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Frene Ginwala

Regions : Sub-Saharan Africa : South Africa

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Frene Ginwala was born in 1932 in Johannesburg. A South African of Indian descent, Ginwala was keenly aware of the role race played in South African society. She studied law at the University of London and then returned to South Africa.

As political tensions rose between the white minority government and non-whites, Ginwala joined the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s main opposition group to the apartheid government. Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, during which police shot at thousands of demonstrators protesting travel restrictions for non-whites, the government banned the ANC. Ginwala was tasked with coordinating the escape of senior ANC leader Oliver Tambo to Tanzania and establishing the organization’s external mission. She wouldn’t return to South Africa for thirty years.

During her exile, Ginwala headed the Political Research Unit in the Office of ANC President Oliver Tambo. She also served as the ANC spokesperson in the United Kingdom, often addressing matters on sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government.

In 1990, President F.W. de Klerk’s government lifted the ANC ban and Ginwala returned to South Africa. Prior to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, she helped set up the Women's National Coalition, which gathered organizations from across the political spectrum to ensure women’s common interests were reflected in South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution. Ginwala was elected to parliament in 1994 where she served as Speaker of the National Assembly until 2004. As the first post-apartheid speaker, she was instrumental in setting a new course for the government, promoting an atmosphere of cooperation and reconciliation.

Since leaving government, Ginwala served as the First Chancellor of one of South Africa’s flagship universities, The University of Kwazula-Natal, until 2009. She has continued promoting democracy, good governance, development and human rights through her participation with various international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 

Well, firstly, we already, by then had broadcasting facilities from a number of African countries. Used to broadcast from Angola, from – as African countries near South Africa became independent, they would give us broadcasting facilities. So we were already broadcasting that way. The anti-apartheid movement, the African countries set up the equivalent of anti-apartheid movements. And it was now a global phenomenon. But London became one of the major places because you had a lot of international journalists there, radio stations and so on. So we were producing illegal material for inside the country [South Africa].

Some of it was produced in other African countries, but it was the major channel and had to be got into the country. We were also broadcasting from these stations. Major statements were coming out through London because of its facilities. At that time, initially there was tremendous concern that only Lusaka [Zambia] could speak, and we tried to explain that it wouldn’t work because coming out of Lusaka would take time, and you had to react immediately. So a committee was set up in London. We had Mendi Msimang as the chief representative. He became our first high commissioner after ’94. And I suppose he had the trust in some of us to agree that we could speak without waiting for Lusaka.

[Lusaka, Zambia became the location of the African National Congress’ headquarters after being banned in South Africa.]

Oliver Tambo had a lot to do with that as well. And so, for example, when – well, we got into the British media. We got into the international media. They knew they could come to us to ask us. Very often when journalists were going back to South Africa, they would see us, or were going to be based in South Africa, they would meet with the London group, media group, and we would put them in touch with people or brief them and say, “If you speak to so-and-so, this -” so we also had to trust and build up a group of international journalists whom we could trust to speak to somebody at home and who would report accurately. So this was the sort of thing.

[Oliver Tambo (1917 – 1993) was an anti-apartheid activist and a senior leader of the African National Congress (ANC). He served as the organization’s president from 1967 – 1991 and kept the ANC together from exile after it was banned by the South African government in 1960.]

But we’d reached a stage when we got a lot of information out of South Africa. For example, I was the head of research, and we were monitoring very closely what was going on.

One way or another, we used to get publications in [to South Africa]. We used to, for example, a lot of stickers that would appear had been actually produced overseas. The anti-apartheid movements, for example, the Dutch anti-apartheid movement, was putting leaflets into goods that were being exported to South Africa on the idea that, when people would unpack them would obviously be Africans, and so this would distribute. So all of this was being done through different – we had offices – we had more offices than the South African government had embassies at the time we were unbanned.

