A conversation with Nomboniso Gasa – Adjunct Professor at School of Public Law at University of Cape. She is Senior Research Associate at UCT


LM: Thank you Sisi for giving me an opportunity to explore some key themes with you in this leadership conversation. I know that our readers will truly enjoy your unique insights and broad perspectives. 

NG: Thank you. It is an honour and privilege to talk with you.

LM: Tell us about your early years, how did you grow up, and who were your early heroes and role models? 

NG: I was born in Cape Town, where my parents met.  A traumatic encounter with the apartheid system and its impact on me, a toddler, convinced my parents to move to rural Eastern Cape, and raise us in my father’s village in the former Transkei. This is what happened, according to my parents.

There were numerous ‘dompas’ checks in Cape Town at the time. Like many toddlers, I copied adults and habitually asked for my own ‘dompas’ whenever we approached a dompas check point.  On this particular day, I asked for my dompas. Standing between my parents, in the cabin part of the bakkie, mother noticed that I was shaking. As the officer approached, I got nervous because I didn’t have my ‘dompas’ and started shaking badly. I peed on myself.  My parents were alarmed because since the day I pulled my towel nappies off, I had never had an accident.  Mother quietly gave me the ‘dompas’.

When the officer came to our car, I was the first to stick out my document (the folded paper) and earnestly gave it to the officer.  He found it funny and called his colleagues to see the ‘a little kaffer’ who was well trained already at that age.  There and then, my parents decided to settle in the village. They wanted to raise their children away from the daily humiliation and brutality of apartheid in the urban areas.

Three years after that incident, we moved to the village. My father’s ancestral home was destroyed during the relocation following the Trust Act. So, there was no home to go to. They had to build from scratch. Mother, a city girl, settled in the village and started building like other village women. She made mud bricks, like other women and built our little flat, with her bare hands. Father, like other village men, had to eke out a living in the city. He had his own clothing business and travelled as a salesman. That home which started with a little mud flat expanded into a huge homestead. They built a store which became their main source of income.

That home and that village became a sanctuary for us and our relatives. Bantustans were created as reserves for cheap labour and places where Africans were dumped away from the ‘white republic’ of South Africa. They were places of grinding poverty and absent men, who came home for two weeks at the end of the year, when the mines were closed. Despite this, that village was full of life, laughter, strength and yes, tears and sorrow, too.

We made our toys and fashioned our games.  The open fields, rivers and hills were ours, they belonged to us and we belonged to them. Of course, we were touched by apartheid and encountered its brutality regularly. Our very presence in those villages was defined by apartheid laws, policies and practices.

Men and women who were otherwise proud and brave, walked with eyes cast down whenever they went to Queenstown. We saw our elders ‘melt’ in the background whenever they encountered white people.  Even so, the dignity with which they went about their business could not be denied. Instead of thinking of them as weak, my mother taught us about something she called ‘switching’, adjusting one’s behaviour to suit circumstances. She told us, people ‘switched’ not because they agreed with what was going on but because they wanted to buy supplies and go home without being beaten. This remains an important lesson for me.

My parents were and remain my role models and my heroes. They moved from Cape Town and left the immediate source of trauma, to build a secure environment in which to raise their family, even if it meant leaving behind creature comforts for my mother and going into an unknown territory.  They taught us the value of hard work: we worked in the garden, in the plough fields on weekends. There was no gender based division of labour. I could inspan cattle as quickly as older boys and lead them when we ploughed. I could make the fluffiest scones for Sunday tea.  Later, my parents introduced other games, such as chess. Our house was a village library. Kids gathered to listen to my mother telling stories about travelling with trains when preparing preparation for a school eassay ‘a journey by train’.

LM: What are your fondest memories of your high school education, and what are the challenges you confronted? 

NG: I have a very complicated history with high schools.  I was very rebellious.  I went to many schools and was expelled a lot because of my politics. But I had two teachers that I admired and who pushed me beyond my limits. My history teacher, Mr. Loyiso Dingiswayo made me come alive in class and out of the classroom. As a result, I did very well in history. I loved it and loved the way Mr. Dingiswayo challenged us. 

My other teacher was Mr. Silinga who taught English.  I missed many deadlines at school and quite frankly, most of the time, I was busy reading political literature like Sechaba and the African Communist, which my Aunt sent to me, from Cape Town.  But, during the English class, I was fully present and very happy. I remember long conversations about English literature with Mr. Silinga.

LM: You entered the University of the Western Cape in the 1980’s, can you describe the role of this university during those turbulent years? What set UWC apart during those times? 

NG: A few days after I arrived in Cape Town, in December 1986, I was detained.  I was released after 21 days. 

The day after I was released, I went to the University of Cape Town (UCT), where I was admitted to study with a scholarship. That day at UCT, was my first real encounter with the white establishment and it was profoundly unsettling.  I did not know how to interact with white people. I did not understand their accents. I did not know what to make of blue eyes, were they looking at me? Was that a smile?  I was at UCT for two hours and started crying, with frustration, I think. 

Eventually, I left UCT and walked to Mowbray where I took a taxi to Gugulethu. People asked why was I crying? I told them about my ambition to study at UCT and my experience there. I ended with  ‘umoya wam awuvumi’ (my spirit is not  well there).  For a child who grew up in the village, this was a normal way of speaking. People in the taxi laughed at me. They found what I said archaic, self-indulgent and precious. In between laughter, someone told me abou ‘the Coloured University at Bellville’.  I was told to go to Langa Station and take a trian to Bellville. I took the train and went to Bellville, a station after Belhar for UWC.I walked from  Bellville to UWC.  On arrival at UWC, I saw ‘Release Mandela’, Viva Cecyl Esau and other political posters. There were freedom songs coming from somewhere. I followed the sound and landed at the Great Hall, where there was a mass meeting.

