Frene Ginwala: Cyclone In A Sari, Firebrand Revolutionary, And A Gentle Caring Soul

The newly nationalized Standard newspaper in 1972 saw the sunset of British millionaire Tiny Rowland, the Lonrho magnate, and publisher of the Tanganyika Standard ushering the new era of State-controlled media in independent Tanzania.

With the exit of the British editorial staff, the search was on for a new editor of the nationalized and renamed Standard Tanzania and Sunday News whose de facto editor-in-chief was reputed to be none other than Mwalimu Kambarage Julius Nyerere, the first President.

South African-born Dr Frene Noshir Ginwala played a pivotal role in shaping the future of the newly nationalised newspapers. 

Mrs Ginwala, born in Johannesburg, on 25 April 1932, was a seasoned journalist, editor, lawyer, radio programme producer, and anti-apartheid activist.

She had extensive exposure to her work in the international media including broadcast networks such as the BBC. 

Frene Ginwala shown ruling party big-wigs around The Standard after its nationalisation in 1970. (Picture: Adarsh Nayar)

But before that, there was an ironic twist in Frene’s life who had earlier arrived in Tanzania from South Africa to live in exile in the 1960s where she established the African National Congress (ANC) in exile with her party colleagues. Frene was an active member of the ANC from her young days in South Africa, a movement that South Africa had banned.

While in Dar es Salaam she used her resources, contacts, and time to highlight the brutality of apartheid atrocities of apartheid and published the monthly publication The Spearhead to create attention to the sufferings of the Black people. Tanzanian authorities unable to accept her politics declared her a prohibited immigrant and deported her around 1967.

She came to the UK and continued with her anti-apartheid campaign, lecturing at Oxford University, and writing for the British newspaper The Guardian and The Economist. 

Mwalimu Nyerere, who used to read Ginwala’s articles in the UK media saw Frene as an ideal candidate to run Standard Tanzania as many of the local journalists such as the late Hadji Konde were still not ready to take the hot seat.

Julius Nyerere lifted the deportation order against Ginwala, now 40 and invited her to return to Tanganyika. He told her that the Lonrho-owned Tanganyika Standard and its weekend edition Sunday News would be nationalised and asked her if she could take over as the managing editor.

Editing a small magazine was not difficult but a national newspaper and that too a government mouthpiece with possible censorship and news control? That was a tough assignment!

Ginwala decided to take the plunge, forget the deportation order, and accept the invitation. Nyerere allowed her full freedom to write in The Standard and even to criticise Tanzania if she deemed fit.  She was a no-compromise, controversial journalist, a Marxist, and a dedicated African nationalist with a brilliant mind and a sharp single-mindedness.

Frene, a Parsi, second-generation Indian migrant, saw herself first and foremost as a South African. Her first love was always politics having fought at the forefront of the apartheid struggle with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. As a trained lawyer she was called to the bar in London but she slowly gravitated to journalism, though her first love as politics. 

The word “bossy” was often used to describe Frene Ginwala and her ways of dealing with journalists and MPs in South Africa and other parts of the world. (Picture: Adarsh Nayar)

Her firebrand revolutionary nature continued even as a journalist. In her early years, she freelanced for the BBC. Still, after travelling globally, she returned to South Africa to continue with her politics and joined the African National Congress (ANC). She went into exile in the then Tanganyika after escaping to Dar es Salaam with Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo. There apart from other duties, she published her monthly magazine called Spearhead  which was strong, fearless political journalism, her forte. 

She had gained a reputation for top-notch knowledge of the African nationalist scene. Besides the British Guardian she also wrote for The Observer.

Nyerere and Ginwala discussed the proposal and came to a mutual agreement on how Standard Tanzania would be run. Dressed in a silk sari, Frene walked into the office and took over the top job on 4 February 1970. Even though Nyerere was nominally the editor-in-chief he gave her a lot of reins.

Frene’s time as the editor was not without its difficulties. She overhauled the paper’s writing style. Terrorists and guerrillas were now freedom fighters. She ruffled establishment figures. There was even obscure criticism of Nyerere in the paper! She questioned Tanzania’s socialism and described the state control of businesses by the National Development Corporation as ‘state capitalism’. The paper’s input was controlled by the State House on many issues even though others in power respected her work.

Frene Ginwala with some of the reporters she inherited in 1970. Onn her right in British journalist David Martin who remains a hero to many Tanzanian journalists today. Behind him in sunglasses (at eleven o’clock) is the author of this article who worked at The Standard from 1968-1972). (Picture: Adarsh Nayar)

The story of forced marriages between young Arab girls to elderly Zanzibar Revolutionary Council politicians was extremely sensitive, and Frene published these reports defending the girls. This created political problems for Nyerere even though he did not stop the publication of the reports.

But time was running out for Frene. A coup in the Sudan which toppled then-President Jaafar Mohamed an-Nimeiry generated coverage in The Standard. However, the tables were turned, and Nimeiry and the coup were quickly put down 48 hours later. Coup plotters were swiftly dealt with, leading to the execution of Joseph Garang, a Communist who was Nimiery’s bête noire.

Annoyed, Frene published a stinging editorial suggesting if one were to plot a coup, the head of State should be executed first, and that Nimiery had used this opportunity to purge the Communist Party which she found unacceptable. Unknown to Frene, President Nimiery, a friend of Nyerere and a fellow Socialist, was soon to fly to Tanzania on a State visit. That day, Nyerere sacked Frene – 18 months after she was appointed editor. Her rise and fall as Tanzania’s controversial editor were one small part of her career. 

Her old-time colleagues remember Frene as a ‘cyclone in a sari’ because of her robust no-nonsense style of marching into the newsroom. She could not tolerate slackers because in a daily newspaper with deadlines staring in the face, each minute is precious.

I was assigned by the legendary Indian writer and editor Khushwant Singh of the erstwhile Illustrated Weekly of India to interview Frene Ginwala for their cover story on East African Asians. Being my editor, I was confident she would oblige.

Instead, she wrote to me “I don’t believe that editors themselves should seek publicity” adding, “I see myself as a South African and not East African.”

From that day I followed her principle and shunned self-publicity as an editor. Years later, a senior journalist advised me that times had changed and that if I did not court publicity in the 21st century I would be forgotten and left behind, “You should blow your own trumpet!” he said.

Frene returned to the ANC fold and later became the Speaker of the South African National Assembly. Her death has left a void not only in the political but also in journalism circles. I remember her days as the managing editor of Standard Tanzania, her charm, and the fear that she generated among the staff.

Diplomats and members of the socialist in-crowd greet Nyerere after ne of his many foreign trips. Here he is seen shaking hand with Frene Ginwala at Dar es Salam Airport in 1970) (Picture: Adarsh Nayar)


  • Previously worked on Standard Tanzania/Daily News/Sunday News, is a London-based award-winning journalist, publisher, editor, author, and broadcaster. He is the CEO of Adlink International (1989) Media Group.

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