The speaker of truth to power

To­day, 21 Icons sea­son two fea­tures its fourth icon, Frene Gin­wala, the first fe­male Speaker of the Na­tional Assem­bly of SA

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Frene Gin­wala’s portrait de­picts a for­mi­da­ble woman stand­ing in front of a sign point­ing in a num­ber of di­rec­tions. Some ar­rows show the way to the var­i­ous coun­tries Gin­wala helped he­roes of the strug­gle escape to dur­ing apartheid; oth­ers are em­bla­zoned with names of the val­ues – democ­racy, in­de­pen­dence, to­geth­er­ness, for­give­ness – she em­bod­ies as one of the most in­no­va­tive and pi­o­neer­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of democ­racy in South Africa. As be­fits some­one with a cus­tom of speak­ing out – be it against gen­der in­equal­ity or dis­crim­i­na­tion – and some­one whose voice was a key fea­ture of our first demo­cratic Par­lia­ment, she is pic­tured hold­ing a mega­phone.

Given her up­bring­ing, Gin­wala’s en­try into pol­i­tics was al­most in­evitable. She says her po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness was cre­ated by her par­ents, who were always re­mind­ing her and her sis­ter that they were priv­i­leged.

“I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, when the congress move­ment was at its height, whether it was the In­dian Congress or the ANC. It was a move­ment that em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of re­port­ing back to the pop­u­la­tion, so it was all about mass ral­lies and meet­ings. Even as kids, we all wanted to go to the ral­lies so we got in­volved grad­u­ally.”

But it wasn’t sim­ply the wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity of th­ese move­ments that nudged Gin­wala into ac­tivism – even as a child, she had a keen aware­ness of the di­vi­sions cre­ated by apartheid.

One of her ear­li­est mem­o­ries is that she wasn’t able to use the play­ground equip­ment like other chil­dren be­cause she was In­dian. She re­calls an­other time when, at the age of 10, she was asked to pen a let­ter for the house­hold’s 30-year-old helper, giv­ing him per­mis­sion to walk with­out a pass.

By the time Gin­wala went to study law over­seas, she was an ac­tive mem­ber in the In­dian Congress, which by then had joined forces with the ANC. Her in­volve­ment with the lat­ter in­creased when, af­ter her re­turn from study­ing, she was ap­proached by Wal­ter Sisulu to set up an ex­ter­nal mis­sion, a process that gained mo­men­tum af­ter the Sharpeville mas­sacre and sub­se­quent ban­ning of the ANC. Gin­wala ad­mits she didn’t know how to help ex­iles get into other coun­tries, but she did have a par­tic­u­larly valu­able re­source: a pass­port.

The first per­son she helped move out of South Africa was Oliver Tambo, get­ting him to Tan­ganyika and from there to Lon­don – and, ul­ti­mately, the UN. With all the lo­gis­tics in­volved, her job, she says, was akin to that of a travel agent: col­lect­ing travel pa­pers for ex­iles, then meet­ing them in Tan­ganyika.

This lasted for three years un­til an accident ne­ces­si­tated a move to Lon­don for med­i­cal treat­ment. There, Gin­wala’s jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer flour­ished and she con­trib­uted to a num­ber of prom­i­nent Bri­tish pub­li­ca­tions.

Even­tu­ally, the day came when the ANC was un­banned and ex­iles were wel­comed home. Gin­wala says she never doubted that day would come: “I always be­lieved we would [suc­ceed]. Oth­er­wise we wouldn’t have con­tin­ued.”

With her re­turn to South Africa came a new po­si­tion within the ANC: al­though she had planned to set up the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s re­search depart­ment, Nel­son Man­dela told her he wanted her to be par­lia­men­tary speaker. Gin­wala re­veals she had wanted to turn down her nom­i­na­tion but with the en­tire lead­er­ship back­ing Man­dela’s pro­posal, she felt there was no point in say­ing no.

Look­ing back, she is able to see the mark she left on her coun­try. “I be­lieved I strength­ened and trans­formed Par­lia­ment, which is what we needed to do. We started the [first demo­cratic] Par­lia­ment with a blank sheet; there were no tra­di­tions and no prece­dents as far as the ANC was con­cerned. If you don’t have democ­racy, you don’t have a par­lia­ment.”

The par­lia­ment that was cre­ated was, in ac­cor­dance with the ANC’s wishes and ideals, one of ne­go­ti­a­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

And what about Par­lia­ment to­day? Gin­wala ac­knowl­edges the chal­lenges but says we need to be aware that the dire­ness of our cir­cum­stances means our solutions have had to work es­pe­cially hard.

She be­lieves th­ese can be over­come with good lead­er­ship and in­put from all mem­bers of so­ci­ety. “We need a South Africa in which the pop­u­la­tion as a whole – men, women, poor, rich – has a say, know­ing their views are taken into ac­count.”

Watch The Frene Gin­wala doc­u­men­tary on SABC3 at 8.27pm tonight For more in­for­ma­tion, visit Down­load Zap­par from your app store, zap the icon and watch the trailer


COL­LECTABLE Frene Gin­wala poses for the 21 Icon project

Frene Gin­wala jokes that her role dur­ing the strug­gle was akin to that

of a travel agent: col­lect­ing travel pa­pers for ex­iles, then meet­ing them

in Tan­ganyika

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