Dr Frene Ginwala – The Cyclone in a Sari!

Born in Johannesburg, Dr Frene Ginwala was of South Asian parentage from the Parsi-Indian community of western India. Her grand-parents migrated from India in the nineteenth century. She was an important figure in establishing democracy in South Africa and in the writing of the Constitution of post-apartheid South Africa.

She was relentless in her struggle against gender oppression and for a non-sexist, non-racial, just and democratic society. She has written a number of books dealing with various aspects of the struggle against injustice and has been honoured by international and local institutions and governments.

Ginwala obtained her LLB degree at London University in the UK and returned to South Africa. As a petite South Asian woman wearing her traditional sari she was able to operate under the apartheid radar. In the period following the Sharpeville massacre and the declaration of the State of Emergency (SOE) in 1960, she chauffeured NIC (Natal Indian Congress) leaders Monty Naicker and J N Singh, who were operating from the underground after managing to dodge the police swoop; as well as arranged for safe houses for those who had to remain in the country. She established underground escape routes for ANC (African National Congress) members – these included the Deputy-President of the ANC Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo, two leaders of the liberation movement. They, including Ginwala, arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika under the protection of Julius Nyerere. There she was tasked with setting up ANC offices in the country and beyond.

In 1963, Nyerere deported her following her editorial in the Spearhead where she had criticised his plans for a one-party state.

Ginwala then joined the Oxford University to study for a PhD and gave lectures to trainee diplomats at the University. She also wrote for a number of the established media outlets in the UK and elsewhere including the BBC. She held academic titles from several universities in Africa and abroad and was a barrister at law;  historian; a political scientist, and held a doctorate in philosophy from Linacre College at Oxford University.

In 1970, President Nyerere, following the 1967 Arusha Declaration, decided to nationalize the Standard newspaper which was run by the Lonrho Group – financed, managed and edited by Europeans whose homes were in Tanzania but whose hearts were well away from the world of Julius Nyerere and his socialist programmes. He invited Dr Frene Ginwala to take up the Managing Editor’s post, keeping himself as the Editor-in- Chief.

Ginwala immediately set about surrounding herself with well-known international journalists. A few names were Tony Hall, Ian Christie and Richard Gott, a Fleet Street editorialist who claimed he was the first journalist to identify the body of Che Guevara in Bolivia. There was Rod Prince and our own the late Philip Ochieng. A group of committed and well-meaning radicals they certainly were; ‘revolutionary’ and ‘communist’ as some of the Western Press portrayed them is debatable. David Martin stayed on as Assistant Managing Editor.

Among the locals were Haji Kondoe, Robert Rwyemamu, Msubisi Mwakipunda, Felix Kaiza, Pascal Shija, Kusai Kamisa and Ulli Mwambulukutu. Trevor Grundy, Colin Macaulay and Sammy Mdee were there too. Abdalla Ngororo was acting as Ginwala’s personal assistant.

Shamlal Puri describes Ginwala as a ‘cyclone in a sari’! Overnight ‘terrorists’ became ‘freedom fighters’ and journalists were required to attend sessions of ideological study. President Nyerere, the Editor-in-Chief, who had kept his cool so far, lost it when an editorial appeared in the Standard critical of President Nimeiry of the Sudan. (See accompanying articles for details.) Ginwala was declared a Prohibited Immigrant and ordered to leave Tanzania within a week. Added to her faux pas was the anti-Asian sentiment and sexism prevalent in some quarters which explains the public acceptance of this decision.

During this period of exile Ginwala focused her energies mainly on fighting patriarchy within the ANC and institutionalizing that struggle on a broader front. She set up the Women’s National Convention and was elected Convenor of the Coalition. She also headed the ANC Political Research Unit where she conducted research on the transfer of nuclear and military technology. She was the ANC spokesperson in the UK on sanctions, the nuclear programme and the arms and oil embargo relating to South Africa.

She returned to South Africa in 1990 and three years later, in the first democratic elections was elected to the Parliament of South Africa, and served as its first Speaker from 1994 to 2004.

After retirement, she continued serving in a number of international organisations including UN subsidiaries, as Trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and as Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. At the time, she was one of only four female university chancellors in South Africa.  In 2005, she was awarded the Order of Luthuli and recently the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan. 

South African president Thabo Mbeki appointed Ginwala on 30 September 2007 to conduct the enquiry into National Director of Public Prosecutions Vusi Pikoli’s fitness to hold office. She decided generally in favour of Pikoli, but criticised poor communication between departments. She also criticised the Director General of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Advocate Menzi Simelane, whose testimony was contradictory, and without basis in fact or Law. She also had harsh words for president Jacob Zuma on his subsequent appointment of Simelane to National Director of Public Prosecutions.

Dr Frene Ginwala died from complications of a stroke suffered two weeks earlier on 12 January 2023, at the age of 90.

Regarding her personal life Ginwala maintained total privacy. In announcing her passing, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent his condolences to her nephews and their families. Speaking on behalf of the nation, and of the legislative, executive and judicial components of the State, he said: “Today we mourn the passing of a formidable patriot and leader of our nation, and an internationalist to whom justice and democracy around the globe remained an impassioned objective to her last days. Among the many roles she adopted in the course of a life she led to the full, we are duty-bound to recall her establishment of our democratic Parliament which exercised the task of undoing decades-old apartheid legislation and fashioning the legislative foundations of the free and democratic South Africa.

“Many of the rights and material benefits that South Africans enjoy today have their origins in the legislative programme of the inaugural democratic Parliament under Dr Ginwala’s leadership, with Nelson Mandela occupying the seat of the  first President to be elected by the democratic Parliament.

“Frene Ginwala epitomised the ethos and expectations of our then fledgling Constitution and played an important role in building the capacity of Parliament through the transformation of activists and leaders into lawmakers who were in turn able to transform our country. Dr Ginwala was similarly influential and instrumental in shaping the advancement of democracy and the entrenchment of democratic political processes and fundamental socio-economic rights in the Southern African Development Community and the continent at large.

“Beyond African shores, she positioned our young democracy both as one that had as much to contribute to as to learn from global precedents and experience. We have lost another giant among a special generation of leaders to whom we owe our freedom and to whom we owe our commitment to keep building the South Africa to which they devoted their all.”

Sources:      ‘I Accuse the Press’ by Philip Ochieng
‘Frene Ginwala 1932-2023: A Marxist fireball whose flames were doused by Julius Nyerere’
by Trevor Grundy
‘Pioneers, Rebels, and a few Villains – 150 Years of Journalism in Eastern Africa’ edited by
Charles Onyango-Obbo



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