read by every economist and anyone who wishes to understand the structural causes of gender oppression that increase poverty, precarious employment, unemployment and patriarchal violence.

When the priority of economic growth in profits for a few, decreases spending on social security, health and education, women’s gendered, hidden work increases, with devastating effects on women’s health and those dependent on their care, in a world in which men needed to but did not share the burden of childcare and housework.

READ: Irene Charnley | Tribute to Frene Ginwala: Unwavering dedication

You argue that economic policymakers recognise and value women’s unpaid contribution to the economy, that kept and keeps families and communities alive when they should be dead (according to the devastating statistics on food security and hunger). To understand why and who is most vulnerable to gender-based violence look at the streets that have no lights, look at the homes which have no toilets, look at those who have to go in search of clean drinking water, look at those reliant on unsafe transport after working in precarious conditions late into the night…understand misogyny in public policy – that is what Frene would have demanded that we do.

Dear Frene, you were the visionary who’d convened the Women’s National Coalition in early 1992. In response to SA’s male-dominated transition, you united 90 national organisations and hundreds of local organisations in regional coalitions–across party and other divides. At the end of that year, you’d poached the young coordinator of the Worker’s College, who was then in her early thirties and who is now a year older than you were then. Your brief was to help the coalition conceptualise and manage, in one year, a massive participatory research campaign you’d dubbed Big Ears.

The coalition went to rural areas, supporting women in forming regional coalitions where there had been none, and supporting the Rural Women’s Movement protest at CODESA. The coalition’s teams of legal, research and media experts you’d persuaded in your usual charming manner to freely volunteer their time and expertise, supported women negotiators when traditional leaders in conservative parties argued against gender equality.

An estimated two million women participated and contributed to the coalition’s campaign. Our shared commitment, despite the differences we argued about – there were a few of those - ensured the campaign secured the necessary political will. The coalition’s Women’s Charter's demands are reflected in South Africa's final Constitution and guide the work of our committee on women.

 READ: Mondli Makhanya | Why must they die sad?

We wanted a democracy that ensured substantive equality, justice, democracy and freedom. After your passing, I listened to a recording of a 2018 conversation we had about Parliament’s book series of personal reflections on the Constitution-making process. We laugh a lot amid serious reflection - alert to the massive challenges, including persistent class, race and gender inequality.

You were proud of what we’d achieved in Parliament, especially the work of Parliament’s Committee on Women (that you’d initiated and I’d chaired), which held hearings with rural women and ensured Parliament enacted 80% of its legislative priorities.

We’d pushed for women’s paid and unpaid, unvalued work to be counted by Stats SA. You were particularly animated about the women’s budget that the finance committee’s working group I’d convened on gender and macroeconomics initiated with NGOs. In an International Speakers Forum and many other forums, you boasted about the use of the first budget debates to propose the women’s budget that had influenced many other countries.

READ: PHOTOS | Frene Ginwala remembered

By 2002, my opposition to government policy on GEAR, the arms deal and HIV and Aids, preceding my resignation, weren’t easy for you to publicly align with. Normally, MPs took their leave from the National Assembly and the people of South Africa in a public debate.

The ANC Whip, whose instruction I’d ignored not to mention HIV/Aids in the International Women’s Day debate, ensured that this opportunity was removed. Yet, you addressed my farewell event held in a dining hall outside the National Assembly in your capacity as the Speaker of Parliament. I felt your respect, love and shared commitment to a world of equality, justice, peace, and freedom for all. 

If there is an afterlife, I hope that you and two other powerful feminist sisters who died in this same fortnight, Pethu Serote and Myrtle Witbooi, are dancing laughing and celebrating your collective love, courage and insubordination that you all taught me.

Today, I wear a sari, Frene, to honour you. You knew the power and danger of culture in a country in which a brutal apartheid state had co-opted culture to foster narrow, parochial ethnicities and nationalisms, racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Fascist leaders and states across the world continue to do this, pitting people against each other, instead of addressing the root causes of increasing inequality, poverty and violence. 

In 1994, you - a black woman of Indian descent in apartheid’s almost all-male, all-white Parliament, stepped into the most powerful position in the House, wearing a sari that reclaimed culture as celebratory and liberating. In that Speakers chair, you sat solidly above me as I shared the country report we’d edited for Beijing to include black women in apartheid’s Bantustans (who’d been excluded in apartheid statistics), for gender-responsive budgets, for abortion, against gender-based violence, for counting and valuing women’s unpaid and unrecognised contribution to society. I felt you quietly beaming your support as I feel it now.

Hamba kahle, beloved Frene. Your life touched and inspired me. May it inspire future generations to work across generational and other differences towards the world of our dreams.

* Pregs Govender is an activist and author of Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination.

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