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Democracy icon and feminist memorialised at Unisa

The late Dr Frene Ginwala

South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID), the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the International Women’s Forum of South Africa (IWFSA), together with civil society leaders and members of parliament, hosted a memorial service in honour of ANC stalwart and activist Dr Frene Ginwala, who was the first speaker of the National Assembly from 1994 to 2004. Ginwala was a journalist and a politician who championed women’s rights, and made significant contributions to the formation of the Constitution and to the establishment of democracy in South Africa.

A recipient of the Presidency’s Order of Luthuli, Ginwala passed away on 12 January 2023 at the age of 90. The memorial service was held at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Building, Unisa Main Campus, Pretoria, on 19 January 2023.

Former comrades, academics, colleagues, friends and family members gathered to honour the life and career of Dr Frene Ginwala

One of the architects of South Africa’s democracy

In her opening address, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Puleng LenkaBula, paid homage to the late political activist. She said Unisa, aligned with the vision, ethics, and leadership, and the international footprint and diplomacy that she represented, conveys its heartfelt condolences to the Ginwala family.

She said Ginwala was a global icon who advocated for freedom, liberation and democracy in South Africa, and who worked with international leaders to shape a world where humanity thrives and where the dignity and identities of people are honoured and protected.

“With the passing of this outstanding daughter of Africa, a great tree has fallen,” said the VC. “Sad as it is, it is only a moment of national mourning, but a celebration of a life lived large.”

The VC quoted from Dr Maya Angelou’s poem When Great Trees Fall, which describes how an influential person’s death can have a massive impact on those who were nurtured, mentored, and guided by that person, and that their ideas and contributions will supersede them for generations.

The VC spoke movingly of Ginwala’s legacy as a global icon and a recipient of Unisa’s prestigious Public Servant Award in 2017. “She was a decorated leader with many accolades, and advocated for freedom and equality through her activism,” she remarked. “Ginwala lived a life of service to the people in pursuit of the ideal of freedom, and for all the suffering and sacrifice, she was showered with many awards here at home and abroad. Through the national mourning period, many speakers will pay homage to and describe her contributions to public life in different ways and glowing terms. Among others, she will be described as a lawyer, academic, politician, activist, journalist and lawmaker. However, none shall compare to the honour of being a liberation fighter.”

In conclusion, the VC said women at Unisa and elsewhere in the world, choose to see Ginwala as a quintessential woman; an architect of South Africa’s democracy, who encouraged other democracies around the world to flourish.

From left, Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Baleka Mbete, former Speaker of the National Assembly in Parliament, and Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Former Deputy President of South Africa and Executive Director of UN Women

Inspiring activism

Former Speaker of the National Assembly in Parliament, Baleka Mbete, gave a heartfelt tribute to her predecessor and comrade, describing moments when she was brought to tears having been told to keep Ginwala as her deputy for another period, which she expressed as unfair, while also observing her unwavering vision for children while in exile.  

She said: “My frustration and disbelief could only be read from my collapse in tears when the movement instructed me to deputise you for another term. There after came a lot of drama... but you were one of us, and we loved you. You were one of a kind. Your ability to focus was your rare gift.”

“Few remember that you made an effort to pursue our ideas as expressed in the debates in exile about the responsibility of a state to implement measures, and to be practical in ensuring that children are at the centre of our plans. Even when planning a town, you advised that we must start by considering where the amenities for children would be located, including all critical details in that regard. Thank you for your example,” she remarked.    

She also said that Ginwala made it her task to respect and exemplify the norms and teachings of the community she came from. 

She concluded: “Your activism will continue to inspire us. Thank you for a life well lived.”

An indelible impression

Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Former Deputy President of South Africa and Executive Director of UN Women, said Ginwala was a formidable leader and an intellectual powerhouse who contributed immensely to women’s emancipation and their demands that made their way into the Freedom Charter.

Mlambo-Ngcuka also expressed how Ginwala left an indelible impression through raising the bar high through her work ethics, saying: “All of us who were assigned tasks by her, never failed to deliver; she set very high standards. She had no sympathy for low achievers. It was a both a challenge and a pleasure to work with her.:

She further said when Ginwala was elected to the position of National Speaker, she brought gravitas to that position, adding that “she was not easy to work with, but she was principled.” 

Mlambo-Ngcuka said Ginwala was very much affected by issues of civil society, such as accountability towards issues of women and gender. “She brough civil society issues into parliament and cared a lot about how we were in communication and consultations with civil society” she stated. 

In closing, Mlambo-Ngcuka said that Ginwala was not a tall person, rather she had a small stature. The lesson here,” she said, is that dynamite comes in small packages.


*By Godfrey Madibane, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2023/01/20