South Africa is a nation of almost 53 million on the southern tip of Africa. The nation has a unique multicultural character and is approximately 80 percent African and 10 percent European, with the remaining 10 percent being of mixed race or Asian heritage. These broad racial categories include a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Although it has the largest economy on the continent, much of the nation remains in poverty and there is great economic disparity. Historically, the mining industry has played a key role in South Africa’s economy and it continues to remain an important industry today, alongside manufacturing, tourism, and financial services.

South Africa was first settled by non-natives in 1652, when the Dutch established an outpost in what would later become Cape Town. Soon after, British, French, and German settlers came to the area. The descendants of the original Dutch settlers became known as Afrikaners. Conflicts over land and power arose between the settling groups as well as between the settlers and the native people of the region. In 1910, Britain formally created the Union of South Africa as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.

Throughout South Africa’s history, non-whites were subjected to widespread discrimination. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government passed a series of laws institutionalizing discrimination and segregation. In the 1948 elections, the National Party, which served as a platform for Afrikaner nationalism, gained power. The National Party program was centered on the system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Supporters of apartheid argued that South Africa was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, “Coloured” or mixed-race, and Indian.

The white minority oppressed the African majority and other non-white groups. Black Africans were particularly disadvantaged in terms of education, housing, income, and health. Blacks were denied citizenship and not permitted to use the services and facilities accessible by the white minority. Many blacks were forced to relocate when their neighborhoods were declared “white.” A series of laws enacted in the 1950s further codified and expanded racial segregation. In part, the National Party justified its policies by branding its opponents as communists.

The African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 to advocate for the rights of black South Africans. As apartheid expanded, the ANC and other groups used both nonviolent and violent actions to combat the government. The ANC and other groups were oppressed by the government, and many of their senior leaders were banned or imprisoned. Nelson Mandela, a prominent ANC leader, was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement gained strength. Foreign governments and the international community isolated South Africa. International sanctions damaged the economy and helped erode domestic support for apartheid. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War weakened the government’s claim that yielding power would lead to a communist takeover.

In 1990, the government of South Africa took its first steps toward ending apartheid when it ended a ban on certain political organizations including the ANC. Nelson Mandela and other opposition leaders were released from prison and apartheid legislation was repealed. F.W. de Klerk, President from 1989-1994, helped to broker this transition of South Africa from the apartheid-era to a multi-racial democracy. In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

In 1994, South Africa held its first election that allowed all adults to vote, regardless of race. The ANC gained power and Nelson Mandela was elected president. South Africa enacted a liberal, democratic constitution, backed by a strong and independent judiciary. While the ANC has remained the strongest party, elections are vigorously contested and democratic safeguards are respected. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated abuses and crimes committed during the apartheid era.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized South Africa as “free” with an overall freedom rating of two, with one being the most free and seven being the least. The country also received ratings of two in political rights and civil liberties. However, in the 2013 Freedom of the Press report, the nation was categorized as “party free” due to government restrictions on the press and the prevalence of civil cases brought against journalists for libel.

More from Frene Ginwala

Frene Ginwala: Public Relations “We had more offices than the South African government had embassies.” Frene Ginwala: Civics and Democracy “Too often, democracy is seen as an event which happens once in five years.” Frene Ginwala: Speaker of Parliament “Mr. Mandela had already decided that I should be the Speaker.” More + Frene Ginwala: Escaping South Africa “There were warrants for their arrest, including one for me.” Frene Ginwala: Negotiating the End of Apartheid “You cannot reform apartheid. You have to abolish it.” Frene Ginwala: Returning from Exile “I remember sitting next to somebody else, holding hands, wondering what was going to happen.” Frene Ginwala: International Sanctions “They were making the country ungovernable.” Frene Ginwala: Legal Discrimination “It was said openly there is no place for the African in white society.” Frene Ginwala: Background “And you always asked why, and there was never a satisfactory explanation.” Frene Ginwala: Cultural and Sports Boycott “The sports boycott was very effective.” Frene Ginwala: Election Day “For the first time we were voting for somebody.” Frene Ginwala: Mandela's Release Frene Ginwala remembers predicting Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Frene Ginwala: Mandela and Tambo Frene Ginwala: Mandela and Tambo