“Why is it,” asks Pregs Govender, the ANC MP who resigned from Parliament in 2002 after voting against the arms deal, “that those of us who are the majority in the world, those of us who want peace, who want a better future for the children of our world, that we are seemingly powerless?”
Govender is someone with more experience of power than most; she has spent her lifetime opposing its worst manifestations. During high school she raised money for an illegal fund for political detainees. A few years later as a young student activist she charged into the guns and batons of the apartheid police. And after being elected to Parliament after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 she broke ranks and was the only MP to vote against the arms deal when it came into effect in the Defence Budget Vote.
She has also suffered as a result of power. Her early experience of the Group Areas Act left her family living in a garage for a period of time. As a woman she has felt first-hand the injustices of a patriarchal society. And she has been ostracised politically as a result of her principles, both during the struggle and after democracy was achieved in 1994.
But it’s her experience of power that has enabled her to ask compelling questions about the nature of power and in whose interests it is exercised.
At a tumultuous time in South African politics, her voice seems all the more relevant, all the more valuable for the reminder that we need to shift the debate beyond discussing the symptoms of a problem to an understanding of the causes.
The author of Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination (2007) and the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Julius Nyere lecture at the University of the Western Cape in September, Govender questions why nothing changes, why the poor are still poor and why gender violence remains a reality in the lives of so many women.
Earnest, soft-spoken, engaging and authoritative, she asks: “Why is it that the leaders we vote into power do not stand up for the poorest amongst us, not as an act of charity, but in changing those policies that push people into poverty? What happens to each of us when we step into positions of power? What is the process by which we begin to shut our eyes, close our ears and seal our lips?
Why is it that even after we have been able to overthrow colonial rulers or apartheid rulers that we do not move from political democracy to economic democracy?”
In answering these questions, her analysis of power sees those who have ownership of the world’s wealth as a “tiny handful” who rule the planet through greed, hate and fear.
International financial institutions, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are able to rationalise their actions through a compliant media, despite increased war and conflict and growing inequality between the “extremely wealthy and the desperately poor”.
The problem is therefore not only a South African one, although it has local manifestations, but rather a global one in which greed, hate and fear permeate all institutions.
So while it is important to put laws and institutions in place to deal with the fact that women are raped, for example, to prevent rape in the first place requires looking at how you can change mindsets and how to change “how we are as human beings”.
Another aspect of this problem can be found in the question: “Why is it that our country, which conformed so well to all the human rights commitments, to having a constitution that is lauded globally, for having laws and institutions like the Constitutional Court, the Human Rights Commission, the Gender Commission, for having laws like the Domestic Violence Act…why is it that that hasn’t resulted in a shift?”
She believes that one of the reasons is that undermining all of these efforts are global commitments that have undermined human rights, such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), a World Trade Organisation treaty which extended multi-lateral trade.
Govender argues that GATS has resulted in job losses and forced many workers, especially women, into the informal economy, where they are unprotected by the law.
Given this background, Govender wants to know: “How are we able to use our power in the interests of the poor, not simply as voting fodder, but in terms of a real commitment to changing conditions. Can we harness our collective power to transform our world?”
Patriarchal systems, she says, are characterised by the way in which people stop thinking for themselves and depend on someone else, be that a political leader, a husband or a priest.
“One of the most important ways in which we can incite insubordination is to rebuild our respect for each other,” she argues, suggesting a change in the very basis by which we understand the nature of power.
The problem with power, she states, is quite simply a lack of love. Love, argues Govender, whose first name Prega is shortened from Pregaluxmi, Prega meaning the one who overcomes all obstacles and Luxmi appropriately meaning love, has existed throughout human existence, but the politics of hate, power and greed have become dominant.
Her message is powerful in that she asserts that the possibility of a paradigm shift exists; that we can break from big leader politics and that every single person has the power of love within them that they can use as a force for change.
Although some of her independent-mindedness no doubt comes from her father – “a troublemaker with a big mouth” as described in her book – she credits her grandmother for teaching her how love “nurtures the best in the human spirit”.
She says: “What I am arguing for is deep self respect and respect for other human beings. It is about asserting a different kind of power,” she says.
The title of her book, Love and Courage, would seem to suggest that love is not enough.
“Often it takes courage to assert that powerful influence in the world and it is much easier to assert the dominant power which is the power of hate and greed and fear,” she explains.
