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Changing our world requires insubordination




This inaugural lecture honours our insubordinate ancestors — the 20 000 women of 1956 who defied the patriarchal, capitalist, apartheid state.

Generations after that march, Steve Biko united us — across apartheid’s ghettoes of “African”, “Indian”, “coloured”, “non-white” — as black people fighting apartheid brutality and its strategy of divide and rule.

Ordinary people from countries across the world acted in solidarity and apartheid was declared a crime against humanity. The extent of that crime, however, is yet to be fully comprehended by a world that does not recognise the genocides of the first peoples of the world — committed before the genocide of World War II — by the colonisers of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia.

Apartheid’s misogynistic police and army worked alongside the state’s institutionalised brutality, including forced removals to apartheid’s equivalent of Nazi Germany’s ghettoes — the Bantustans, townships and informal settlements — where millions died slow deaths linked to malnutrition, mining injuries and preventable illness such as silicosis, TB and later HIV.

In our country, as in all others, rape and sexual assault have been interwoven into wars of patriarchal conquest and colonisation, genocide, slavery, apartheid and capitalism. Religious texts justify violence against women and children. “God is male — male is god” is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Those taught to be subordinate are female and those taught to expect subordination are male.

The world order mirrors apartheid and has deepened inequality and poverty. Economic, military and religious fundamentalisms have increased vulnerability to misogyny and an estimated one billion women and girls are raped or sexually assaulted across the world.

Our first Parliament committed to transforming an authoritarian state into a participatory, accountable, transparent democracy — to a people’s democracy. A new Constitution, laws and institutions committed to social justice, equality, dignity, freedom, nonracism, nonsexism and women’s rights.

The abortion debate located sexual and reproductive rights within economic, political and social rights. Government committed to transform the budget from a gendered perspective and reports on gender-based violence tabled integrated strategies.

Yet the economic choices of the apartheid budget were traditionally crafted by and for white power. The new economic policy of 1996, was drafted almost exclusively by white men, many of them consultants to the IMF and World Bank.

Contrary to the promise, land redistribution and restitution were not effectively addressed. Colonial wars often killed or removed insubordinate traditional leaders and replaced them with men of greed. Today, the Traditional Leaders and Khoisan Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill will, if enacted, re-assert apartheid era tribal authorities.

The unelected traditional leaders will make decisions about land and mining without any meaningful consultation with the community and women will lose their constitutional right to gender equality.

Apartheid-era homelands, townships and informal settlements remain places where mortality rates skyrocket and people continue to die of preventable causes. They are the places with the highest unemployment, hunger and homelessness. They still have inadequate access to clean drinking water or decent sanitation, street lighting or refuse removal and their schools have pit toilets and no laboratories or libraries.

This is where depression regularly ends in suicide and there is no place to run for women, girls, transgendered and gender nonconforming people.

Whereas poor people are branded as thieves of money, electricity, water and land, the statistics reveal that wealthy corporations steal billions. Their illicit financial flows, theft of land, water and electricity fall below our consciousness of what a thief looks like.

Corruption is intrinsic to the global order. The countries that sold us arms in South Africa’s infamous arms deal built in the cost of corrupting leaders. In countries such as Yemen, Britain (which sold us arms we do not need) sells arms to opposing sides in its bloody conflict.

While we are all distracted, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Benjamin Netanyahu, Boris Johnson and other right-wing conservatives push the world towards fascism.

Trump has stripped the façade of American politics to what it is and has always been — the power of corporates to corrupt and divert attention away from addressing the 43.1-million living in poverty in the US. In India, Modi came to power on corporate funding of 10.3-billion rupees. In just one month under Bolsonaro, Brazil destroyed more than 1 800km2 of the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the world.

The impending destruction of humanity and our planet, presented by climate scientists, does not penetrate the thick wall of denial and inaction, with devastating consequences for people who are poor, especially women.

Corporate self-interest dictates the priorities of our politics, economics, media, education and culture — our beliefs about who we are, how we should live and what we can be.

I want to incite insubordination against this in each of us. Like you, I have felt the fear and hate of subordination land on my skin, course through my blood, unsettle my nerves … its paralysis, impotent rage and helplessness.

In searching for answers I looked to and learned from grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and many who subvert traditional binaries, who live beyond label, who embody wisdom in their lives, their relationships with others and to the Earth. There has been wisdom in the everyday beauty of fragile, complex beings grappling with contradiction.

We can reclaim ourselves by recognising that love is intrinsic to our being. From it we can evoke the courage to dance with our fear.

The first founding value of South Africa’s Constitution is inherent dignity, our individual and collective birthright that underpins substantive rights.

When we forget our birthright, as we often do, we can look in the mirror and let the rising sun remind us of the radiance we were born with.

This is an edited version of the speech delivered by Pregs Govender — based on her book Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination — at the KJB Inaugural Leadership Lecture on August 1, a collaboration between the University of Cape Town’s KJB Programme and the university’s Poverty & Inequality Initiative. Govender, a feminist and human rights activist, was an ANC MP from 1994 to 2002 — and the only MP to register opposition to the controversial arms deal in the defence budget vote

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Pregs Govender
Pregs Govender
Pregs Govender is a feminist human rights activist, author and former ANC MP. She was appointed in 2008 by Parliament to be one of seven Commissioners of the South African Human Rights Commission, and in 2009, made deputy chairperson. Visit her official website:

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