Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge has found her niche helping civil society movements build capacity and attract funding, writes Gasant Abarder.
Cape Town - Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is the chief executive of a civil society organisation called Inyathelo, that in essence is an NGO to NGOs. She’s happy to be in the background, helping civil society movements build capacity and attract funders.
It’s familiar territory for Nozizwe, whose extraordinary CV has seen her on both sides – once serving as deputy minister of health and, earlier, at the forefront of the mass movement to dismantle apartheid.
Less than a decade ago, Nozizwe had to make a choice and she chose to stay true to her convictions. In 2007, as deputy minister of health, when the government of the day was denying HIV-positive citizens ARV drugs, Nozizwe dissented.
She was eventually relieved of her post – for other cited reasons – but her bravery laid the foundation for the government changing tack and providing one of the world’s biggest ARV-treatment roll-out programmes in the world today.
Nozizwe had the courage to say no in the face of fierce opposition from her colleagues in the executive, and rejected the hallmark Aids denialism of the Thabo Mbeki administration.
“I feel that our country is a better place with a programme that gives people a chance, many of whom may have contracted HIV unknowingly, not knowing that their partner was infected and ending up in a situation where their lives were at risk.
“As long as there is no cure, as long as there is no vaccine, our lives are threatened daily by the virus.
“Since entering Parliament in 1994, I had asked myself: ‘I am in this privileged position of being a lawmaker. I can influence change in people’s lives. How do I use this power?’
“I wasn’t alone – I must emphasise this. I was part of a large number of people who were doing different things in the same context of trying to see change.”
Nozizwe had to face up to her colleagues.
“I was hearing in the corridors of the government certain arguments that were quite persuasive, saying: ‘These drugs are very toxic, people can live a long time on vegetables, beetroot, garlic and olive oil – look at so and so’.”
One of Nozizwe’s first acts of political activism was to arrange a mass march in Durban, where she grew up in the 1980s, against apartheid. She had her work cut out after a successful Cape Town march that preceded the Durban one.
“I was reluctant often to take the lead. But in the ’80s the situation demanded it. We all had to take our roles in the front of the Struggle.
“I was asked to address the march. Of course, I was scared, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say, but it came. I knew what we were fighting for.”
Nozizwe’s leadership skills were quickly recognised in the liberation movement and she was one of four members of the SACP delegation at the crucial Codesa talks that would eventually see Nelson Mandela become our first democratically elected president.
Later she would play a role in drafting the new constitution under the guidance of Cyril Ramaphosa.
“Chris Hani was very particular that no delegation of the SACP would not have a woman. Just before, he had taken me to Cuba with an SACP delegation, so I really felt empowered and honoured.
“We were learning all the time – and that’s what I really love because we had never done this before. That’s why I appreciated the role people like Cyril Ramaphosa and Joe Slovo were playing.
“They were up there in the forefront making sure all our delegations were kept on board with what the issues were.
“When a crisis developed, like the spate of violence, we were again thrown into a situation we did not know how to deal with. But Mandela took the lead and made sure the talks continued – at some stage it was touch and go.
“Trust was an issue. How do you trust completely that these people are sincere when they say they will hand over power? You imagine that no one wants to do that very readily.
“At one of the meetings when (FW) De Klerk addressed the plenary, he challenged Mandela on the issue of Umkhonto we Sizwe. De Klerk was pushing that Mandela dismantle the armed wing of the ANC.
“Mandela came up and asked for a right of reply. I was so proud of him – we were all so excited that Mandela was doing this – because we all felt affronted by De Klerk’s sudden attack… we were very happy that Mandela challenged him. I could see the lawyer in him in the way he dealt with that issue.
“What also excited us what that we were getting feedback that the people in the townships were rejoicing… That was what was so good about the negotiations.
“They were televised, so the media was communicating and letting people see what was going on in the talks.”
After the transition to democracy, the mass liberation movement led by the ANC was thrust into government. It had to re-invent itself, but the civil society movement, too, had to redefine its role.
Some found their way, while others fell by the wayside. “With the advent of democracy, civil society experienced a loss of leaders, who were now in the government, in Parliament, in business. The second big loss was with funding.
“One source of loss had to do with the countries that supported the liberation struggle and supported NGOs that were fighting against apartheid. They were now saying that we have a democratic government in South Africa, so funding was now shifted to help the government to establish itself and deliver services.
“The third way in which civil society lost out was this idea that South Africa was not a developing country and the reality was that even though we’re a middle-income country, we are a country of two worlds: there is much under-development and much development in the same country.
“What this means is there is still a great need for the work of civil society in support of government and extending services and defending people’s rights.”
Nozizwe believes civil society has a crucial role to play but organisations often don’t understand that role. She says in order for the government and civil society to overcome challenges, a healthy dose of tension is needed.
“Civil society is quite diverse. A lot depends on what experience government has had with that particular organisation, or vice versa. There’s going to be tension because government needs to govern and governing means certain things.
“There is some information that you can’t hand out willy-nilly because it will compromise certain aspects of the work of the state. But on the other hand, civil society also has this role that it has to play, because it’s quite possible that government can hide behind this important role – not to disclose all this important information, to hide corruption.
“There has to be a balance, and that tension is important, it has to be there. I think it is important to engage in a way that respects the different roles.
“Government unfortunately hasn’t fully appreciated the role of civil society, even though when you go back to Mandela’s time it was still very fresh. We’d just come out of a very big struggle to end apartheid, so the role of civil society then was quite clear and obvious.
“But civil society had to redefine what its role is now in a democracy, and some sectors are still struggling with that. How do we relate to a friendly government, as opposed to the past when we related to a hostile government? In having defined properly what the issues are and what the different roles are, we can find that synergy.”
Nozizwe believes organisations like Inyathelo serve as an interface between civil society and government, civil society and funders.
She says it helps them stay relevant by reinforcing a whole range of “elements (like good governance) that are needed in order for you to be at a level where you can speak and be heard and attract funding resources”.
“What we’re trying to do with funding is create a situation where it’s not the money that determines the agenda; the agenda is determined by what the issues are. That’s why I don’t see any problem with us sitting with the government and discussing the priorities and what role each of us can play.
“I think the government has a good concept of what needs to happen. But government doesn’t always have the capacity. That’s reality, I’ve worked in government.
“In terms of priorities, I think the backlog of delivery of basic services to the rest of SA is a very big challenge both for government and civil society. It’s easy if you live in the city, maybe in a flat, to get up without doing much and have a shower, have electricity and drive to work.
“You imagine someone who lives in a shack in Khayelitsha, what it actually means to get ready to go to work. And the transport situation where they may have to get up three hours before going to the same workplace. By the time they get to work they are tired.
“It really is about addressing those infrastructure issues: basic services, water, education, housing, transport and safety.”
But the engagement needs to be mature, Nozizwe warns.
“Speaking truth to power isn’t really about dishonouring; it’s not about disrespect. It’s really about leadership being accountable and it’s a reminder to those we have elected that they have offered themselves to serve, and it’s appealing to that when you speak truth to power.
“I grew into that position of standing for the truth from a very early age. It wasn’t always easy, and it’s not easy often for individuals to face up to their failings.
“But you actually learn from others helping you so you emerge stronger having faced your failings.
“To me that is what speaking truth to power is all about in terms of the person you address, because you’re giving that person the opportunity to rise above the challenge and come up with a solution.”
* Gasant Abarder is editor of the Cape Argus.