Frene Ginwala: From external struggle missions to parliament

Frene Ginwala: From external struggle missions to parliament

It was a scorching day in Tanzania when South Africa’s first Speaker of Parliament, Frene Noshir Ginwala, was tasked with a high priority job during the struggle.

She had a visit from Oliver Tambo prior to that, informing her that one of the ANC’s top leaders was going to arrive. Two days later, following Tambo’s departure, Ginwala received a call, informing her that the leader had landed.

“People are here, and they are ANC people and they haven’t heard anything from you,” someone told her over the phone.

She responded by asking if they knew her. Activist Joe Matthews then took the line, asking her to organise them clearance, and she did. The next part of the story leaves Ginwala in stitches.

“My doorbell then rings, and there was Joe Matthews, and this very tall man – in a Basotho hat, safari khaki suit and mosquito boots in a hot Dar es Salaam.

“My reaction was instinctive. I said: ‘I have got to hide you’.”

Ginwala had just met and spoken to late President Nelson Mandela, who at the time had gone underground. She says he never let her forget that moment – even during their time shared in parliament.

“He said… ‘You see how she greets her leaders?’,” she says, chuckling profusely.

It is not often that South Africans are used to seeing Ginwala laugh – many remember her as a firm yet dignified woman, draped in traditional wear, sitting in the chair while being responsible for being fair in the way she controlled the House – and she commands respect still.

Frene Ginwala speaks to Yadhana Jadoo of The Citizen in Illovo, 2 September 2015. Picture: Neil McCartney

Frene Ginwala speaks to Yadhana Jadoo of The Citizen in Illovo, 2 September 2015. Picture: Neil McCartney

An 83-year-old Ginwala meets us in Illovo, near Sandton, north of Johannesburg – at a place that is by no means upmarket. We speak at tables situated outside a garage, as the traffic whizzes by.

“Life politicised us, people of my generation were all interested in politics – you had no choice. You wanted to go to a playground – you couldn’t. You wanted to go to the bioscope – you couldn’t – it was Whites Only. People of your generation have no idea how restricted life was.”

She recalls attending mass uprisings in the 1940s and 50s, because “as kids, everything was exciting”.

“ I was born in Johannesburg – we lived in Kempton Park and then in Roodepoort – during the war years, my parents went to India and I did some schooling in India.”

From there she was sent to Britain to finish her schooling and tertiary education. Since then, Ginwala has earned a list of academic qualifications. It was a conversation about closed borders after returning to South Africa that led Ginwala, to set up external missions.

During the conversation among friends, she recalls being of the opinion that Tanganyika (what Tanzania had previously been called) would be a better chance for people to leave the country. She was approached by Walter Sisulu who explained to her that the ANC would be banned soon and he wanted her to come on board.

“I thought God why did I open my mouth. I was sitting there thinking, what am I exactly supposed to do to set up this mission? You know I had no idea,” she laughs.

“So with the enthusiasm of youth – and never thinking about what it involved – I said sure what do you want me to do?”

The rest as they say is history and Ginwala would become the person who helped move those in exile out of South Africa, including Oliver Tambo, through Tanganyika, to London and eventually the UN. She speaks of a box that she still has in her possession after all these years. It contained various photographs of those she needed to obtain travel documents for.

Ginwala says she had to develop a self defence mechanism, requiring her to close her mind, after people went back and were arrested. Using the pen as her sword, Ginwala wrote to survive, during her journalism career and also set up a magazine called Spear Head in Dar es Salaam – which spoke of liberation all over Africa. The work done by millions of people overseas to liberate South Africa wasn’t something that many people knew back home, she adds.

“We had millions of people – free Mandela concerts, the song We Ain’t Going to Go to Sun City No More – people at home didn’t have conception of what was going on abroad.”

On February 2 1990, former President FW De Klerk made his speech that Mandela was going to be freed from prison after 27 years.

“The world was crying you see, and De Klerk knew that there was no way. The only credit I would give De Klerk was that he was forced into recognising the fact that unless they spoke to the ANC, there was no hope. That much credit I give him. Remember he never accepted the Constitution, though he talks about it. De Klerk had no alternative but to accept – and he had the courage to. But he still believed that we didn’t have to get what we have now.”

She once invited PW Botha to parliament for the State of the Nation Address.

“Remember it was PW Botha who started the negotiations, and I felt very bad that he wasn’t recognised – I tried to invite him to parliament for the State of the Nation Address.

“Then I asked Madiba to phone him, and ask him to come.

“So, Madiba did.”

Madiba called Botha and went back to Ginwala with the news.

“Madiba said: ‘You know the first question he (Botha) asked me? He said: ‘What does the speaker say?’ So I said I am glad he recognised me.”

Botha however, could not accept the Constitution and never attended. She also recalls Botha being the first person to meet Madiba.

“I asked Madiba what did you feel when you were going to see him? So he said: ‘I was determined, I was not going to let him treat me like the National Party had treated others’.

“So I said what happened? He said: ‘I walked in and he was sitting on his sofa, and he stood up and he came towards me. And then he held out his hand’. And then Madiba said: ‘He then poured me a cup of tea.’ I asked, ‘did you drink it?’

“You know there are funny sides to life.”

And Ginwala sets off in chuckling once more.


today in print