I had never been to a mass meeting like that and the whole meeting procedure, ‘Order Comrade Chair’ was  new to me. I’d been an activist throughout my teenage life, I had been detained several times and tortured but I had never been in a meetings with many people. My political experience was mainly underground.  At Cala High, during the 1985 defiance, we had three mass meetings but they were not like this. Before UWC, I had never said the word ‘comrade’ out loud.   UWC was liberating for me. 

Most of the students who were admitted to study were from far flung places, the Transvaal, Qwaqwa, Port Elizabeth, Mount Frere, Durban from all over South Africa.  People spoke so many African languages, Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele,  SiSwatiXiTsongaSeTswanaTshiVenḓaIsiXhosaIsiZulu. From my  first day at UWC, I listened with my ears, with my ears and with my skin. I was African in the fullest sense of the word. I was an African with Africans from all over the country. For a girl who grew up in a uni cultural small village in Transkei, the freedom and interaction with these Africans was and remains immeasurable. We underestimate the institutionalised tribalism of apartheid.

UWC opened this wide door for me. It also opened doors of learning, belonging and enquiry, especially for the class of 1987.  That is the same year that Professor Jakes Gerwel gave his inaugural lecture as Vice Chancellor and declared UWC a University of the left. His mission was to help create a university in which all South Africans belonged. Against the backdrop of apartheid segregation, this was a huge mission and an important one in our intellectual cultures. UWC was also a home to students who came from poor backgrounds. It was the first university to waive large deposits at registration. When I registered, having left UCT where I had a scholarship, I had no money. My grandmother helped me put together the registration fee and that was it.  Many of us who were in this position were not turned away. This was a big step, in the 1980s.

UWC was the first to undertake transformation in the composition of the student body, the academics recruited to teach there and in some instances, the culture of learning and content.   Of course, this was uneven.  I remember our Political Science class. It was buzzing with intellectual debates, disagreements and impassioned in its engagement with  political theories and political philosophy. To this day, I credit UWC for creating a culture in which we could be curious, take theory and thought processes seriously.  Two lecturers stand out for me; Professor Vincent Maphai and Dr. Seshi Chonco. A university is a place of intellectual awakening and they nurtured this and most importantly, embraced our different intellectual, political and theoretical traditions and helped us thrive.  This was a place where we actually put seminars of visiting scholars in our calendars, where we exchanged ideas with our lecturers. 

Professor Gerwel and Archbishop Tutu, the chancellor, stood firmly against apartheid. So, we shared this bond with the University leadership and many academics. That sense of solidarity was very important for us and it set an example for other universities, too.

LM: I remember you as one of the bravest, powerful and most articulate leaders amount students, tell us more about the student movement at the time, and some of the more colourful characterised of those times. 

NG: The 1980s were very turbulent and the apartheid government was brutal. Not only did they send police to attack students with rubber bullets, teargas, dogs and live ammunition, they used underhand methods which were very damaging in the long run. For example, they deployed informants within the body of student activists. The Special Branch used dirty tactics to divide us. There were those unending whispers ‘so and so is a spy’ and the news would travel through the subterranean network of whispers, and mistrust would grow, often against innocent people. We were young, inexperienced and easily spooked by these tactics.  I was aware of this danger and as a result, consciously cultivated relationships of trust, took care not to participate in the ‘whispers’ and made sure to act in a rational and disciplined manner.

I was part of the student movement as well as underground units of the ANC and Umkhonto WeSizwe.  I was very young and of course, I was anxious not to make any mistakes.  Some of the work I did underground was actually very dangerous not only for me but for others with whom I was involved. So, I made sure, with the assistance of comrades who led the underground units I was involved in and my grandmother, the seasoned cadre and leader, Dorothy Zihlangu, not to put any foot wrong. That was and is easier said than done.

The student movement at UWC was vibrant and in many ways, we were fashioning our own politics, navigating a complex terrain. UWC was one of the few Universities which tried to break through the apartheid stratification through admitting many African students and trying to integrate African and Coloured students.  This has its own challenges because we had no guidelines, no textbook on how this should be done.

We were young, inexperienced and trying to build a truly non-racial student movement in real time. It was not easy. I think we made some mistakes. I think we were not sufficiently mature to understand the delicate balance which this required and certainly not very nuanced in our positions.  But, we were part of a student movement which tried to break down apartheid ethnocentric and tribal identities. Whatever our shortcomings, I am immensely proud to have been part of that movement.

UWC was the first university to offer student leadership an opportunity to sit on University Committees, to contribute to the transformation process which was unfolding at the University. This was uncharted territory, there was no ‘how to’ manual.  It was trial and error and there were many errors.  We had to navigate the delicate balance of  maintaining our independence whilst being part of  negotiating and engaging with university leadership.

We also tried to build a solid relationship with the workers and to bridge that divide between workers and students.  This taught us important lessons in fighting for causes which did not benefit us only and at times, which did not affect us directly, like the conditions of workers on campus.  Awareness of this and the solidarity with the workers made us better people and certainly, better political activists who knew that our own freedom was always inextricably linked to that of others.  

At UWC I sharpened my feminist political teeth and developed a better understanding of feminism and gender oppression.  When I look back, I see that period in my life as a time when I grew in my social awareness, learnt basic forms of analysis and better understood how patriarchy worked.  I didn’t grasp all these at the same time and it was to take a long period before I could fully understand these issues. I am still learning.  But I do think the 1980s were a period in which I straightened my back, learnt to stand tall and started to develop a language to articulate issues which were important to me.  Being a feminist was not easy in the 1980s. Sometimes, male comrades  saw feminism as divisive and it could create friction and was uncomfortable.  But we grow through uncomfortable experiences and learn to articulate our vision, to stake our claim and to fight the causes that are meaningful to us.

For me, being part of a student movement that was unapologetically linked to the liberation movement, to the UDF, to the cause of working people and trade unions, this was the best opportunity for growth, it certainly was beyond my wildest imagination. To this day, I remain grateful and inspired by that movement of passionate, committed, angry and tender students. I cannot imagine being at University and being docile. We were angry against the apartheid government. We were very angry against Bantu Education. We saw ourselves as our own liberators.  To be part of that movement, to push back against De Klerk’s draconian rules (FW de Klerk was then Minister of Education) and to be prepared to confront the brutal system,   was exhilarating. It certainly was the beginning of a life-long quest, to define our freedom and claim it for ourselves.

