Names: Madlala-Routledge, Nozizwe Charlotte

Born: 29 June 1952, Magog, KwaZulu-Natal

In Summary: A student activist aligned to the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), leader of the Natal Women’s Organization (NOW) and former Deputy Minister of Defence and of Health.

A pioneer of her time, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, is a true leader and an inspiration to women, black South Africans, and other traditionally disenfranchised people in her country. Born in an era where hope was bleak and injustices rampant, Madlala-Routledge was a revolutionary who played a great role in bringing injustices in South Africa to light. She is widely recognised for being the first woman to hold the position of Deputy Minister of Defence in South Africa from June 1999 to April 2004, and for her position as South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Health. President Thabo Mbeki dismissed her from office on August 8, 2007, after which she was reduced to a member of parliament representing the African National Congress (ANC).This however, is despite her fervent struggle for women’s rights since the years of apartheid.

Nozizwe Charlotte Madlala-Routledge, “mother of nations”, née Madlala was born on 29 June 1952 in Magog, Umzumbe, KwaZulu-Natal. Raised by her single mother, she attended Magog Primary School and Fairview Primary School. Born black and African, she was automatically disenfranchised and witnessed the horrors of racial segregation and institutional racism at a young age. She was only seven years old when the Sharpeville Massacre occurred in 1960. Having to comprehend the violent massacre of sixty-nine black demonstrators, she was influenced very early in her life to becoming an activist.   

By the end of the 1960s her political career was taking shape. In 1968 Stephen Biko founded and led the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge would become a proud member of. Though not involved in the leadership of the BCM, Madlala-Routledge was actively engaged with the movement of 18 banned groups. In 1971 she completed her first year of post-secondary education at the University of Natal. However after one year she transferred to the University of Fort Hare to attenda Bachelor of Science.

Universities were sites of struggle, and while in university Madlala-Routledge was inspired by the political bodies around her. At the University of Natal, she met Steve Biko who had a profound influence on her. Facing race and gender issues in her everyday life and exploring the writings  and the ideology of the BCM, Madlala-Routledge became politically engaged. A true early polemic body in every sense of the word, Madlala-Routledge was in fact expelled from the University of Fort Hare after participating in a student boycott in 1972.During that same year, Steve Biko founded the Black People’s Convention (BPC), a political wing of the BCM.

In her early twenties, as she witnessed events like the Soweto student uprising of June 1976 –during which students protested against the new language decree and the Bantu education system– as well as the death of the influential Steve Biko in 1977 –which somehow meant the closure of the BCM as an organization and transition period with the banning of all 19 Black Consciousness groups– born politician Madlala-Routledge still continued fighting in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1979, as she obtained her diploma in Medical Technology, Madlala-Routledge also joined the ANC underground. Joining the ANC was not the popular thing to do: people usually joined the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) since the ANC was banned. However, since the end of apartheid it has come to light that many of the activists aligned to AZAPO were secretly members of the then banned ANC.

The 1980s were probably the most traumatic in Madlala-Routledge’s political involvement. From the mid 1980s to the eve of the first democratic elections in 1994 Kwa-Zulu Natal experienced internecine violence between the ANC affiliated UDF and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The IFP was led by Kwa Zulu Natal Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi and was considered to have been aligned to and frequently used by the apartheid security agencies to undermine and destroy popular movements opposed to the government.

Thousands were brutally murdered in the province from both sides of the political divide. In other areas other political formations were also drawn into the violence of the time with devastating consequences. Political violence emerged often in institutions such as universities. In October 1983, political violence broke out between Zulu warriors who were members of the IFP, and supporters of the ANC aligned United Democratic Front (UDF) at the University of Zululand. Five people supporting the UDF were killed and many injured. Many loyal to the IFP moved to the UDF. As the activities of the UDF increased, its number of supporters increased as well.

That same year, Madlala-Routledge ended up as one of the leaders of the Natal Organization of Women (NOW) after its creation and its affiliation with the newly formed UDF. The main goal of the NOW “was to fight for the upliftment of women and therefore a constitution that would safeguard women's rights was formulated. The development and education of the members became a central issue in the organisation's activities. Women were trained and encouraged to take up leadership positions in various organizations” (South African History Online).In 1984, she was officially elected president of NOW and became a member of the (underground) South African Communist Party serving as its regional chairperson in Natal.

