Obituary: Frene Ginwala, First Speaker Of The Parliament Of Free South Africa

Feature Article Obituary: Frene Ginwala, First Speaker Of The Parliament Of Free South Africa
JAN 16, 2023 LISTEN

I first met Frene Ginwala, first Speaker of the Parliament of a democratic South Africa, in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanganyika, in June 1962. I'd just attended the first Conference of African Writers held at Makerere University, Kampala, from June 11-17 of that year.

I was 25 years old, and filled with that urge and zest characteristic of my age group that welcomed every possibility of adventure as if it was heaven-sent. So, having taken up the editorship of the Ghana edition of DrumMagazine for just over a year (Drum was founded in South Africa in March 1951 but soon sprouted editions in Ghana and Nigeria, as well as East and Central Africa;by 1962, it was the the most famous magazine in Africa) I was gogogogo!

Now, I had developed, – largely as a result of Dr Kwame Nkrumah's dynamic Pan-African policy after Ghana had obtained her independence in 1957 – a very keen interest in the political situation in the rest of Africa during my years as a news editor at the Ghana Broadcasting System. But, of course, there was no money at the GBS to travel to the places in Africa that we broadcast about!

But now, (june 962) there in my hands had come a ticket that would take me to Kampala, Uganda, and back. I sought out a very competent Travel Agent, and with his help, converted my ticket into a very complex but inexpensive one that would enable me to go from Uganda to Kenya, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, (as colonial Zambia and Zimbabwe were called at the time), as well as to Nyasaland (now Malawi.)

I had a whale of a time in Kampala, but the place that I was dying to go to was Kenya. For out there lived Africa's greatest hero of the time, Jomo Kenyatta. Mr Kenyatta, a leader of the Kenya African Union, had been been imprisoned for almost ten years in 1952 by the British colonialists for allegedly leading an armed struggle by Kenyan African nationalists called (by the British) the "Mau Mau" rebellion”. The Africans only wanted to take back their lands forcibly seized by armed white settlers, with the connivance of the British Government. The British used their superior arms to repress the rebellion mercilessly.

But in 1961, the British caved in and released Mr Kenyatta. An Honourable Member of the Kenya Parliament by the time I was iin Nairobi, he was waiting in the wings to become Prime Minister! And, of course, I wanted an exclusive interview with him! I had arranged from Accra to see Mr Tom Mboya, a lieutenant of Mr Kenyatta's, about obtaining one. (Mr Mboya was receptive to the idea, because he had received a great deal of publicity, not least from GBS News, where I worked, when he was elected chairman of the famous All-African People's Conference that took place in Accra in December 1958. It was generally agreed that he presided over the conference brilliantly and we made no bones about telling the world so!.)

In Nairobi, I had a nice interview with Mr Kenyatta, whom I came to admire even more, because when he ordered coffee for us in Parliaent Huse, he wouldn't tlucnh it until the waikter had wiped te able. "I hate dust" he opined. I enjoyed life greatly in Kenya for a bit, and then flew to Dar-Es-Salaam. I found the place bustling with intense activity, all aimed at liberating Africa. The Mozambican African leader of the time and founder of FRELIMO, the late Edouardo Mondlane, was based there, and I interviewed him. I was heart-broken when he was assassinated by the Portuguese secret police not too long afterwards. The assasination brught home to me, the true nature of brutal colonialism. Also in Dar, were many South Africans who had had to flee into exile, following the Sharpeville massacre of 21March 1960. What I thought were my “discreet” enquiries about who could arrange for me to visit South Africa clandestinely, led me to the doors of an Indian lady called Frene Ginwala.

I went to see her in a nice little house she had in Dar-Es Salaam. I didn't know it then but she had done enormously heroic work on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC) after the struggle against apartheid was intensified, following the Sharpeville killings. As a lawyer and a journalist, she was so committed to the ANC that ignoring personal danger, she used her cover to chauffeur several of the organisation's leaders around the country, to raise funds for those who needed to be secretly housed while in hiding from the police, or to be helped to flee into exile.

Specifically, it was Frene's valiant efforts that enabled the deputy president of the ANC, Mr Oliver Tambo, to escape to Tanganyika, by way of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Mr Tambo became the be-all of the ANC in exile. Another ANC leader who was grateful for her efforts at helping him escape from the police was Dr Yusuf Dadoo, leader of the “Defiance campaign” in South Africa and a defendant in the South African Treason Trial of 1956.

For all her heroic actions, Frene was as cool as a cucumber. When I told her that a colleague at Radio Ghana's Swahili section had promised to get me an interview with the Tanganyika leader, Mr Julius Nyerere, but that no-one in Mr Nyerere's office seemed to have heard of me when I went there to enquire abut the nterview, she calmly picked up the phone and spoke to “Julius” -- gently but directly -- about my problem. “Julius” asked her how long I would be in the country for, and when he was told that I would be there for only about a week, expressed his regret that he could not see me within such a short period, as his diary was full. He apparently expressed displeasure that the man to whom I had entrusted my request for an interview with “Julius”, had not carried out his task. I must say I was very impressed with Frene's gravitas!

What about my proposed secret visit to South Africa? I told her I had written to the office of Prime Minister Verwoerd from Nairobi but had been told that my visit could not be ”permitted”! However, I wanted the ANC to elp me to go and see apartheid for myself. Frene laughed and said she would see what she could do. Apparently, one of the apartheid regime's many spies among the exile community got wind of my plan and reported it to his bosses in Pretoria, for when I returned to Ghana, one journalist colleague who had contacts with all manner of dubious people told me that “the South African secret police were waiting for you to go there. They would have tried you as a spy sent by Kwame Nkrumah and executed you! It would have made a very god story for them, showing them to be very alert in terms of security”.

I thanked my God that my plan hadn't worked out.

What I learnt about the spies in the South African community in Dar-Es Salaam increased my respect for Frene Ginwala enormously. For it showed that she was in real danger of being killed, or kidnapped, by people she probably trusted, but who were “double agents” working for the apartheid regime.

Frene Noshir Ginwala, who was of Indian descent, was born on 25 April 1932 in Johannesburg (in the province now known as Gauteng but formerly known as Transvaal, in South Africa.) She has just died -- on 12 January 2023 (aged 90). I regret to report.

As already mentioned, she was the first Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, serving from 1994 to 2004. She was influential in the writing of the Constitution of South Africa and an important figure in establishing democracy in the cuntrhy.

She was Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal; her Alma mater was the University of Oxford, England; after retiring as Speaker, she continued serving in a number of international organisations including UN subsidiaries, sering also as a Trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Frene was honoured with the North-South Prize[ 2003];

Order of Luthuli, [2005] and Order of the Rising Sun, 2008.