I met many people who had a lasting impact in my life. Professor Gerwel was one of such people. I met many activists and student leaders with whom I developed a life long bond. Noby Nyova Ngombane is one of activists and student leaders I met.

LM: Throughout your career, you have been an unashamed activist for various causes close to your heart on Land, Politics, Gender and Cultural issues. How did you gravitate towards these causes rather than be part of the mainstream causes tackled by the liberation movement? 

NG:  Our village was 55 minutes from Queenstown, where we saw the GP, dentist and bought fresh milk to sell and supplies for my parents’ shop. We went to town almost every day and sometimes twice a day.  We crossed two borders, first the Transkei border on exit to South Africa. And then a few minutes later, we crossed the South African border and repeated this, with stamped passports on our way back.  The bakkie was always full of village kids, singing at the top of our voices, urging my father to overtake cars and generally fooling around.

When we turned into the part of the R61 which had the markings ‘20 kilometres to Queenstown’ my father would tap the roof of the bakkie that was a signal, ‘all limbs inside the bakkie, no noise. You are entering the white man’s world, behave.’  Because of this signal and the borders we crossed every day I was acutely aware of how land was marked in South Africa.  I saw how elders who were sick could not go to the hospital in Queenstown because they did not have a Transkei passport. There was no hospital in Cofimvaba at that time.  I was often in the car when my father used to take back roads avoiding the border posts to ensure that people made it to the hospital. These back roads did not always work out successfully and it was risky to take them and sometimes people did not make it to hospital.

‘Emdeni’ (at the border) was the word I became used to and often wondered why there were these borders in the first place. My parents explained to my confused and then angry younger self.  ‘Umda’ the Xhosa word for border also meant something that you could not attain, a line which should not be crossed.  It stuck with me, this slicing of the country, drawing ridiculous boundaries that could not be crossed, boundaries beyond which were basic services which people needed to survive, like hospitals. Late into the night, I had conversations with my parents, especially my mother, about these things.  My parents encouraged me to ask questions and to think about the answers I was given. 

Land held other secrets for me, our identity.  My father’s people settled in the village after crossing the Kei River, centuries earlier. They were part of the African missionaries who crossed the Kei River with the Anglican missionaries.  We are Chisana clan, people with ties to the San and the Khoi, products of cultural miscegenation in frontier land. My father always made sure that I understood that the mingling between the peoples who met on the frontier  was not always consensual. In our village there were caves with San drawings and my father encouraged me to study these drawings and explained that we were descendants of these people. ‘This land, holds all the memory, culture and knowledge of your people.’

So, all these factors contributed to my fascination with land.  In addition to this, we worked the land and lived off it in my village. There were problems that were introduced by the Transkei government which took arbitrary decisions about land, irrigation and development. They built an irrigation scheme in Qamata. My parents were actually excited by this development and for many years, we got produce to sell and to live off, peas, milies, sorghum, potatoes, cabbage- just about every crop we planted. The land was generous. One year, without any discussion with the communities, the Transkei government entered into an agreement with Taiwanese companies. Swathes of land were taken and converted into rice paddies. Rice paddies in Qamata.  People had no say over this. They were allocated smaller plots for their use and we competed with rice paddies for water. This was the time of drought so naturally the rice paddies did very well. The people, not so well.

From these complicated roots of my family’s complex identities, the hardship and isolation brought by border posts and the powerlessness over the plough fields and the irrigation scheme, within me, a commitment to understand the land questions of South Africa and to contribute to a better system and to free the land, grew. 

When I worked for the ANC in the early 1990s, this grew strongly. I was fascinated and frustrated by the manner in which the land question was handled during the constitutional negotiations. I did not have a position as such, but I believed very strongly that land is not property and should not be treated as such. I cornered President Mandela about this and he asked me to develop my position. I did and we engaged on this. Frankly, I am not sure how coherent I was but I believed that land, like the sea and the air should be treated as a national resource. That is how I came to be committed to the land question.  In particular, through working with rural communities on their right to land because this is with what I am very familiar.

Gender Equality was an issue I was interested in since girlhood. I was raised by parents who did not believe in limits for girls, yet I grew up in a village which had clear rules for girls and boys.  If  a choice had to be made between sending a girl and a boy to school or some other beneficial course, most parents chose to advantage a boy. For example, many parents could send only one child to school and they selected boys.  This drove me mad because more often than not, those boys were not bright.  My parents encouraged me to talk to the parents on my own and motivate for the girls. Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I did not.  I was a letter writer and reader for some families. My parents made me promise not to talk about what what was in those letters. They did not say anything about adding my own paragraph. So, I often slipped in a paragraph about why the girl must go to school and why she was the same as the boy or even better. I would sign my name at the bottom of the paragraph. So, there was a letter within another letter. Pleading for an opportunity for the girl child became my thing and most parents agreed. This carried over to my activism. As an activist I could do anything and so I did not see why girls would be in the back. 

When I came to Johannesburg, looking for work, I had one job in my mind – to work in the field of gender equality and hopefully in the ANC.  I did not know how I would achieve this and I was prepared to take the detours thrown by life. I was young, idealistic and extremely passionate. That’s where I started. Along the way, I became aware of the importance of knowledge, research, thought processes. Some of these skills are developed along the way and once acquired they serve us well. But, passion and placing value on speaking and standing with one’s truth, those are the most essential, I believe.

So, once I got a job in the ANC as the Executive Secretary of the Commission for The Emancipation of Women (an administrative and policy position), I tried to learn as quickly as I could. Often, I was pushed into spaces for which  I didn’t think I was ready. My boss, Dr. Frene Ginwala did not suffer fools gladly. She was a tough task madam, she did not have time for excuses and was willing to help me grow. So, I learnt not to ask whether I should sit at the table, but to simply join the table, make room for myself and others and to make use of that position. Sometimes, I was aware that I was not fully equipped or experienced. It did not matter, I would learn along the way.  This was an exciting time, during negotiations and when the ANC was preparing for 1994.