Altogether, she was jailed three times for her political activism – finally serving a year in solitary confinement. By 1986, Madlala-Routledge had left her job as a Medical Laboratory Technologist to work as a full-time member and organizer of NOW. That same year, she visited the United Kingdom for the first time where she met ANC leaders including Thabo Mbeki.

In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall affected South Africa as sustaining the liberation struggle became more difficult. Indeed, aid was coming from the Soviet Union and it was clear there was going to be no more economic help. Madlala-Routledge was still very active. That very same year she married Jeremy Routledge whom she had met in the early 1980s and kept her maiden name which was not such a popular act. This is particularly so for a Zulu maiden, considered to have come from a very conservative and traditionalist society. It is probably a measure of Madlala-Routledge assertiveness.  

In 1990, as political organizations were unbanned including the ANC and as Nelson Mandela was released from Prison after 27 years, Madlala-Routledge served on the National Executive Committee of the Women’s national Coalition and was a delegate at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) talks. In 1994, Madlala-Routledge received a degree in Social Science with a major in Philosophy and Sociology and was elected to Parliament as the first democratic non-racial elections put in place Mandela as President.

Prior to the first democratic election in April 1994, several high profile meetings were held between representatives of the apartheid government and liberation struggle formations. The latter groups were led by the ANC. As a member of the ANC and internal formations affiliated to it, Madlala-Routledge played a critical role at local level at this stage. It was the task of local leaders to ensure that the masses were fully behind the negotiations and the intended outcomes. This happened against the backdrop of increasing incidences of violence, particularly in Kwa-Zulu Natal, where Madlala-Routledge was based. The main protagonist in the continuing violence was the IFP.

Madlala-Routledge continued to be actively involved in garnering support for the negotiations process even when they seemed to be under threat of being derailed at the time. In December 1991, the first CODESA was dissolved when opposing parties failed to reach consensus on some of the critical aspects of the envisaged settlement. At the local level this disagreement easily translated itself into continued violence and clashes between the ANC and the IFP. And it is during this time that Madlala-Routledge and other local leaders became influential in diffusing a volatile and potentially explosive situation. It was through their efforts that a second attempt at reaching a settlement was made in March 1992. This became known as CODESA II and it paved the way for the signing of a negotiated settlement at the World Trade Centre (WTO) in Kempton Park, east of Johannesburg. CODESA II also led to the last white referendum that endorsed the negotiation process.

In 1998, Madlala-Routledge, also a true activist in the fight against HIV/AIDS became a part of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) when it was founded and working “to ensure that every person living with HIV has access to quality comprehensive prevention and treatment services to live a healthy life” (Treatment Action Campaign).    

On 17 June 1999, Madlala-Routledge was appointed Deputy Minister of Defence and was the first woman to hold this position until April 2004. On April 29 2004, she was appointed Deputy Minster of Health until 2007. Madlala-Routledge, known for her battle against the spread and prevention of AIDS in South Africa, as well as for her fight against South Africa’s denial of HIV/AIDS and the severity of the whole epidemic, and her fight against the use of alternative medicine is a true champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the country. However, tension within the Cabinet slowly started mounting as Madlala-Routledge described South Africa’s health care situation as “a national emergency”. On 8 August 2007, on the eve of Women’s Day, after an unauthorized trip to Spain, Madlala-Routledge was dismissed from her position as Deputy Minister of Health by President Thabo Mbeki.

Madlala-Routledge’s work has been published multiple times. Indeed, she has published articles and papers in newspapers, magazines and journals, such as Work in Progress and Speak”. In 1995, she was the co-author of the chapter “South African Feminism” of a book on global feminism, as well as the co-author of South Africa’s report to the United Nations for the 4th World conference on Women in Beijing.

After her position as Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of South Africa from September 2008 to May 2009, Madlala-Routledge still remains a Member of Parliament. She now leads Embrace Dignity, where she continues her advocacy for women's total emancipation by focusing on the elimination of the demand for the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls.

This article was written by Laeticia Mendy and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship