I knew of Frene from my early childhood days. My family and her family were very good friends and often met and socialised. I do not remember meeting her as a child. She was over eight years my senior, but I used to hear glowing stories about her from my parents.
My family and the Rustomjee family were close friends. This friendship began from 1893 when my grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, arrived in South Africa and sought refuge in the home of Rustomjee. Later Rustom Rustomjee married Frene’s sister Dr Khorshed Ginwala. So, I used to hear stories of Frene and the work she was doing as a lawyer and as a journalist. Later we also heard of her courageous work with the underground movement and her association with great African leaders, such as President Julius Nyerere and Oliver Tambo and others.
Frene was etched in my mind as a powerful role model, a woman of substance. I did not even dream that one day I would meet her and that I would serve in the same parliament with her. It was a moment of awe for me when I first met her as we gathered together as women parliamentarians to look at how we can further women’s empowerment and support each other in the powerful position we found ourselves occupying in parliament.
Frene’s powerful words of encouragement and assertion of women’s rights echoed in my ears as we began to play our role in the legislative assembly and in the constitution making processes.
When we elected Frene to the position of Speaker of the National Assembly we were all so proud to see her elegant figure rise to the elevated seat in the South African parliament where I believe Frene occupied the seat as the first woman speaker of this house. During the years of apartheid even though there were a few powerful white women in parliament, women’s status was at a very low level. As African National Congress (ANC) and particularly ANC women entered this august house major changes began to take place to accommodate so many women in parliament, and women began to be elevated into positions of power. But leading the new scenario was Frene.
As we deliberated the constitution Frene played a major role in ensuring that women’s rights and status was entrenched in the constitution. Her guidance and her foresight were invaluable as we not only entrenched women’s rights in the Bill of Rights in the constitution but also created instruments to ensure that these rights will be protected and secured. Frene’s powerful influence throughout the process of constitution-making and in the legislative assembly cannot be overestimated.
Frene had tremendous energy and spirit which was seen in the way she steered the National Assembly with power and skill. Even though we had a government of national unity we had opposing forces in parliament and parliament could get unruly, but Frene kept the decorum of parliament intact through the troubled waters.
Indeed, as I look back and through the over 25 years of the new democratic order I am constantly reminded of the absolutely tremendous and outstanding work Frene had done as speaker of the National Assembly. Her skills, her legal background, her gracious dignity and her stern manner all contributed to building her up as one of the best speakers I have ever seen. She was in control and there was no two ways about it.
Frene’s other very admirable quality was the thoroughness with which she carried out tasks. She would carefully study every bit of information before she would make a ruling. She was efficient and absolutely thorough. She would leave no loopholes. She would expect no lesser performance from others either. A real task master but always pleasant and loving. This quality endeared her to people generally and evoked admiration for her from all sections of the parliament, even from the opposition benches.
Frene’s feminine grace, her dignified carriage and her steely powerful demeanour are the outstanding qualities of a great leader. Indeed, Frene was and will continue to be a role model for women and men for generations to come.