So, this is how I became committed to issues of Land, Gender and Culture which I am still working on to this day.

LM: You have published widely, in newspapers & academic circles at a time when this was not popular. Why did you choose this as an important site of struggle and advocacy ?

NG: I did not make a deliberate choice to write and publish. As a black woman, I was keenly aware that we are under-represented in writing and publishing spaces. As a result of this under-representation, we have often read distortions of our world, history and realities.  This is not because we can’t write or because we do not want to write. Rather, it is because those spaces have traditionally and historically been made to be difficult for us, unattainable for black women.

For me, writing and publishing is a way of clarifying my thoughts and understanding the world. I did not want to be one of the few black women who write and publish. I wanted to be a part of a community of women who have the courage to speak up, to write and to have their names in print and stand by their words. So, I decided to explore this space and learnt to write and speak even when my voice was shaking. I am excited to see many women, especially younger black women who have  moved into to this space and some have surpassed me. 

LM: You have also taken on social media as another terrain of struggle, have you been as effective in this medium and are you able to navigate the tone and culture of this medium? 

NG:  After the Arab spring and other movements which successfully used social and new media, I was curious to see how it works. It would take a few years before I joined these platforms.  Social media is tricky, because people are bombarded with a lot of information and as result, their attention span is very short. To mitigate this, there is a tendency to exaggerate and to click bait, with misleading headlines and manufactured outrage.  Social media can be a brutal space, because people often respond to what is said without having taken time to understand, mull over and deliberate on issues.

The immediacy of the platforms is what makes them so compelling and yet, it is also what makes them difficult and angry spaces.  For me, social media is useful and enjoyable because I express my different interests – gardening, cooking, tennis, politics, jazz, art and photography and interact with people on the basis of shared interest.  It is also a sobering space, because people are not shy (behind the veil of the key board and anonymity) to share their views and give feedback, so it is a levelling space. 

However, it is important to stress that Twitter is not real society, people who are there are but a small percentage of society and often ‘echo chambers’.   So, we need some perspective and interaction with the real world. 

For all its positives, it is important to be aware that these spaces are often very toxic and destructive. It is possible to use them effectively and have positive experiences but we must be mindful of the dangers. So, like everything else, we must use them consciously.

LM: The land reform has been dominated by the interests of the elites, the politically connected, traditional leaders and agribusiness – you have taken strong positions that protect the interests of the rural poor and women in this battle. How is this battle manifesting itself on the ground? 

NG: Working with rural communities on land in the past ten years, has been very rewarding.  I have come across courageous and imaginative people who risk their lives to fight for their birthright  Because of victories that people chalk up in the Constitutional Court and other courts in the land, there have been successful push back against parliamentary bills which benefit the elite at the expense of many people.  We have seen strong mobilisation in  rural communities and people who are aware of their rights and who want to take charge of their destinies.

Across the country, we see growing networks of rural democracy and land activists in far flung areas.  This also translates into other forms of activism, such as women’s rights struggles which are promoted by organisations like the rural women’s movement in KwaZulu Natal and the national network, Alliance for Rural Democracy.  These are concrete expressions on the ground, in rural communities. It is an honour to be linked to these people.

LM: As someone who has been at the forefront of land reform, how do you think this latest call on “ expropriation of land without compensation “ assists the land reform process for the rural poor ?

NG: Despite what politicians and ideologues say, the biggest stumbling block to land reform and distribution is not the constitution.  Policy interpretation of the constitution and the actual programmes of government are the main culprits. No change of Section 25 of the Constitution will address this. A recalibration of government processes, focus and commitment are the only way in which this will be remedied.

For example, in the past 10 years, we have seen a decrease in government spending on land reform, towards which less than 1% of the budget was allocated.  If the President Zuma- led administration was committed to land reform, why did the budget allocation decrease to this extent?  Why is government failing in all four components – reform, redistribution, security of tenure and restitution?  Why did the Department of Rural Reform and Land Redistribution choose to settle out of court in the Mala Mala case?  They paid a billion, the entire amount the Mala Mala group wanted.  There were indications that the court would have recommended a far lower price and that would have set a precedent. 

Looking closer at the Mala Mala settlement, we have to ask, ‘who benefitted the most? Is it poor people who are left landless in the rural communities?’ The answer is no. The Mala Mala settlement was a settlement which benefits the elite. Look at the people in the leadership of that group.

Rural people will be assisted by a land redistribution and land reform programme which addresses their needs directly. For example, strengthening and protecting their rights to land.  Developing programmes which assist their acquisition of land as well as their development programmes. There are projects which are already unfolding and with great success.  These offer opportunities to test what is possible, improve on what exists whilst affirming rights of people. 

Presently, about 19,000 cases of land restitution which have been verified and passed have not been resolved. People who qualify for land restitution according to all government requirements have been waiting for land, some for more than 20 years.  Transfer of land to these communities and resolution of these cases will assist rural communities.  Further, when land is transferred, there must be effective programmes which assist people to become productive and protect them from exorbitant interests that are charged by entities such as Land Bank.

LM: Do you think that the current trusts like the INgonyama Trust are the route to go for rural citizens, or should there be a different approach?

NG: INgonyama Trust was established on the eve of the 1994 elections. At that time, Inkatha Freedom Party would not agree to be part of elections unless their demands were met. Amongst these was a special dispension for KwaZulu Natal, transfer of land to an entity which was under the authority of Isilo sa Mabandla, King Zwelithini. So, on April 24, 1994, iNgonyama Trust was formed. It was part of a compromise to ensure that IFP did not boycott elections.  If you read iNgonyama Trust you will see similarities with apartheid era entities and the Natal Code.

