Parliament paid fitting tribute to the memory of the late Dr Frene Ginwala, who cut the umbilical cord of the ignoble parliamentary dictatorship that abetted apartheid injustices. Her passing marks a significant moment of reflection on the evolution of a parliamentary democracy in South Africa’s body politic, a parliamentary system she built from scratch.

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula attested to this claim. “When Dr Ginwala became the Speaker of the National Assembly, she said she found literary nothing; no norms or traditions to reference her speakership on, because there was no democracy in South Africa before. As such, there was never a democratic parliamentary system or principles to model the new, democratic Parliament on.”

Dr Ginwala coined a new democratic institution from a blank sheet of paper with her political conviction. Hence, she is hailed as the founding architect of the new, democratic parliamentary political thought in South Africa. If there is anything that this institution symbolises, it symbolises the museum of her political genius. Significations that many were, perhaps, not acquainted with. 

In her tribute, Speaker Mapisa-Nqakula credited her forebear for setting norms, standards and values that continue to safeguard the decorum of speakership in the National Assembly, “… a role she occupied and conducted with great responsibility, outmost dignity and humility.” In the current Speaker’s view, despite the inherent partisan zeal of Parliament after 1994, “She earned the respect of members of Parliament across the political divide during her tenure.”

Speaker Mapisa-Nqakula reminded those in attendance that Dr Ginwala’s ascension to the position of speakership in the National Assembly was not a natural political progression. Instead, it was a result of her tireless agitation for the inclusion of women in ANC’s decision-making echelons. 

As we remember her, she urged, “Let’s remember her as a champion of women’s emancipation. As we remember her, we must remember her role in establishing the National Women’s Coalition that gave birth to the Women’s Charter upon which our hope of non-sexism and equal society hinge.”

In her tenure, Dr Ginwala carved a nascent institution into a beacon of hope for humanity. The expanse of her political activism and thought is what today enjoins the dreams and aspirations of our parliamentary democracy, Ms Mapisa-Nqakula claimed.

 But Dr Ginwala was more than the celebrated icon of our first democratic Parliament. She was also a journalist, writer, politician, feminist, lawyer, Pan-Africanist and, to crown it all, an internationalist, President Cyril Ramaphosa recounted in his eulogy for this departed political icon.  

Dr Ginwala’s storied political history consumed both her life. Due to the injustices of the past politics became her ambition. Her valiant intent was to right the wrongs of the apartheid regime. Its glaring injustice to humanity. 

She proved to be a political pathfinder in this regard, the President attested. “It’s Dr Ginwala who pioneered the ANC’s foreign office and mission. She utilised it to facilitate the most effective and powerful solidarity network for the South African liberation struggle in Africa and the globe.”

It turned out that her innumerable intellectual preoccupations were not forever lost. They found expression in her political life. The eulogies of both the President and the Speaker of the National Assembly emphasised that. It is her role in providing the ANC’s president at the time, Oliver Tambo, a safe passage into exile that showcased her most daring political heroism. Through her meticulous organisational skills, “She established clandestine routes and means of passage for OR to leave the country,” recounted the President. These, “… were routes of passage that never existed before. But as the pathfinder, she found them and turned them into good use.”  

The ANC foreign office and mission would not be as effective political instruments as they were without her courageous political commitment to the cause of freedom, he added.  

Through her eloquent pen, the President also recalled, “She provided an incisive critique and clear vision of the new South Africa and told us what was wrong with the world and what to do to make it better.” Among many of her milestones, he credited her for her resolute resolve in crafting the vision of non-racialism in the new South Africa. 

Today, he pointed out, “We truly remember a life rich in experience and meaning. So much so, he said, “We may not fully describe the impact of her entire life on our country and the continent.”

Dr Ginwala knew, said the President, “… that Parliament stands at the centre of our democracy. As such, it stood between the divisive laws of the past and the ideals of the new Parliament that forbids discrimination on racial or sexual grounds.” And she knew, claimed the President, “For it to achieve that, it had to be eloquent and persuasive in championing the cause of the people.” 

To live a life of integrity is to uphold Dr Ginwala’s legacy of thoughts and deeds, the President said. Because, “She stood firm against the abuse of power and corruption, and cherished human rights for all.” These, he added, “… are the tenets that embodied her life, whose selfless courage would forever be remembered.”    

Abel Mputing
27 January 2023