Many know Pregs Govender as the Deputy Chairperson and Commissioner of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), positions she has held since 2009. Govender is also a well-known human rights and gender activist who is widely respected both as an individual and professionally.
Her principled resignation from parliament on 2 May 2002 struck me, owing to her unhappiness about the notorious arms deal and government policy on HIV/AIDS. Her integrity was clear as she defied the party line being of the view that it was unacceptable that so much is spent on arms while people living with HIV/AIDS have no access to treatment.
My own experiences of her, after our first meeting in Lethlabile, Brits some years ago, attest to her humility and integrity. Over the years, I have watched her handle situations which threaten to spiral out of control; speak with conviction even when it goes against the general sentiment and tenderly listen to my occasional rants.
But it would be reading her memoir that would allow me to understand this woman beyond our professional interactions. Though published in 2007, I only read it for the first this year and know it’s a book I will read over and over and over again.
‘love and courage: A Story of Insubordination’ is a story of both political and personal power, Pregs Govender’s own story of living activism in both her personal and public life.
The memoir begins with an introduction that sets her story within a time she describes as a time of “personal and political change”, which I feel is important as her story captures so many different eras of South African history.
Written in six parts which although is helpful for the reader, can feel like an attempt to separate the various issues covered – which to me is just not possible. Govender begins what is a deeply moving narrative with her childhood in Durban, starting right with her birth which happened just days after her mother suffered a huge loss.
She then really sets the ground to help one understand what has shaped her views on life and various people who have influenced her on her journey as a parent, feminist, wife and activist.
Govender uses a personal narrative quite well to discuss the messiness of politics, drawing from her own experiences of facing danger from an oppressive state; betrayal by her comrades; the state of the women’s movement in the various eras and the clash of personal convictions with the party line. This greatly helps the reader relate to what are often very abstract issues and concepts.
The reader is not only drawn into the political battles she faced, but also the personal which includes the humiliations and emotional toll caused her troubled first marriage and her evolution as a parent.
She writes about her struggles as an activist with two young children; taking them along to meetings and rallies and trying to find ways to balance her work with her family responsibilities. The descriptive and evocative prose provides a narrative that would resonate with many activist parents, which is the primary reason that I have come to often recommend it to my friends.
“I would not walk away from responsibility for my children and my choice meant learning how to balance everything that needed to be done”.
Her respect of this balance is something that I have personally experienced. During some of my interactions with the SAHRC, I have had to be accommodated due to my status as a single, working, public transport using parent; which she gladly did.
While times have changed, there are many experiences today that are on the same continuum as those described by Pregs Govender whether on parenting, activism or politics.
Almost a decade after it was published, her memoir remains relevant as we continue to face the challenge of working and living in a compromised system – but trying not be compromised ourselves.