So, iNgonyama Trust and similar bodies are not the way to go for rural people. Presently, iNgonyama Trust has converted people’s customary rights to hold land of their ancestors into lease hold. Yes, iNgonyama Trust charges people money to stay in their own land. In all these years, iNgonyama Trust has made a pretty penny from mining, agriculture and other investments. People who live in the land have not seen a dime from this. Instead, now they pay to lease  their land.

There needs to be a clear articulation of people’s rights and ownership of their land. How this will actually work, needs to be worked out. The first thing which must be done is to come up with law for communal areas. Since 2010, when the Communal Land Rights Act was struck down by the Constitutional Court, parliament has failed to come up with legislation as enjoined by Section 25 (9) and to strengthen rights of people directly.

LM: How would you advice the task team set by the President that is looking at the land reform, in the light of the exploitation debate ? 

NG: The Task Team should study the report of the High Level Panel (HLP) which was set up by Parliament to review all legislation. On Land, the Motlanthe led HLP has made concrete recommendations which if implemented, will assist in addressing some of the problems we see today.

A close study of what is happening on the ground and the problems faced by the Land Claims Commission will reveal the backlog and reasons for these.  If the Task Team successfully pushes for addressing the outstanding land claims, land will be restored to many people.

Unlocking resources to assist people who work the land and those whose land has been restored will go a long way in addressing the immediate problems. So too, will the restoration of secure tenure for those in need.  The Task Team should also assist with the rethinking and prioritisation of programmes of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. For example, there is a need to examine efficacy of programmes like recapitalisation, which absorb millions of rands without clarity on who benefits and how this addresses the needs of the majority of people.

In short, just by addressing backlogs, assisting in prioritisation and development of efficient way of working,  the Task Team will go a long way

LM: We have had painful and hurtful words uttered by Rev Vukile Mehana of the Methodist Church. Given your fight against patriarchy and misogyny, were you surprised by the tone and venom of Rev Mehana’s words? 

NG: I wish I could say I was surprised but the truth is that I was not. Rev. Mehana is a reflection of the patriarchy and misogyny in our society.  People who are in leadership get away with a lot because they occupy positions of power and pay lip service to transformation of institutions.  These leaders are a reflection of our society but we tend to think that they ought to reflect the non-sexist society we seek to build. Rev. Mehana was a timely if painful reminder of just how deep sexism, misogyny and bullying is in our society.

LM: How prevalent is misogyny by senior men, some with struggle credentials in the corporate world; in the church, in political parties and now even in NGO’s? 

NG: Unfortunately, misogyny is a norm in our institutions in public sector, private sector and progressive organisations. Our society has a long way to go.

LM: 25 years ago, you did the unthinkable, you married Prof Raymond Suttner, the then Head of Political education of the ANC and a member of its national execution committee. How did different people respond to your love union? 

NG:  ANC elders considered Raymond their son.  This quote from a piece Raymond wrote about meeting me sums up how his comrades and leaders responded.

“I was then on the National Executive (the NEC) and during one of the breaks in a meeting Madiba stood next to me at the urinal and he said: ‘I am like a father to you. Why don’t you tell me about this?’ I said ‘You mean about that?’ and he said ‘yes’. I said ‘Do you want to meet her?’ and he said yes. I explained that she worked on the 10th floor and he wanted to go down immediately to meet Nomboniso. After meeting her he called aside the others working there and explained to them: ‘these two are young lovers, you must sometimes leave them space to be alone’. But there was another type of oversight, from the ‘Mamas’. I was fortunate that the older female comrades were very protective towards me, not Nomboniso. They imputed nothing but pure motives to me. They feared that she was a young child who would mess me around. She was called up to meet with Ma Albertina Sisulu, Ma Gertrude Shope, Ma Adelaide Tambo, Me Ruth Mompati and others. They explained that I ‘was their son’ and they wanted to know whether she ‘was serious or just playing around’?”

In addition to Raymond’s ANC family, I had to break news to my family.  I had to tell my family. When I left home to seek work in Johannesburg, my parents made me promise that I would not hide things from them. So, when I moved in with Raymond, I took a bus home, to report myself.  So, I told them my news.  My mother went to their bedroom and came back to the lounge with a copy of 30 Years of The Freedom Charter.  She held it and asked “Is this the Raymond Suttner?”  I said yes. She asked “Nomboniso Ugoq’indod’engangam kude kuse?” (Nomboniso do you embrace a man of my age the whole night?)  My father jumped in ‘Tyhini, nawe watshat’ixhego. Yhek’umntwana) (Who. You also married an old man. Let the child be). My father was ten years my mother’s senior. My parents were not bothered by race. My mother was uncomfortable with the age gap between Raymond and I. They were born the same year.

My paternal grandmother was very disturbed by the inter-racial aspect. We were having a Sunday lunch when she voiced her opinion, before then she was joking about ‘Nomboniso’s madness, marrying a Communist who probably had no money’ and laughing with our neighbours.  That Sunday, she was dishing lamb stew when she spoke seriously. I remember her arm trembling as she took a serving spoonful of lamb stew ‘Nomboniso, how am I supposed to be with this man?  Have you thought about that? Do you think about how your decision affect other people? Umlungu?’

She had worked as a domestic worker for more than 40 years. She knew only one way to be with white people. Now, I was bringing one of them into the family as my boyfriend. What was the protocol? Indeed, she was right. I had not thought of anybody else, but me. My grandmother’s disquiet disappeared the moment she met Raymond.  We were very fortunate in that our families embraced our relationship, long before we thought we might get married.

LM: One of the saddest moments in your life and a true test of your marriage, you were attacked and raped at Robben Island. You took the bold decision to report the incident and to challenge the police for the shoddy work that they did in their investigation. You won that case and the police head apologized and conceded about what they did wrong . What lessons would want to give to women who are facing these decisions about rape and violent attacks? 

NG: We often focus on what people should do after rape, report to the police, the justice system and all these other processes and we forget to talk about the pain of rape. So, I’d like to talk to my sisters about the post-rape experience, the stuff that we hardly talk about. 

I was raped on January 20, 1997, the fear of that moment is still with me. There are times when I am desperate, when I feel I am under surveillance and someone is waiting to attack me. The post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that I live with.

