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Dr Frene Ginwala remembers Wits

- Wits University

Struggle icon Dr Frene Ginwala recalls how Wits accelerated the global fight against apartheid.

Ginwala, a lawyer and academic, political leader and activist, journalist, and Speaker of South Africa’s first democratically elected Parliament spoke fondly about the contribution of Wits students to bring about equality. She shared her memories during the graduation ceremony on 21 April 2022 when the University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Laws, in absentia.

“I recall that students at this institution set up a fund many years ago to assist African students when the apartheid government tried to exclude them from medical school. This fund was called the African Students Medical Trust Fund. This initiative kicked off the global campaign for the isolation of the apartheid government and apartheid institution," said Ginwala via a pre-recorded speech broadcast at the ceremony.  

Ginwala who turned 90-years-old just four days after the University bestowed its highest honour on her expressed her delight at the recognition adding that: “This recognition from one of the leading tertiary institutions in our country is gratifying and I am grateful for our acknowledgement of the contribution I have made to deepening our democracy and improving the lives of our people.”

Ginwala alluded to the challenges facing the higher education sector and the ongoing efforts to maintain high standards of education.

Read the Citation presented at the graduation ceremony of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management.

About Ginwala

Dr Frene Ginwala was born in Johannesburg on 25 April 1932, and much of her early schooling took place in India. The family’s return from a short visit to the subcontinent was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and was extended to avoid torpedo risks.

During the 1950s, she initially enrolled at the University of British Columbia, Canada, to read Chemical Engineering and transferred to Columbia University, New York, but a chemical allergy ended this career option. She subsequently acquired a Law Degree from Kings College, London and after being admitted to the Inner Temple as a Barrister she returned to South Africa. Later, during the 1970s, she was awarded a DPhil through Linacre College, Oxford.

In March 1960, after the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC and PAC, she left South Africa to assist the ANC to set up its mission in exile. While in exile, she worked closely with the most senior ANC leaders, including Oliver Tambo. At the request of President Nyerere, she served as Managing Editor of The Standard and Sunday News. In the UK, she worked as a journalist at various times for The Guardian, the Observer, the Economist and the BBC.

In 1974, she went to Mozambique to work on a full-time basis for the ANC, assisting in developing the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity. And so it was thanks to Ginwala that in 1976, when more than 600 South Africans were killed in the Soweto uprising, the ANC was able to broadcast the information abroad, and to counter the propaganda from the South African government that the uprising was by a hostile, communist movement from which the Apartheid government was trying to protect democracy. Ginwala also helped to draw attention to the force resettlement of millions of black South Africans in the Bantustans, the suspension of due legal process, and the disappearance of thousands of South Africans without a trace. She became well known within international organisations for her persistent advocacy of international action. In 1987, she was asked to be one of 14 international experts to advise the UNESCO Director-General on the Peace and Research Program.

Dr Ginwala returned to South Africa in 1990 after 30 years in exile when ANC was unbanned. She played a critical role in ensuring the entrenchment of gender equality in South Africa’s democratic Constitution. Not only did she work within the ANC to secure important policy commitments to gender equality, but as Co-Convenor of the Women’s National Coalition, she was central in organising women to participate in South Africa’s negotiated transition to democracy. The inclusion of non-sexism as a founding value in our Constitution and the commitment to gender equality contained in the Bill of Rights can be attributed in no small measure to her inexhaustible energy and leadership.

Her contribution to the establishment of our democratic institutions has also been significant. In the multiparty negotiations process, she contributed to the drafting of a new electoral law, and the establishment of the Independent Electoral Commission. She also served in the Constitutional Assembly where she was instrumental in developing provisions on the role and independence of Parliament. In 1994, she was elected Speaker of the National Assembly, the first non-racial Parliament in South Africa’s history. She served in this capacity with distinction for a decade. Under her leadership, the National Assembly was established as a ‘People’s Parliament’ which welcomed the voices and participation of the national community of equal citizens.

Dr Ginwala has also had several important roles on continental and international bodies. She served on the Steering Committee for the establishment of the Pan African Parliament; on an advisory group to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; as Commissioner on Human Security for the UN; as a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm; and as member of the International Women’s Commission for the establishment of and Just and Sustainable Peace in Palestine and Israel.

Dr Ginwala has received several national and international awards. They include: the global award for outstanding contribution to the promotion of human rights and democracy (Priyadarshni Academy, India, 2002); the North- South prize (the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe,2003); the Grande Officer de L’Ordre National Cote Ivoire (1998); and the Order of Luthuli (2005). She has been awarded honorary degrees from several universities: the University of Cape Coast, Ghana; the University of Cape Town; the University of the Western Cape; Rhodes University; the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the University of South Africa.

Dr Ginwala remains active in public affairs: as Chairperson of the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation; Deputy Chairperson of the ANC’s Integrity Commission; member of the Advisory Board of the Coalition for Dialogue in Africa; member on the African Union Board to Combat Corruption; and member of the United Nations Advisory Board on Human Security.

Dr Frene Ginwala has led a most remarkable public life, spanning several decades, based in many countries, including Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, the United Kingdom, several European countries, South Africa. During this time, she has served the public in many capacities - as a lawyer and academic, political leader and activist, journalist, Editor, and Speaker of South Africa’s first democratically elected Parliament.

The University of Witwatersrand is proud to honour an icon of our struggle for democracy, who played an instrumental role in both designing the vision for a new South Africa, and leading the key institutions shaping the realisation of this vision.