WATCH: Finding the strength to fight the powerful
She did the unexpected for a cabinet member and stood up to then-president Thabo Mbeki, which cost her the position of deputy minister for the Health Department, when she disagreed with his views on HIV/Aids and anti-retrovirals.
Former president Nelson Mandela’s words about standing up for your beliefs rang in former Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge’s conscience and inspired her to stand up against Mbeki at a time when he was viewed as ruling with an iron fist in the ANC.
In a interview she discussed wide-ranging issues, including life post-Parliament, feminism, isolation in Parliament because of her views, human trafficking and prostitution.
It’s been almost a decade since Mbeki fired her on the eve of Women’s Day in August 2009. She had served as the first deputy minister of defence after 1994, before her deployment as health deputy minister from 2004 until 2009.
After her axing, Mad
lala-Routledge, a feminist, vowed to help women and joined the fight against human trafficking. In 2010, she founded the Embrace Dignity NGO.
“So the organisation has its key mission to get South Africa to pass the equality law that will better protect women and young girls from being brought into this exploitative industry (human trafficking and prostitution). Such a law was passed in Sweden and a growing number of countries have since followed.”
The equality law, she said, doesn’t criminalise women; it understands the issues that force women to go into sex work, from being trafficked, poverty and unemployment.
“This law must be heavy on the buyers (of sex work), who are creating a demand. If there is no demand, there is no supply. Women are being thrown in the street either by family members or by desperation. That is caused by the demand.”
Embrace Dignity also encourages women to share their stories to create awareness and address the question of their vulnerability to human traffiicking. Next month, the organisation will be one among many others that will take to the street in a nation-wide demonstration against human trafficking and the stigma and ill-treatment of sex workers.
She is quick to point out that there is strong link between human trafficking and prostitution.
“(Sex workers) want jobs and support to get training for jobs. We are saying to government, ‘Give them support and jobs, don’t throw them in jail’.
“We elevate their voices so the government can hear them. We are showing the government that it can be done.”
Madlala-Routledge has helped more than 200 womenwho were victims of human trafficking or who had been sex workers.
On life after Parliament, she said she had been focused solely on the fight for women through her organisation and also research – which she’s conducting with a 100 women – to be released soon.
“When I left Parliament in 2009, I had very little knowledge of this phenomenon. Even with sex workers, I knew little,” she said.
She beams when she reveals that she has just completed the research and it is due for publication.
Madlala-Routledge said she had been inspired by a number of black feminists, but Audre Lorde was her favourite. “My favourite quote from her, which I turned to often during my time in government and especially during the time I served under Mbeki was: ‘When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I’m afraid.’”
The former apartheid prisoner spoke calmly as she recalled the time of her public firing.
“The issue (of HIV/Aids) was causing people to die needlessly. I realised that this was another area that needed leadership and that’s how I became involved in preventing sex trafficking.”
She said she had always felt the need to stand in solidarity with poor people and it was no exception when Mbeki denied the link between HIV and Aids.
“When they said HIV pills killed people and that there was no link between HIV and Aids, I stood up in solidarity with those people I saw dying because they were being denied access to life-prolonging treatment,” said Madlala-Routledge.
Describing the atmosphere in the ANC benches during that period, she said: “It was difficult; some of them had isolated me. When (Mbeki) fired me, that’s when a lot of people supported me.
“When I stand up to take an unpopular position, it is not because I’m extraordinary. Mandela taught us that courage in fact is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to overcome your fear. It’s not like I stood there and looked Thabo Mbeki in the face because I was unafraid, but I had the strength to overcome my fear in support of those who were powerless. All of us have courage.”
She found the transition from Parliament to an NGO smooth because she is a feminist who wanted to see South Africa’s good laws reach people who need it most on the ground.