Lydia Kompe-Ngwenya – South Africa

Lydia Kompe-Ngwenya – South Africa

Date: July 2, 2012
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In the sombre corridors of parliament, with their many reminders of the days when white men ruled, a gentle reminder of the new South Africa dashes to a meeting, clutching a hand-woven basket full of papers. Clad in a doek (head scarf) and wearing comfortable walking shoes, Lydia Kompe-Ngwenya, or Mam Lydia as she is fondly known, prides herself on never being late for a meeting – a punctuality record in her eight years as a member of parliament.

Yet, she confides in her small office overlooking the lawns of the presidential residence, what she most looks forward to are the weekends and better still the recesses so that “I can get back to my constituency and work.”

In the dusty plains of Tsimanyane, the area surrounding Marble Hall in Limpopo province, a three-hour drive north of Johannesburg, a parliamentarian who seldom grabs the headlines in Cape Town is at home and at ease.

With relationships in the area that date back to her days as a field worker in the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), Mam Lydia has taught the women that the struggle did not end with the achievement of democracy in 1994. As one of her women constituents put it: “like Moses who delivered the Israelites to Canaan, she is taking us to a new land.”

Mam Lydia makes no apologies for focusing on women, explaining: “Although I am responsible for everyone, for all grievances of the community, I like to prioritise, and my priority lies with the empowerment of women. Rural women are the most disadvantaged people in our society. They are born and brought up in this system, in which women are regarded as inferior. It takes a long time, even if you explain the constitution, for them to understand that they have rights.”

She credits the inroads she has been able to make to her grounding in the women’s movement and the participatory research project that she co-ordinated in the area to canvass the views of women for a Women’s Charter delivered to the crafters of the new Constitution.

A unionist who went on to organise women to campaign against forced removals, Mam Lydia agreed to serve as an MP of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) with the great reluctance. But when she realised that parliament equally bewildered many other men and women she started to find her feet – and her voice.

A former member of the Agriculture and Land Affairs Portfolio Committee, where her views were highly respected by the chairperson of the committee, Mam Lydia realised the value of bringing her lived experiences to the business of law making. “When the Restitution Bill came up, I could talk from experience about the importance of women being included in that legislation otherwise the land would go to men and women would never benefit,” she recalled.

Chair of the Agriculture and Land Affairs Portfolio Committee Neo Masithela commented that members like Kompe were invaluable to the committee: “She is so in touch with rural development, and she always brings out the gender issues,” he said.

In 1999, Mam Lydia reflected: “Seeing my contribution in a White Paper or legislation pushed one to participate even more as she can proudly say at the end this is mine, I did it for this country, for myself and for the women.”

As a member of the Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Status of Women (JCIQLSW) Mam Lydia recalled that “we fought hard for the Maintenance Bill and for ensuring that customary marriages are recognised. I conducted a campaign in my constituency on registering customary marriages so that women are not dispossessed of their property when men die. I began to see the link between parliament and my constituency.”

Helping to solve problems on the ground brought democracy alive for the people, and especially the women in her constituency. Early on, Mam Lydia lobbied for a dam and piped water under the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), South Africa’s first blueprint for overcoming the stark legacies of apartheid. She helped to unblock the numerous bottlenecks that cropped up along the way, both with national government and provincial authorities. Electricity and better roads followed.

In her campaign to create jobs, Mam Lydia has canvassed every parastatal and business in the area to support income-generating projects. At Mafato Bakery and Catering Project, women proudly show off a multipurpose hall that Mam Lydia lobbied the provincial minister of public works, Dikaledi Majazi (a woman) to provide. Mam Lydia jokes that this is an example of sisterhood at work.

Jobs have meant that women need somewhere to leave their kids during the day. One member of the Mafato group approached the hospital to provide space for a crèche. She says in the past, such a request would have been unthinkable. “It’s because we have women in parliament, women like Mam Lydia, that he agreed,” she said.  Still, there is no state funding for day care centres like this. Mam Lydia makes a note that she must raise this in the next meeting of the JCIQLSW.

The attempted rape of one member of the project, while fetching wood for the open- air oven at the bakery, sparked an unprecedented campaign on gender violence in this conservative rural community where the issue is hushed up. Mam Lydia canvassed Majazi, who had moved to the safety and security portfolio, to build a police station closer to the community.

There is so much to do, she sighs, and so little time. Her perennial plea is to be released from Parliament to spend more time on the ground. “I would say now that we have laws in place, let those who have certain skills remain in Cape Town. The rest of us should take our knowledge of the legislation and assist implementation on the ground.” Her involvement with the plight of rural women have ensured she remained active on the Water and Forestry Portfolio Committee, as well as serving on the Status of Women and Gender Committee.

Back in Johannesburg, the evening papers are awash with fresh scandal and corruption stories, lending a worn feel to the new South Africa. But the whiff of home-baked bread from the back of the car – gifts to the writer from the women in Mam Lydia’s constituency who toil with so little to give so much – is one of the most reassuring signs that democracy is alive and well in the new South Africa.

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