Thursday, 20 September 2007

Pregs Govender survives political pressures to tell a tale of courage

Love and Courage: A story of insubordination, a book about the life and times of former ANC parliamentarian Pregs Govender, is an important record, filled with insights.

The writing is a cut above Govender’s occasional opinion pieces where flashes of passion and inspiration are frequently offset by stilted and preachy segments. Love and Courage exemplifies a better way to write about ideological issues (such as socialism, feminism and political economy) for the wider public. By telling a story, and by discussing values, principles and vision as they are deployed in events and real-life situations, we give life to concepts and big ideas.

This book is well put together and reveals talented and evocative writing, leavened by a good number of wry observations. It chronicles Govender’s life and the factors that shaped her evolution as parent, feminist and hard-core activist. Growing up in a racially divided Durban, in circumstances ranging from poor to lower middle class, Govender’s teacher parents were a big influence and she imbibed her early political awareness from her father, the inimitable Ronnie Govender, playwright and author of At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories.

The task of completing Love and Courage could not have been easy for Govender. The appeal and power of biographical writing lies in the way it interrelates the subjective and the objective, the private and the public - and in the capacity to reveal feelings and personal development alongside discussion of the big issues. But putting oneself in the spotlight is difficult, more so for a high-profile and somewhat controversial figure. Will your approach be defensive, will you be self-deprecating in parts so as to avoid charges that you take yourself too seriously, how will you deal with antagonists (or people close to you who harmed you) who have no chance in the text to reply?

It is all managed pretty well in this book. Govender speaks openly about life and the challenges and hurdles she faced - including problems with her first marriage, its humiliations and the emotionally-taxing fallout. She tellingly conveys the messiness of politics. In her story, there was pain and points of sheer burnout, but she soldiered on in both her work and personal life, all the while enhancing her organizational and leadership capabilities. She has accomplished much and there is a sense that many - in the women’s movement and beyond - regard her as an inspirational figure.

In the book, she comes across as squeaky clean – as one who almost always does the right thing, and never regrets any choices made. But this comes across as bona fide and innocent, rather than deceptive. From what I know of Govender, this is the way she is and how she is viewed by those who know her. There is no doubt that she dedicated her life to the struggle. Govender is strongly value-based in all she does, and when she looks back on various aspects, her orientation is to appreciate what she has learnt from the diverse experiences and the key life stages. In fact, because she is such a “salt of the earth” person, her adversaries in the ANC find that mud does not stick to her – and are frustrated that they can harass and needle, but are never able to deliver a final, vanquishing blow.

From the onset – in fact from the title, which indicates that “insubordination” is part of her identity - the book surfaces the tension between insubordination and adherence to party discipline.

This dilemma may be summed up as follows: Most times your strong convictions fit in well with the party; but at other times you find the collective position weak and ineffectual. Will you speak out? Related questions are: Which battles will you fight to the end, and where will you give in? And what will be the personal cost of taking independent paths based on strong convictions? Govender for the most part solved/managed these tensions through a life that kept the focus on adding value to important political processes. In the latter period as covered in the book, however, she answered it through her withdrawal as an MP and (it would seem) from an active role in party politics. At all stages, there were costs and pressures.

Govender – as she tried to fulfil her parliamentary role - clashed with her party on the arms deal and its approach to HIV/Aids. She also voices a more general gripe: that the democratic government has, in her view, insufficiently prioritised fighting poverty and mistakenly adopted the GEAR macroeconomic policy.

Her experience in the party echoes that of Deputy Minister of Health Madlala-Routledge in Cabinet, where the latter faced huge pressures as a result of expressing herself more clearly and openly than her colleagues on issues such as the right to decent hospital services and the importance of effective rollout of ARVs for people living with Aids. Parties strive to maintain “the line” and are likely to push back when one in their ranks goes against an agreed or officially sanctioned way of handling an issue. This makes striking out alone (if you are unable to change the party’s view) risky and career-limiting. This is the stuff of all parties. For the Govenders and Maldlala-Routledges of the world, there are many factors to weigh up before taking a stand than may offend certain senior Party figures, but it seems the enormity of a national issue is what finally propels such persons to speak out.

Love and Courage, furthermore, gives us an insider’s perspective of the manoeuvring that takes place around policy making. Decisions are based on information, but data and opinion (especially the views of the most influential and powerful) get intermingled until sometimes it is difficult to know which is which. There are party hacks who desire – due to certain agendas at play - a particular end and who make no pretence of engaging with relevant information. Thankfully such “hack” behaviour co-exists with many more instances of sound decisionmaking.

The background role of experts, also with interests and agendas, is woven through all of this.
In many of her roles, and in the light of the gender-related portfolios she often occupied, it can be said that Govender wielded influence rather than power. In some battles her influence won the day, while in others – especially in head-on clashes over direction, strategy and policy choices – formal power trumped influence. This book gives a rare view of life behind the scenes in politics.

On reading this book, her adversaries may be angered - and will probably find in its pages confirmation of their view that she does not meet the requirements of a good and reliable party person. But other people will find in Love and Courage evidence that Govender is a woman of integrity who contributed in distinctive ways to the construction of the new South Africa.

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