/ 16 January 2023

A tribute to Frene Ginwala, a champion of women’s rights

As parliament’s speaker Frene Ginwala also oversaw the passing of some of the most progressive legislation in the world for women’s rights. Photo: Supplied

I remember being struck by Frene Ginwala’s bright white hair and colourful saris; she stood out in the sea of dark and dull power suits on the television. I was a child in the early 1990s and had no idea of the magnitude of what I was witnessing. The first woman, first black person and first democratically elected speaker of the first democratic National Assembly in South Africa.

I also had no idea that, two decades later, I’d be sitting across from her when doing research for my master’s thesis. She had invited me to her home where I spent an afternoon with her. 

I was struck by how different she was from how I had perceived her as a child. Rather than the soft feminine image I’d seen all those years ago, she was sharp-witted, abrupt, not at all soft-spoken, and highly opinionated. 

Although I was a young researcher in the field for the first time, she did not coddle me. She spoke to me as her equal and didn’t hesitate to challenge me on my then amateurish understanding of the way of things. At the time I considered it abrasive, but today I realise she respected me and was talking to me as someone with their own intellectual grit. 

Yet, she was humble. When asked about her motivations to participate in the anti-apartheid struggle she exclaimed: “I didn’t have a choice. No black person had a choice back then.” 

She was proud of her work in the National Assembly. Having not had children herself, she still opened a creche for staff members and MPs. She ensured that her habit of working into the wee hours and over weekends ended. 

She also adjusted parliament’s schedule to coincide with the national school timetable, with recess being at the same time as school holidays. All of this was aimed towards not only improving people’s work-life balance but also implementing structural changes to dismantle the patriarchal nature of parliament. 

She understood that male partners were not supportive or helpful towards their busy spouses, so she ensured that she created a space that filled that gap. Indeed, in my research, I did find that women’s biggest personal difficulty as parliamentarians was not their children or families, but their husbands who did not enjoy what they perceived to be a reversal of the rightful gender roles.

Ginwala also understood that it wasn’t enough to simply have women symbolically participate in politics and government. She wanted meaningful gender equality and not the kind that strategically places women in untransformed patriarchal spaces wherein they are forced to adjust. 

As parliament’s speaker Ginwala also oversaw the passing of some of the most progressive legislation in the world for women’s rights. She helped to foster a culture of women parliamentarians working together across party lines and political ideology. The focus was on ensuring that women were not left behind in the new South Africa as had been the case in other post-liberation African states. 

Ginwala’s leading role in the beginnings of the undoing of patriarchy and gender inequality in South Africa cannot be emphasised enough. Her activism did not stop once she was in a position of power. Her work can serve as an example of how to practically legislate and do gender transformation. 

Her sari as her uniform similarly visually and symbolically challenged the normativity that power and leadership are white and masculine. Her quiet exit from public and political life and her preference for privacy meant that she was not celebrated as she should have been during her final years. 

But that’s what can be expected from a leader who did not see themselves as special, but as a South African who had no choice but to do what had to be done for the people.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.