This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.

  September 11, 2000

As South Africa's Madam Speaker,
Ginwala Still Shaping History

No one understands better than Frene Ginwala the impact of the symbolic gesture to underscore commitment to an ideal.

Among the most influential people in South African history during the past 40 years, Ginwala, speaker of South Africa's National Assembly, has helped shape her country's destiny not only through debate and negotiation, but also through a series of what she describes as small but significant steps that have embodied the principles and practice of justice and equal rights.

One of her first acts as speaker was to do away with the traditional speaker's gown in favor of her regular attire, an Indian sari. "I asked myself, 'This will be the first picture of the free South Africa. Will people want to see me sitting there in funny clothes or see someone they might find walking down the street?'" she says.

She also abolished the rule that men must wear a suit and tie, women a hat and gloves, to enter Parliament's public gallery. "How many people in South Africa had those things?" she asks. A truly participatory democracy, she reasoned, must not exclude the majority of the population who could not afford such formal dress.

A Shared Vision
Last week Ginwala, accompanied by the chairperson of South Africa's second chamber of parliament, Naledi Pandor, made a significant gesture of support for UConn's joint projects with South Africa by making a three-day official visit to the University.

The projects - including archives, oral history, comparative human rights and a separate but complementary linkage with Fort Hare University - grew out of a memorandum of understanding signed by Ginwala and UConn representatives in the Parliament building in Cape Town in March 1999. The relationship with UConn, says Ginwala, is not only one of substance but is based on a common vision.

Consistent with the philosophy of openness and inclusion they seek to implement in their own country, Ginwala and Pandor met during their recent visit not only with UConn's top officials and representatives of the state's legislature, media and business community, but also with students.

"You are meeting makers of history," Amii Omara-Otunnu, executive director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and director of the UConn-Univers ity of Fort Hare linkage, told a group of students."These are leaders who are setting new models for conflict resolution all over the world."

Ginwala's involvement in politics began when she was a student in London in the late 1950s. Back home, her combination of sharp wit and high integrity soon attracted the attention of ANC leaders. In 1960, on the night of the Sharpeville massacre, a call from ANC top official Walter Sisulu advising her to leave the country changed her life. Within days, Ginwala was asked to help ANC deputy president Oliver Tambo escape the country, and during the 30 years that followed, it was to Ginwala in exile that the ANC turned for assistance in setting up its external offices.

In the early 1990s, when Nelson Mandela wanted some strong people - as opposed to "yes-men" - to run his office, Ginwala was one of three he chose. And she played a critical role in negotiations for a settlement between the apartheid government and the opposition.

In 1994, the year apartheid officially came to an end, in quick succession Ginwala voted for the first time, was elected a member of Parliament and was elected speaker.

A lawyer by training, South Africa's Madam Speaker became one of the framers of the country's new constitution, a document that embodies more provisions to ensure respect for human rights than perhaps any other in history.

Focus on Democracy
Passionately committed to a participatory form of parliamentary system as the instrument of democracy, Ginwala says 1994 represented a clean break with the past. "We started with a clean slate," she says. "There was an institution before that called itself parliament, but its traditions were not valid. The essence of parliament is democracy, and if democracy wasn't there, parliament didn't exist."

Ginwala is modest about her contribution to history. "I am shaping democracy," she concedes, "but any speaker would, simply by being in that job. I have had a tremendous opportunity that only comes once." Yet despite her modesty, Ginwala has had enormous influence in shaping one of the most open and participatory democracies in the world.

She is particularly proud of her achievements in "getting women on the agenda."

She tells with relish the story of how, as a member of a working commission developing the country's new electoral laws, her pleas to the legal draughtsman to include language explicitly recognizing women fell on deaf ears. One weekend, however, she volunteered to work on the document and used her computer to search for every instance of the word "he," replacing it with "she." "I never had problems with that particular draughtsman again," she says.

"I don't believe there's a democracy unless everybody is part of the decision-making process, including women," Ginwala says. "Now in South Africa there's an understanding that that is necessary. It has become a norm."

As speaker, she also has striven to ensure that even political parties with as few as one representative in Parliament have the opportunity to speak, make motions and participate in committee work, and has championed the right of members of parliament to speak in any of South Africa's 11 official languages.

Still, she says, "there's a great deal more to be done to make it truly a people's parliament.

"We note the alienation in other countries from the legislature, and we don't want that to happen in South Africa. We need to find ways to maintain a constant dialogue between the public and the legislature," Ginwala says. One of her latest projects is a plan to bring Parliament to the people by trucking audiovisual equipment and parliamentarians to rural areas.

Education as a Right
Accompanying Speaker Ginwala was Naledi Pandor, chairperson of the National Council of Provinces. Pandor also spent many years in exile during South Africa's apartheid era. She is a member of one of the most prominent South African families: her grandfather, Z.K. Matthews, was the first graduate of the University of Fort Hare, and later president of the African National Congress; her father, Joe Matthews, also a graduate of Fort Hare, has served as deputy minister of safety and security. An educator, she eventually joined politics because of her deep commitment to education. Among her many responsibilities, she is now a member of the governing body of Fort Hare.

"I have always tried to pursue through my teaching, the provision of quality education to black people," she says. "I saw the denial of education as one of the particular outcomes of apartheid."

Her work during the early 1990s in establishing a new integrated professional union for

academics established her as a political leader and she was called upon by the ANC to run for political office in 1994.

During six years in Parliament, she has made significant contributions to the development of education policy in South Africa. "The first Schools Act was the most important piece of legislation we passed," she says. The act eradicated the apartheid system of education, making the first 10 years of schooling compulsory for all children, unifying 19 education departments based on race and ethnicity into one, developing finance to address access to education, and transforming the curriculum.

She says her background as a teacher prepared her well for the roles of deputy chief whip for the ANC in the National Assembly and now speaker of the second chamber of Parliament. Those roles mean discipline, she says: "People must be in the House and be prepared. My teaching background helped."

Both Ginwala and Pandor say the involvement of the international community in South Africa is as important now as it was during the anti-apartheid struggle. "We still have to overcome the legacy of apartheid in terms of development," Ginwala says.

International players can also learn from South Africa, she adds. "Our struggle was for a new kind of society, it was for certain principles. I believe those principles are good for all of us. Those who share the same ideals can help us achieve them not only in South Africa but also in their own countries."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu