In historic or catalytic moments, the role of individual and collective choice can determine the future, for the individuals involved and for generations who follow.
First published in City Press
The day after you cast your vote is National Women’s Day. In the 1950s, resistance to the pass laws was led by African women who incited insubordination across SA, culminating in the 1956 march. Their song was crystal clear; “You have touched the women you have touched a rock. You have dislodged a boulder. You will be crushed.”
Twenty-thousand courageous women chose Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams-De Bruyn to hand over 100,000 signatures. Many women had to be insubordinate to men in their families and in their political organisations which opposed the march. Their courage led to greater recognition of women’s political role in the ANC.
The women of 1956 inspired generations in villages, townships, factories, universities, political parties, trade unions, and religious organisations. In 1992, women united in a national coalition. An estimated two million women mobilised and ensured that SA’s new Constitution recognised women’s rights as human rights. Their mandate to MPs in 1994 enabled us to pursue and enact transformative laws affecting women’s rights in the home, workplace and in the rest of society.
In 2001, loving, courageous and insubordinate women such as feminist Prudence Nobantu Mabele were still fighting for their lives. Prudence, who co-founded Positive Women’s Network and was a founder member of the Treatment Action Campaign, died last month. Her organisations fought government for denying access to treatment in public hospitals. They also fought against the global patents system of pharmaceutical corporations that made exorbitant profits for medicines that were often discovered and developed at publicly funded institutions.
In 2001, the Parliamentary Committee on Women held public hearings on the gendered impact of HIV/AIDS. HIV-positive women came to Parliament, alongside doctors, scientists, researchers and NGOs. After several attempts, our ANC study group got agreement that the report would be discussed in the caucus. Seconds before, a woman MP asserted that there was no need to hear the report since the health minister had already spoken. A significant number of MPs loudly disagreed. At the end of the presentation of the committee’s findings to caucus, there was widespread support. Several powerful MPs asserted that this was “the turning point in the Caucus – there is no going back”. Poignant comments such as “I felt proud to be an ANC MP again” revealed the indignity of the groupthink that had prevailed. That day many in the ANC caucus moved from blind loyalty to President Mbeki to asserting solidarity with HIV-positive family and community members.
In 2008, President Zuma’s biographer wrote about what Fezeka Kuzwayo ‘Khwezi’ had described as rape, in the following way; “He merely went ahead and had his way with her, as countless men do every night of the week with countless women. It’s the way of the world… the only problem having been that Khwezi couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with the way of the world”. After the rape trial where Fezeka was subject to misogyny, inside and outside the courtroom, this “way of the world” put Zuma into the most powerful office in government. Leaders of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu, businessmen and journalists, argued that there were bigger political issues at stake than this misogyny. There was a “Zuma camp” and an “Mbeki camp”, and no place for those who supported neither. The simple question in assessing leadership – what values, qualities and priorities are reflected in their words and actions – was erased.
The legacy you carry as ANC MPs is powerful. The ANC, alongside other liberation movements such as the Black Consciousness Movement and the Pan African Congress, ensured the end of apartheid. This crime against humanity was built on a foundation of military conquest, colonial dispossession, racism and sexism, slave, indentured and exploited labour. Apartheid SA held the global record for the highest numbers of incarcerated children. People of integrity, such as Steve Biko, Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge, Ruth First, Chris Hani, Dulcie September and Ahmed Timol were brutally murdered by apartheid.
The people of our country will support you when you value our country, the Constitution, the people and the legacy of our ancestors. We trust you to act with love, courage and yes, insubordination, to those who ask you to be silent when the history of an entire movement is subsumed by one individual who destroys that legacy with countless cases of corruption. Apartheid’s norm of state corruption by capitalist families and corporations can never be accepted as the norm for our democracy.
All of SA’s citizens (including the majority of the voting public who put you into office) want you to focus on addressing inequality, unemployment, poverty and climate change. We live in a world where the President of the United States has withdrawn his country from the climate change agreement, putting the future of our planet at stake. Trump’s priority is maintaining a global system based on greed for profit at any cost and the poorest who bear the brunt of climate change are irrelevant.
South Africa’s democracy is haunted by apartheid’s spatial geography. In apartheid’s former black homelands, townships and informal settlements, every socio-economic indicator of inequality and poverty remains exponentially higher than previously white suburbs, farms and cities. You cannot afford to be diverted from these priorities. It is urgent to learn from the weaknesses of earlier parliaments and build on the strengths. It is time to transform the economic system that deepened apartheid inequality, so that all South Africans can enjoy their constitutional rights, including the rights to land, housing, health, education, water and safety and security.
You can act to ensure that the poorest child will not be denied access to free quality education and institutions of learning, from early childcare education to tertiary education. Make the criminal justice system work so gender-based violence is properly investigated and punished. Address the factors that make women and girls in informal settlements and townships vulnerable – in homes that are destroyed by storms, with no toilets or taps; forced to walk or push wheelchairs through unlit areas to relieve themselves or to fetch water. Do not just express outrage when the bodies of women killed because of their sexual orientation are found outside these toilets or when a child dies in a school’s pit latrine. Use your power to end this vulnerability and re-instate Government’s 1998/1999 commitment to ensuring that the entire budget is gender-responsive.
As MPs you have significant power. Ensure that trade agreements do not cost decent jobs, including women’s jobs, and do not undermine socio-economic rights, such as the right to health and good quality nutritious food. Regulate and hold accountable corporations that pollute, steal or waste natural resources such as water. Learn the lessons of the arms deal (including ensuring our country’s economic priority is not a deal that will lead to corruption), and cancel the nuclear deal with Russia. Implement the 2009 recommendation of the Independent Panel Assessment of Parliament, which criticised the “party list system”, recommending that “the current electoral system should be replaced by a mixed system which attempts to capture the benefits of both the constituency-based and proportional representation electoral systems”. This time those who are mobilising in your constituencies will continue till structural inequality, injustice and war that is maintained and perpetuated by powerful vested interests across the world ends.
In 2002, after being the only MP to register my opposition to the arms deal when it came into effect in the Defence Budget Vote, I resigned as an MP. Ahmed Kathrada wrote with characteristic generosity, “Please continue to make us walk tall, by your courage and devotion.” I imagine that he would say the same to ANC MPs. “Make us walk tall… as you walk through the fear and vote on the leadership of our beloved country.” DM
Pregs Govender MP (‘94-02); Chair: Independent Panel Assessment of SA’s Parliament (‘07-‘09); Author: Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination. @pregsgovender
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.