Pregs Govender wanted to end poverty by the time she was forty years old and reach nirvana by sixty. Growing up, she was influenced by her father, the radical playwright Ronnie Govender. “I grew up having very lively debates about everything from religion to politics,” she says. “My family loved ideas and words and books and action and doing things to try to change injustice.”
The struggle against injustice has defined her life. Today, the former ANC MP serves as deputy chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission. Govender has spent the duration of her political career fighting for equal rights for women and children, defying the authorities that oppose her along the way. Her eloquence and composure are balanced by her warmth. She carries herself with the confidence and serenity of someone who has lived and overcome.
Born in Cato Manor, Durban in 1960, her full name would come to be as much a reflection of her future principles as her birth was. Prega (a name traditionally bestowed upon boys) means ‘one who overcomes obstacles’, and Luxmi means love. They were combined for her, creating a name most would feel pressure to live up to. Pregaluxmi was up for the challenge.
As she matured, so did her political awareness. She had her first encounter with a women’s solidarity organisation while in high school, when she attended a meeting of the Black Women’s Federation. Hearing the likes of Winnie Mandela and Fatima Meer speak of the unity that ought to be displayed between women of all cultures roused the young Govender’s spirit.
She was an opinionated young woman, curious about her surroundings, and concerned about the oppression of women and black South Africans. “I think there are many people who instinctively understand that the inequality is wrong,” she says. “It’s unjust the way in which the gender stereotypes constrain our freedom to be fully human.”
After graduating from university, Govender became an English teacher. “I loved teaching,” she says. “It’s just about creating an environment in which a child can see and touch their own potential, and who they are and their belief in themselves and their belief in their ability to think creatively and critically.” She was opposed to corporal punishment, encouraging her students to discover themselves through poetry. Her alternative teaching methods, however, aggrieved her colleagues, and she was shuffled from school to school.
Govender was grappling with having to perform conventional gender roles within her family life. She married young and became a mother in her early twenties, but found it tiring being defined by her femininity and traditional models of motherhood. She struggled to balance her work and familial responsibilities, resentment creeping into her marriage. She and her husband would eventually divorce.
She joined the Natal Organisation of Women, who had become affiliated with the UDF, in 1983. She left teaching to focus on the trade union movement. “I had started working with women’s organisations and trade union members in support capacities,” she says. “I thought that to be able to successfully fight against apartheid, we needed to be organised and we needed people who understood. We needed to practise in our own organisations what we were fighting for.”
In 1994, she was elected into the Parliamentary Cabinet of the ANC. During her tenure as an MP, she pioneered the South African Women’s Budget and was elected Chairperson of Parliament’s Committee on Women. Unafraid to speak up, Govender was critical of the Mbeki administration’s HIV/Aids policy. In 2002, she took one of the most bold and visible stands of her lifetime: she resigned from Parliament after being the only ANC MP to oppose the arms deal in the budget vote.
Retaining her ethical and political vision in the face of total opposition took immense courage. “When I had made the decision, I didn’t realise that I was the only one who had done that,” she says. “After the vote was over the whip came over to see me and said, ‘It looks like there might have been an error, comrade Pregs. The computer seems to have made a mistake.’” She assured her colleague that it was not an error, that she had indeed voted against the proposal.
The day Govender resigned, she addressed Parliament in a speech filled with eloquence, warmth and humanity. “It was extremely sad,” she says. “But at some point in time you recognise when you can no longer make a difference in the space you’re in, and you have to find another space where you can continue to contribute.” She spoke without bitterness or anger. Instead she expressed her deep gratitude at being able to serve a democracy that she had loved and believed in.
Despite her resignation, Govender never lost the respect of her colleagues, and in 2008 Parliament voted unanimously for her appointment as SAHRC Commissioner, a post she holds to this day. Since leaving Parliament, she has continued to work tirelessly for human rights and women’s equality. She has chaired the Independent Panel Assessment of Parliament, been a member of the global Panel on Human Dignity, and is also a board member of the Social Justice Initiative.
For Govender, the poverty and violence that women in South Africa experience due to gender equality is an enormous concern, but she refutes the idea of patriarchy as a system that oppresses just women. Instead, she understands it as a structure that is as detrimental to men. “There is this sense of dominance,” she says, “Within which women and children, both girls and boys, are the invisible victims of hidden forms of violence.”
In the narrative of Govender’s life, the words ‘love’ and ‘courage’ are central. Every choice she has made and every stand that she has taken has demanded her courage, and she believes love to be essential in dismantling abusive structures of power. In her farewell speech to Parliament, she articulated just how important love is for the still-healing nation of South Africa: “I know that in our hearts we cannot have forgotten who we are. In our hearts we cannot rubbish our collective dream and vision, and the love that inspired courage across our land against the hate and fear of apartheid’s patriarch…it is time to reclaim ourselves.”