Magasvarie ‘Maggie’ Govender was born in Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), and grew up in Durban Central. When she was eleven years old, due to the Group Areas Act her family was forced to move to Chatsworth, a township, south of Durban, designated for the Indian community, While in her matric year at Chatsworth Secondary School, one of her teachers gave her a copy of a Black Consciousness booklet which featured women activists (like Winnie Mandela) involved in the struggle. She was subsequently caught with the booklet by another teacher and accused of being involved in politics. Ironically, Govender was not at all involved in politics and her understanding of the political struggle in South Africa was at that time very limited, but that experience piqued her interest in finding out why her teachers had reacted in such a manner.
After completing high school, Govender enrolled at the University of Durban Westville (UDW – now known as University of KwaZulu-Natal - UKZN). She registered for a medical degree but switched in her second year to an arts course to learn languages to become an interpreter. However, she couldn’t continue with that either because it meant that she had to get a permit to go study at Rhodes University, which was a strenuous activity because people of colour were not easily permitted into institutions reserved for White people. Therefore, Govender decided to change her career path.
She became politically active from her second year onwards. During this time, Govender, who came from an Indian-only community and was sheltered from the politics of the country, learnt of the 1976 school protests and felt guilty that such a significant event had occurred without her being aware of it. It was through her interaction with different people from all walks of life on campus and her exposure to new literature and ideas that her awareness began to expand.
In 1980, she got involved in the nationwide school boycotts with a group of other students on campus. Govender and the other students sought to create awareness on campus and to get the university’s student body to take part in the protest. Secondly, they sought to move the protest beyond the walls of the institution and get the community involved as well. They set out to establish links with high school students. It was during this that she met Kumi Naidoo, who at the time was in high school and on the verge of being expelled for his involvement in the student protests. Govender, along with Shoots Naidoo, Charm Govender, and a few others, set up classes for students who had been expelled so that they would not fall behind on their academics.
Alongside activists like Moe Shaik, Yunis Shaik, Bobby Subrayan, Adhir Maharaj, Alf Kariem, and several others, Govender marched around campus in protest. After one of their rounds of marching and protesting around the campus, they were met with riot police. Up until that point, the police had not done anything to the students. However, on that day, the police beat-up and tear-gassed the students. This was the first time that Govender had experienced such brutality from the police. Following this, the university was closed and the students decided to go back to their communities, mobilise themselves into smaller groups and inform their communities about what was happening while getting involved in any community activities.
Back in Chatsworth, Govender’s group stumbled across an organisation which took up a range of community issues called the Chatsworth Housing Action Committee (CHAC) and they got involved in that. It was during this time that Govender also got involved in the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) – of which she would eventually become secretary of her local branch.
As a member of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at UDW and someone who was becoming more and more involved in politics, although she was not being openly victimised by the campus authorities, she was visited by the Security Branch at her home as an intimidation tactic.
Within her community, getting involved in politics was something which was frowned upon. This, along with the fact that her family did not have much (her mother was a school teacher and her father a waiter and later a barman) and struggled to get her to university, motivated Govender to show that she could keep up with her academics while making a difference through politics. Thus, while she made sure to pass, she also took part in several campaigns during and after her studies. These included the Anti-Local Affairs Communities Campaigns, Anti-Tricameral Parliament Campaigns, the million signature campaign – which was against the formation of the Tricameral Parliament – and the United Democratic Front (UDF).
After qualifying as a teacher, Govender started working at a school close to her home in Chatsworth in 1984.She continued with her political involvement and on 17 June 1986, she was arrested at her school under the State of Emergency and became one of only three women from Chatsworth who were detained – Patsy Pillay and Thunai Reddy were the other two.
She was kept in solitary confinement at the Durban Westville Prison and was not allowed access to her one and a half year old son who was still breast-feeding at the time. The security police continued to harass her family and after nearly four months, she was released without charge. This was just one of many detentions Govender endured as her activism kept her on the radar of the security police.
After her release, she spent time on the run from the police, living in the homes of many relatives. For a while, she didn’t go back to her teaching job and when she did, she was visited by the police. Her school told her that there was going to be an inquiry into her misconduct, which was in reference to her arrest. She refused to take part in the inquiry and was eventually forcefully transferred to another school which was much farther from her home, a secondary school in Umkomaas, a town in south coast KZN. She taught there until 1988 when she resigned because of the police harassment and after having her second baby, travelling the long distance back and forth coupled with the absence of her fellow activist husband, the late Charm ‘PS’ Govender, who had been detained, became too much for her to handle.
Govender applied for a position at what was then the Garment Workers Union (GWU – now a part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions – COSATU) and started working as an education officer, staying there for three years. She is credited for her role in getting the conservative GWU to become a part of COSATU, which helped to foster non-racialism and build worker solidarity. She then went to work for the Community Research Unit, coordinating their research training programme which trained civic activists from Durban townships to conduct research in their communities. After this, she eventually returned to teaching.
Govender was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) underground operative, joining the party while it was a banned organisation. She took part in Operation Vula – a secret ANC project whose primary objective was to smuggle freedom fighters into the country– which was headed by Oliver Tambo, Mac Maharaj, Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kasrils. She joined the armed struggle and was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) interim committee while the organisation was still banned. When negotiations for a democratic South Africa commenced in the early 1990s, Govender was a delegate to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA).
Maggie Govender has continued to be of service to her people, holding various positions within government as she strives for a non-racial and equal South Africa. Presently, Govender serves in the KZN Provincial Legislature.
- Press Reader. (2009). Who is Maggie Govender?. [online], Available at: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/the-witness/20091012/281904474235468. (Accessed on 10 November 2020)
- Shongwe, D. (2002). Interview with Maggie Govender, University of Durban-Westville Documentation Centre, Oral History Project-‘Voices of Resistance’, [online], Available at: http://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/doc/Audio/TranscriptsORIGFINALFULL/GOVENDER,Maggie.DOC. (Accessed on 08 November 2020)