People  assume that after so many years, I have less fear and I have recovered from the pain.  This is not the case with me. Of course, gradually I have become a rape survivor, time has helped me to become functional. If there is anything I would like to share with other rape victims it is this, now that your life will change irrevocably and that you may never know peace again at least not like before.  Be patient with yourself and find ways of healing, one step at a time. There is no magic wand and the sadness will stay with you permanently. That is okay. You have been deeply wounded and that will never change. Mourn the loss that rape brings.  So many years later, I still see a therapist.  Many people are not able do this and this is one area in which our country lets us down.

LM: What support did Raymond given, and what lessons should loved ones learn about how you support a person through that trauma? 

NG: Raymond was deeply pained by the rape, it pained him to know that I was hurt like that. I could see this in eyes and heard it in his voice.  Seeing your loved one hurting like that is truly terrible for someone who has been raped.  The depth of my pain was registered in the pain reflected in Raymond’s eyes, in the way my father looked at me and in my mother’s embrace.

Raymond was careful to follow my lead and support me in whatever I chose to do, without telling me what to do.  I spent a lot of time in bed, rolled into a ball. Every morning when I heard the ‘thump’ sound of newspapers thrown into our yard, my heart sank. I feared what would be written in the papers because of all the reports at the time. I would ask for the papers and read every ugly word. Raymond didn’t say ‘don’t read the papers’.  Instead, he was available to give me the support I needed, including being alone sometimes.

Regrettably, there were times when I took my anger and frustration out on him.  I still do.  I am better at it now, I am aware of where my trauma begins and what are shared issues.  It is important to know that rape will affect your most intimate relationships. 

When someone has been raped, support goes to them and our loved ones are on their own, shouldering their own trauma. It is important to support care givers and loved ones because they are struggling too.

LM: Prof Habib appointed you as a researcher and gender activist to investigate the institution’s handling of the rape of a student at one of its residences. How are corporates, departments and even NGO’s dealing with rape and sexual harassment? What can be improved and done better ? 

NG:  Institutions and corporates must be conscious that at the centre of reports of sexual harassment, rape and other violations, are human beings who are traumatised and vulnerable. These entities must develop  victim-centred approaches, rules and procedures.  These rules and procedures must be canvassed throughout the institutions and people must know what to do in the event of an attack and a complaint. 

The language used must reflect a victim-centred approach, empathetic and respect the humanity of the victim, especially at time when she feels most raw and vulnerable.  For example, we could talk about a ‘rape complaint’ instead of ‘alleged rape’.  

The rape is real for the person who has been raped.  We don’t talk of alleged murder, we talk of murder. This change in language does not compromise the rights of everyone involved, including the person accused of rape.

Once policies, rules and procedures are in place, these institutions must look at whether they have adequate people who are empowered to implement them.  Often, we have policies but the problem is with implementation. This was the case with the assignment I undertook for Wits. Policies, rules and procedures were there and so were people meant to implement them.  A gap was identified in the processes and this led to a number of problems. As institutions implement their policies, these gaps will be identified and there is always room for improvement. But the starting point should be to aim for an effective way of addressing reports of sexual harassment, rape and other violations.

In addition, there must be clear consequences for those who do not follow the rules and procedures. Often we find people use their discretion and shortchange people who have come forward.  This can be addressed only if these entities apply strict rules and adhere to them.

Of course, in the final analysis these matters may end up in court, beyond the realm of the institutions and corporates. Be that as it may, the culture of entities and their processes are of fundamental importance.

Institutions must develop policies and procedures going beyond how they handle rape complaints. What happens after someone has reported rape or sexual harassment?  Are policies and procedures aimed at addressing their wellness in place? Can they take time off without jeopardising their careers? If they take time off, is this deducted from their annual leave days or sick leave?  It should not be.  There should be a special dispensation for situations like this and employees must be supported even when they have taken time off. This is an area which requires a lot work, especially in the corporate world.

LM: In an interview about your marriage, Raymond Suttner, points out that It took me some time to appreciate that this was not only to be a fully equal relationship but one where we learnt from one another and grew together in a range of ways, as it continues at this time. Can you expand on these words and what this has meant for the two of you ? 

NG: I was very young when I met Raymond. Before we dated, we were friends and I suppose we were flirting with each other. We both thought this was a fling and did not realise that the relationship would be serious. Raymond  was already established, as an academic and a leader in the liberation movement.  From a superficial view of where we were in life, it could be assumed that Raymond was the one to take the lead and I would probably look at him for leadership and wise counsel. 

However, it became clear that this was a relationship of equals, two people who could engage intellectually as equals.  For example, when I met Raymond, he was not particularly clued up on feminism and gender theories.   Through continued engagement and sharing of ideas, we have grown together and as he says, we still are. 

LM: You have always been passionate about how women are portrayed in history – You then tackled the mammoth task of editing the seminal “ Women in South African history”, In this fascinating collection, full of different textures, narratives and nuances, sixteen authors have begun to tackle the task of writing South Africa’s history from an overtly feminist perspective, giving readers an opportunity to understand and reflect on debates about real women’s power in completely new and fresh ways. How did you tackle this task, what were the highlights for you and what lessons came out of this project ? 

NG: It is very important for us to know about the women who came before us, to honour them, to ‘excavate their lives, voices and ideas. Women’s culture is ongoing, our history is active and alive at all times. It is important to be mindful of the paths of our ancestors, to learn from them and to build on what they started. Without this awareness of the women who came before us, contemporary feminists are disconnected from that history and it feels as if every generation is starting anew.

That book was a passion project. I felt that the best way was to gather feminists academics and historians and create space where we could write about people or era we were passionate or interested in without sacrificing rigour.  For me, this is often the best to start a project.

LM: One blemish in your stellar career is an adverse finding by the Public protector on you as the Chairperson of the Gender Commission. With the benefit of hindsight, what went wrong there, what could you have done differently and are you happy that you can close the chapter on this matter ? 

NG: I am glad you have asked me about this, Lincoln. It remains one of the most difficult periods of my life and I am still learning from that episode.

The Commission for Gender Equality has always been a tricky institution. You will recall that there were widely reported fights in the late 1990s.  I was in the first group of Commissioners who were appointed in 1996 and started working in 1997.  I resigned from the CGE, after my rape at Robben Island and left before those fights. But I was aware of structural challenges.

In 2007 I was appointed to the Commission for Gender Equality and later as Chairperson. When we started at the CGE, the structural problems were obvious and some were systemic.  Eventually, a fallout between the CEO and staff precipitated what was to follow. We had an external process which looked at those issues between the CEO and the staff and appointed three Commissioners to be part of that process.

The suspension of the CEO opened a wide door which led us to systemic problems in the organisation.  My position was clear and I shared it with my fellow commissioners and all CGE colleagues.  I believed that the best way to handle the problems was to put the institution under administration.  I wrote memos (I still have those) to Commissioners, CGE staff and the Minister of Justice to whom we reported at the time.  My proposal was rejected by colleagues.  Consequently, we attempted to correct the problems ourselves.

Once we took this decision, I saw it as my duty to address the problems, and as chair to play my part in carrying out the decision of the majority.  There were not many examples from which we could learn.

So, we had to develop our modus operandi and processes on our own.  We took unprecedented decisions and some were unusual and quite frankly, in contravention of the PFMA.   For example, we appointed two Commissioners to act as CEO on a rotational basis.  Through this, we waded into the business of the Secretariat.  All these decisions were reported to the Minister, Deputy Minister of Justice and to National Treasury. We motivated why we were deviating and requested their support and assistance.

In that period, the Office of The Chairperson took on more responsibilities and became the main engine of the organisation.  In that capacity, we looked at positions that needed to be filled and filled them. For example, the CGE did not have a spokesperson. So, we appointed one, basically shifted someone from the Pretoria office and brought him to head office.  Because of increased responsibility in the Office of The Chairperson, the Spokesperson was attached to my Office.  We also created a post of Director in The Office of The Chairperson and employed someone in the position. Our intention was to strengthen the office of The Chairperson for the time being.

We went through an exercise of repositioning the CGE and tried to ensure that even in those turbulent times, we were operating effectively.  We appointed a National Organiser, again a new position and moved someone from a regional office to national office.  We undertook an in depth diagnostic process, looked at human resources and tried to address some of the systemic and endemic issues that faced the CGE. 

I believe that I took on too much and opened myself up to attack. The attack happened when the company we contracted started to talk to people about their jobs. There was a lot of misinformation. People were anxious.  We communicated that there would be no job losses but that we wanted to tighten accountability measures and job descriptions.  Many people understood and accepted this but a few did not. So, from that anxiety grew many problems, including misinformation about what our intentions were.

The CGE became a very toxic institution. There was mistrust, second guessing and just open mischief.  It became a terrible place to work in.

Looking back at that period, I have evaluated my mistakes and I made many of those. First and foremost, I was thinly spread at that time. In 2008, I was just doing too many things in the CGE and outside. I was involved in the campaign on Zimbabwe and eventually went on 21 Day Hunger Strike as part of the solidarity campaign with Zimbabwe. The hunger strike was in early 2009 but  involved started earlier.

My father was battling with his health following his stroke.  I was involved in the case of a young man who had a brain tumour.   I believe that had I not been so thinly spread, I would not have been so vulnerable in the CGE.  For example, I requested my PA to book tickets for this young man and his family, they needed to fly to Johannesburg for an operation urgently.  I was in Cape Town when I received a call from his parents at 5am. My PA had to find the quickest way to fly them. So, she asked the company which was handling CGE travel to do the booking and that would be paid by me.  The Bill was sent to the CGE instead of my office.  We were not aware of this and my PA kept asking the travel agent for the Bill.  The first time we became aware of this was when the allegations were made. The Bill had not been settled by the CGE but I was not allowed to settle it directly because by then, a processes had started as a result of the allegations, we could not settle the Bill with the travel agency or the CGE, it was now part of the investigation.  Eventually, I settled the travel Bill.

At no stage did I pocket even a penny from CGE. I was not reckless in my leadership.  When the Public Protector started her investigation, I had already left the CGE.  I was under severe stress and I simply could not stay any longer.  When the Public Protector started her investigation, I wrote to her and requested to talk to them.  I did not have that opportunity.  She said I told them I was ill which I did not say.

Anyway, she advised me to write to the ad hoc Committee which was set up to look at her report.  Every Monday at 8am, a reminder flashed ‘write to the Ad Hoc Committee’. I did this for months, writing through my lawyers and directly to them (with the advice of my lawyers). 

Finally, the Committee presented its report to the National Assembly.  One of its recommendations was ‘Ms. Papama Nomboniso Gasa has not been given an opportunity to be heard. We recommend that she be given that opportunity.’

Mr. Mathole Motshekga, the ANC Chief Whip at the time stood up and accepted the report of the Ad Hoc with one amendment,  ‘the recommendation for Ms. Gasa to present her case be dropped.’  So, that is what happened.  All of this is in the parliamentary records, in Hansard.  I never had the opportunity to present my case. My side was never heard.

I am on record to SCOPA, The Speaker (Mr. Sisulu), The Minister of Justice and The President (Mr. Motlanthe and Mr. Zuma). I submitted all the necessary documents to these entities.  I also wrote to the Auditor General and I submitted my documents and answered their questions during the Audit.

It is important to stress that I did not take a penny from the CGE and I was never accused of this although sometimes people make this allegation.

The Auditor General and The Public Protector found that there was wrongful expenditure and that some contractors were paid a lot of money with little or nothing to show.  These are not findings against me. These are findings against the decisions we made.

