Pregaluxmi (Pregs) Govender was born on 15 February 1960 in Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Her father – a writer and, mother, a teacher – valued critical thinking and emphasised the importance of taking action against injustice.

Due to the Group Areas Act, Govender and her family were forced to move to Durban’s flatlands where the family of five were crammed into a two-roomed flat. Although small, their home was constantly flowing with friends, family, writers and activists who helped broaden Govender’s understanding of the issues facing many people in the country. As a result, she became aware of poverty, inequality and injustice at a young age, eventually becoming an active anti-apartheid activist in 1974 at just fourteen years old.

Govender’s activism began in high school, where she assisted in the setting up of the first Student Representative Council (SRC) and raised money for political detainees. Later as a student at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN), she was involved in negotiating the first SRC constitution for the student body. Furthermore, she was a part of the 1980 student boycotts –which she later recognised as one of the turning points in her life – and became a founding member of the university’s Women’s Committee.

Govender would become a member of the African National Congress (ANC), which had been banned in 1960. From the mid-1970s to the 1980s, she immersed herself in feminism, socialism, as well as solidarity in community, student and women’s movements. It was during this time that she became the media coordinator of the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW) and a founding member of SPEAK magazine.

After graduating in 1981, Govender taught English in high schools and at the UDW, where she also worked as the research assistant to the Director of the Institute of Socio-Economic Research.

In 1987, she joined the Garment Workers Industrial Union (GWIU), a clothing and textile union which had the largest women’s membership in the country, and was elected national educator. Her education programme contributed extensively to women being elected into leadership positions at the Garment and Allied Workers Union (GAWU). Additionally, she played a key role in convincing 100 000 racially divided workers to join the non-racial Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and become the more progressive South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) – for which she became the collective bargaining and research officer. During this time, she published several articles, manuals, pamphlets, and educational materials on gender and labour issues.

Govender researched and wrote a feasibility study into a Workers College and was asked to lead its establishment at The University of the Western Cape, Western Cape Province. The Workers College programme strengthened worker leadership and many of its graduates moved onto leadership positions in the union movement. In recognition of this initiative, she was awarded the Ashoka Fellowship.   

In 1994, Govender was elected as an African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament (MP) in the National Assembly. During the country’s transition into democracy, between 1992 and 1994, Govender was at the helm of the Women’s National Coalition (WNC) campaign for a Women’s Charter of Effective Equality. The campaign, which mobilised approximately two million rural and urban women, involved hundreds of local organisations and ninety national organisations to help shape the country’s transition and ensure a new constitution which included women’s rights.

During the 1994 budget debates, Govender was behind the globally influential ‘Women’s Budget’ which aimed to introduce gender-responsive budgets. Following the 1996 World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China (for which she co-edited South Africa’s report), Govender argued in a national forum for the South African government to reduce its spending on defence, suggesting those funds be redirected towards women. This seemed to be well received, however, in 2001 Govender was the only MP to register opposition to the arms deal in the country’s Defence Budget Vote.

Govender was appointed chairperson of Parliament’s Women’s Committee, the Joint Monitoring Committee on Improvement of Quality of Life and Status of Women (JMCIQLSW), which saw to it that 80% of feminist transformative legislative priorities were enacted. During her term (1996-2002), the Child Maintenance Act, Domestic Violence Act, Customary Marriages Act and changes to labour laws which advanced women’s rights in the workplace, were enacted. In the midst of this, the country was facing an alarming rise in HIV infections with a devastating impact on women and girls. Govender chaired public hearings on HIV/AIDS in response to the government’s denial of treatment and boldly voiced her dissatisfaction with then-President Thabo Mbeki’s stance on anti-retroviral drugs. She subsequently resigned as an MP in 2002.

Tracing her life from growing up in poverty under apartheid to becoming the fiercely outspoken activist, Govender authored her life’s journey in her autobiography – Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination (2007). The book shines a light on the experiences that have moulded her into the widely respected woman who has remained firmly dedicated to emancipating women and fighting for the human rights of the disadvantaged in South Africa and internationally.

She has written over 300 speeches, reports, media articles and book chapters in both local and international publications. In 2007, she was elected chairperson of the Independent Panel Assessment of Parliament, which sought stronger oversight and electoral reform. From 2009 to 2015, she served as the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) Commissioner and Deputy Chairperson. She has also served on the Panel of Eminent Persons, the global Panel on Human Dignity, worked for the consultancy, WOMAN’S LIP, which aims to build women’s leadership in politics, and volunteered for Gun Free South Africa (GFSA).

Govender has received various awards for all the work she has done throughout her more than thirty-year long career, including the Ashoka Fellowship, honorary doctorates in Law and Philosophy, the inaugural Ruth First Fellowship for her courageous writing and activism, the Thousand Currents Artists-in-Residence, and the Inspiration Award from the International Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) which she received for her leadership and commitment to advancing gender equality and social justice. 

Pregs conceptualised and conducted education programs including Parliament’s first Africa-wide conference on gender and economic policy. She trained parliamentarians through workshops of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Association of European Parliaments for Africa (AWEPA). Pregs advised feminists in local and international organisations and helped conceptualise and facilitate curriculum workshops for feminist leadership networks such as the International Feminist University Network. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pregs co-facilitated informal bilateral dialogues between progressive economists and sectors such as Labour, to advance the proposals addressed in a letter to the President initiated by the Institute for Economic Justice and signed by progressive economists, including the late Vishnu Padayachee. She has chaired feminist hearings on GBV and served on social justice initiatives such as the global panel on Human Dignity chaired by Mary Robinson.

She currently serves as a Patron of Gun-Free SA. As an independent writer Pregs has authored popular articles and book chapters in local and international publications. She has written and delivered keynote addresses to organisations including the Rural Women’s Movement and the United Nations.

Sonke Gender Justice, a NGO committed to the development of a gender-just and democratic society, announced that Govender joined the organisation as a Senior Fellow from February 2021 for a 2-year period. 

Having overcome the oppressive political and social climate that once undermined her as an Indian woman living in apartheid South Africa, Govender continues to fight against racism, gender inequality and classism.

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