It sounds like a compelling argument, but applied to the cut-throat world of politics, one wonders how realistic it is or, put another way, what hope there can be for what sounds like such an idealistic mission.
But Govender believes that change is possible and that a focus on love can effect “what you will do and the energy with which you work”.
For Govender it is about how this ethos is translated so that it is used to “pass the right kind of laws, to set up the right institutions and how budgets are used so that they prioritise building peace rather than war, so they prioritise the lives of human beings rather than the profits of a few companies”.
She explains that it is about taking love and asking how it can be used to make the right priorities and choices.
“And so, for example,” she says, “my decision to vote against the arms deal was during a long period of seven to eight years of working very hard to change laws and policies and help establish institutions which would implement the political promise which we made in 1994 and I felt that the arms deal was betraying that promise.”
Her decision as chairperson of Parliament’s Committee on Women to hold public hearings around HIV/Aids in order to bring the voices of women into the debate was a similar choice.
As a former MP, Govender has a unique insight into South African politics: she argues that what is taking place in current South African politics is “about revenge politics and it’s about the politics of greed”.
While there was a problem with Mbeki in relation to HIV/Aids, Zimbabwe and macro-economic policy choices; equally she believes Zuma is problematic because of the obstacles being put in place of his day in court and because of his remarks during his defence at his rape trial, where he was acquitted.
“There needs to be a very strong assertion by civil society as to what we will accept and what kind of politics we will assert and a shifting of the terms of debate in terms of what we as South Africans deserve and what we want as a country.”
Change then, begins with every one of us taking the time to look in the mirror and find the love, to work on our own self-growth and translate that into a kind of collective power for change.
That can be as simple as taking a few minutes of time to reflect – something she demonstrates en masse with about 200 people at the Julius Nyere lecture, where she called on people to “own my power of love and courage”. Govender asked people to write down on cards how they would do this, following which audience members spoke out about how they would use the experience to change the world.
“There is great hope that Obama will change our worlds” she says by way of explanation, “He will, but only if all those hundreds of thousands and millions who support him make sure that he never forgets to see, never forgets to hear, never forgets to break the silence. Then he will, but no single individual can alone transform our world. It is up to every single one of us.”
If this is a journey to enlightenment, to ultimate fulfillment, it’s a journey that yoga-practicing Govender is clear she hasn’t completed.
“It’s a journey forever,” she says, “I don’t claim to be anywhere near. The book makes clear I am a very flawed human being. I make no pretences about that but I do think we can all be on a road to reclaiming the best of ourselves.”
Pregs Govender’s book Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination was published in 2007 and tracks her life from a school-girl rebel through to student activist against apartheid and later ANC MP in South Africa’s first democratic Parliament.
The mother of two children, Parusha and Yashodan, Govender obtained a BA in Education from the University of Durban Westville before joining the trade union movement. She founded and headed South Africa’s first Workers College, based at the University of the Western Cape, in 1991.
She moved on to manage the Women’s National Coalition for a Women’s Charter, which mobilised an estimated two million women, ensuring women’s rights in the Constitution.
Elected as an ANC MP in 1994, she pioneered the Women’s Budget and steered its political impact on the 1998 and 1999 budgets. She chaired Parliament’s Committee on Women, which ensured that 80% of its gender-transformative legislative priorities were enacted.
In 2001, she was the only MP to vote against the arms deal and chaired hearings on the gendered impact of HIV/AIDS. The findings were presented to the ANC Caucus at a time of official silence on the issue. She resigned from Parliament in 2002.
She now chairs the Independent Panel of Experts reviewing South Africa’s Parliament and is a member of the Panel of Eminent Persons tasked with developing a global human rights agenda by December 2008.
She also works as an independent writer, educator and researcher for local and international publications and organisations.
In 1999, she received the “Inspiration Award” from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) in recognition of her work in advancing gender equality and social justice around the world.
Pregs Govender on:
Violence: I think it’s very problematic that there are leaders of our country saying they want to, quote, ‘kill for Zuma’. I think it betrays the love that so many sacrificed their lives for in trying to forge a new society.
Lifelong learning: We are consistently learning. Institutions should recognise the learning that happens as people are doing something. One of the things I thought was a pity when we came to power in 1994 was there were people who could have made an enormous contribution if lifelong learning had been recognised. I think that the fact that we often don’t recognise the learning people have accumulated over a lifetime is a great pity.