For me, leadership is about taking responsibility for what happens. To this extent, I believe I failed as the Chairperson of the CGE. I failed not because I lined my pockets or participated in corruption. I failed because I neglected my instinct which said this is messy. Don’t touch it, ask for the CGE to be under administration.  After my motion was defeated in the plenary of Commissioners, I threw myself in working with the process that we undertook. I will always regret that I did not step aside and let Commissioners who did not want CGE to be under administration to lead during that time.

LM: During the last 10 years, you were one of strongest voices against corruption and malfeasance in both the public and private sector, what are the key things that we need to do to develop an ethical culture in our institutions?

NG:  Right now, I can think of one thing and one thing only, jail. Let’s start there, prison. People who steal from the state must go to jail.  I can think of many things that can be done to clean up the public service and public office. But first, let’s see some big men in orange overalls.

LM: Can South Africa address its challenges of poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment and also grow its economy in the next 10 years, if so what are some of the tangible steps required? 

NG: South Africa is a very rich country.  Our problem is greed that diverts resources and the poverty of imagination.

We have solid infrastructure which requires ongoing maintenance. Our taxes are very high, so there is revenue. If we use our resources efficiently we can reduce poverty.

Maintenance of infrastructure can become part of job creation. Here I do not mean badly paid extended public works programmes. I mean training people and allocating them to decentralised workshops for infrastructure maintenance. For example, people use electricity in my village. Yet, there is no capacity to fix problems. Why are there no workshops to  enable  trained people to attend to everyday problems?

How much do we lose because of corruption?  What if we came up with mechanisms that plugged the large holes which leak public funds and used those resources effectively?  How much does it take to build one unit of a RDP house? How much would it cost if there was no padding from corruption?

What if we reduced the tender system and actually absorbed people into government work or contracted companies that show how they contribute to jobs?  For example, functions like cleaning streets. Why are these not done by people who work for government instead of contracting companies. If we rationalised this for twenty years, we could build a solid base of people who have secure income. 

If the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform actually addressed land issues, efficiently and effectively and people had security of tenure we could go a long away.  If government entities, such as the Land Bank, worked with communities efficiently, we could see reduction in numbers of those who go without food.

Many things are possible but they will remain unattainable as long as the gap between policy and effective implementation remains so large.

LM: You have previously called for the strengthening of institutions, the bolstering of administrative instruments and the building of the capacity of the state. Do you think that credible people will put themselves up for such tasks given some of the political and corporate governance issues facing many SOE’s and other government agencies? 

NG: I believe that despite all these challenges, it is possible to recruit talent and good people for work in the public sector. The urgent step is to clean up the civil service and to put in place mechanisms that protect innocent people from victimisation simply because they do not want to be part of corruption.

If talent, skill and experience is respected and rewarded, if people are given space to do their work, I think we will see many people going back to the civil service.  It is not going to be easy or quick but it is possible. The first steps are important in addressing this and building confidence. That is why I think we are at a stage where we must see strong action against corrupt people because this is a concrete indicator of efforts to rebuild institutions.

LM: During the anti-apartheid struggle, many activists discussed how we should learn from the mistakes of other liberation movements. When you observe the scandals we have witnessed, what seemed to have happened to many liberation heroes, who are now involved in corruption ? 

NG:  I think we generalised about the human being who would lead after the struggle and did not adequately prepare for the fragility of the human condition. Greed is the tragedy of our times. We underestimated the power of greed to override principle, basic decency, a sense of what is right or wrong and simply act to satisfy self-interest. 

There is also the arrogance of people who consider themselves our ‘liberators’, who feel that because of the sacrifices they made then, their time has come, they are owed positions of power, certain kinds of lifestyles and society must provide.  We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that because people made certain political choices they are principled, humble and decent in all areas of their lives.

This is not true, human beings are untidy and some of that did show even during the struggle, some people were consumed with self-interest and this made them vulnerable to temptation then, for example the case of Rev. Allan Boesak,  who helped himself to funds that were meant for students who came from poor backgrounds. During the struggle, there were instances of abuse of power and resources which should have alerted us to the challenges we would face in future.

How do we prepare for leadership that will serve society?  I think this is difficult but it is an assignment which we must attempt to address every day of our lives. The most important part of this is growth, growth in awareness that we are not perfect, we are not finished products but that we will strive to be better than we were yesterday, we commit ourselves to serve with purpose, honour, dignity and humility.  Perhaps this generation of leadership will never be able to do this, but we must strive to be the kind of people we want to see in the world and learn to respect what is not ours and respect the people to whom it belongs.  It’s as simple as that lesson our parents taught us ‘do not take what does not belong to you’ and as complicated as unlearning the traditional definitions of of power as dominance.

LM: What lessons can we learn from the Fees must Fall movement, what could institutions have done differently ? 

NG:  Our failure does not start at tertiary level, it is starkly reflected there. Our society continues to see tertiary education as something that is for the chosen few, a privilege bought with access to money. This access to money starts at an early age, those children who have been able to attend private schools or whose parents are able to provide extra lessons and network with people who will help open doors later. If we start with a different mindset, one that prepares for young people reaching the highest limits, prepares a solid basis for them and teaches content that is not only relevant for our times but actually inspires young people to go for their highest potential, I think we’ll see tertiary education differently, as a public good which must be accessible to everyone.

Education, irrespective of the policies and slogans, remains a privilege in this country and that is absolutely wrong.  Failure to address basic issues such as ‘real access to education’ has been one of the biggest setbacks of our time. We fought these struggles in our time, we know what it means to be excluded because you do not have means to attend university.  I think this looms large in our list of terrible failures in post-apartheid education.

LM: When you look back at your life, what are the things you are the most proud about? 

NG: I am proud of the choices I have made and I hope to continue in this trajectory.

LM: What are the things left in your bucket list? 

NG: I don’t have a bucket list. I simply want to continue with meaningful work that I am proud of.  When we do work that is meaningful for us, we grow and we are fulfilled. That is what I would like to continue to do. 

LM: My Leader, Thank you do much for this amazing conversation, we have covered a broad range of issues, I know that my audience will benefit from your insights and perspectives. 

NG: Thank you for this conversation. I did not expect to dig so deep.