Transcript: Ambassador Nomaindiya Mfeketo's Interview for Just World Educational

Released on March 1, 2021


Video, Audio and Text Transcript

Transcript of the video:

Charity Famakinwa (00:02):

Madam ambassador it is a pleasure to speak to you and interview you for the Just World Education program. And the first question is: what drew you into South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle in terms of your own background, your family situation and what you experienced as a young black person?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (00:21):

Nothing very much. Nomaindiya Mfeketo was born in Elsie’s River, Cape Town, South Africa. I come from a family of eight children, mom and dad were just ordinary working parents. And from a very early stage, we could gather that as children, that in our country, there is something wrong. And that was caused by, you know, the fact that we couldn't do other things that white children and white parents were doing. We couldn't be in the same, same place. We couldn't take the same bus. If we take a bus, we must go upstairs. And that, but, but also, I mean, without being told, as children, we could sense that there was something wrong. And as I grow older, of course, with Group Areas Act with me in our townships with schools that only have Black people, no white people, no, no Brown people. Clearly, we started feeling that there's something wrong, but I think what more than anything for me was the fear of being 16 years old.

Because then once you're 16, you must have a something, your identity, which was not seen as an identity, but as a passbook, that must always be around your neck. If you don't have that, and the police come to you and ask for that, and we don't have that passbook, at that age of 16, you will go and be arrested. So those are some of the things that by the time I was 16, 18, definitely I knew there was something wrong. And it's at that age that we started to protest against whatever that was happening in, in our area.

Charity Famakinwa (03:09):

And what were some of the highlights of your participation in the anti- Apartheid struggle?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (03:18):

Well, I don't know if there were highlights, or if they are highlights, but I mean, looking back, maybe they were. I started by getting involved in NGO, because of the housing systems and other things. And, you know, Black communities were not catered for, full stop. Even if you were being moved. As I said, we were moved from Elsie’s River to get us free. We were moved from a brick house that my parents bought, into, being given few pieces of wood and things for my father to build a house for us. So, we, you know, coming from that, as we grew old, there were other things that were happening. Even though the people who were controlling what is happening in all these Black areas were white, they were doing exactly what they wanted to do. So, we had to, somehow, educate ourselves to fight.

And it started at, you know, having people who are older than us opening up the community centers. That are, the centers built by municipalities in different areas. But then because those people were coming from the banned organization like ANC and that, but so we would go as youngsters into a community center. And this is where we gained an understanding of how we can fight this politically. Because we were told about this organization that we can't mention openly because they are banned, we were taught about what people in exile are doing, trying to free us, we were told about many, many things. And from there, I think I was you know, it was 79. In fact, 1976, I must say, there was also a driving force. We were forced to learn each and every language or syllabus in Afrikaans, doing maths in Afrikaans and doing biology in Afrikaans, doing everything.

The only subject that was not changed was Afrikaans. But all others we were supposed to do in Afrikaans. And it was very, very difficult. Lots of people dropped out of school because of that. Now, when we got this education and you know, some of us left school at some point to work because we had to work. I worked in the NGO and this NGO was funded by Oxfam, outside the country, and it turned out to be a highlight for me. I worked in that NGO for 10 years. It was teaching people the politics but also, to know what they can do to create a business. It was called ZAKH. And really, we were teaching people how to build kitchen units, how to do certain things, so that the communities who didn't have jobs could create businesses themselves.

Charity Famakinwa (07:29):

And did women and girls have distinctive contributions that they made to the struggle in your own assessment?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (07:36):

No, definitely. Definitely. I think during our time, we, as girls and as women, we knew there were women who, you know, were doing things even before us. And remember the women, you know, 1956 women taking Orlando to, you know, the government then. So we knew those women, we knew Comrade Winnie Mandela, so in a way there were people before us that we knew, if we take this road, definitely we are continuing with what they are still doing because some of them were in jail, yes, but some of them were still working hard and being arrested every now and then and coming back and doing the same thing, to free the country.

Charity Famakinwa (08:43):

How big of a risk was it to be a female in the struggle?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (08:52):

Well, it was, because of course the way of torture was for women was very bad. It can even be rape and everything. But, you know, we had the support of our menfolk. They were supporting us to be in the struggle. Yes. I know our parents were sort of worried about that, but I think even looking back, it was important for women to be in the struggle because this struggle to free South Africa can never be just about men freeing South Africa.

Charity Famakinwa (09:37):

Ambassador, do you think the worldwide movement to boycott and sanction the apartheid regime was helpful to the struggle inside South Africa?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (09:46):

It was more than helpful. It was more than helpful. In fact, that is something, if you think about it, that was something that made the apartheid government stop and think. Because now, it wasn't only South Africans in South Africa with the UTF in particular, that was formed. It wasn't only South Africans. It wasn't only the people who are in exile. The very business sector in South Africa started complaining and saying their businesses are going down because of the government that doesn't want to free South Africans. So those voices, not only of Americans, voices of people from different countries, sanctions that were put to businesses in South Africa. And definitely not only that, not only that, there were meetings where the South African government would go to a place with the hope that they are going to talk about how good South Africa is. Once they are there, they would find people not only from South Africa, who would stand up and say you will not talk in our meeting. You are still oppressing people in South Africa, you have no right to speak here. And this is, this is why, slowly, I mean the apartheid government and then national party, but didn't, didn't just, unban organizations and release Mandela from jail. There was a pressure from all other countries, you know, for South Africa to belong to all who live in it.

Charity Famakinwa (12:00):

And since South Africa achieved democracy with the first elections being held in 1994, has the contribution of women leaders at all levels continued to be valued and encouraged?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (12:13):

Definitely the voice of the women have continued to prevail. There are organizations, there are structures of women and even young women from the government level. I think so much happened because at some stage there were positions that women were not employed [in]. There were differences of salary where women, were employed in that place, even if they were, academically, at the same level as men, but men would get more. So, I think there's lots of improvement, but I must still say there is much, much more to be done because we still have, you know, certain things that, you know, undermine the effort that is being made by women. But I mean, when I think of it, we've moved quite far from where we were during apartheid days to a place where we are able to form organizations, we are able to do whatever we want. We have equal rights as women to any other person. So, there's, there's no, what we had before: that [because] you are a woman, you can't be doing what, whatever you want.

Charity Famakinwa (13:51):

And speaking of women in leadership, we know that you had a very elaborate political career prior to 1994, but mostly from 1994 onwards. Can you take us through some of the highlights of your own political career from the time of being the first female first black mayor of Cape town to today?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (14:15):

Yes, coming from NGOs, because I went to the NGO ZAKH and I went into an NGO, you know, an NGO that was establishing. It sent us [to] people [for] legal, sent us for communities to be able to take their challenges there. And this NGO was funding those organizations. And lastly, I went to DAG, Development Action Group. This was my highlight because it was teaching people to take part in what was done for them. For instance, we were focusing on housing and we were, you know, community people would go to different communities. If municipalities going to build houses, we're saying to people, you need to be involved, you need to know what kind of houses they're going to be building for you. Is there going to be a toilet on site, where? And all those things, and we, in a way we forced the municipality to interact with communities in how they want to change their place, instead of just building houses, no matter who they are and give it to you and, and live. Then, it's at that point, that things started opening up the unbanning and that, and I was asked, I think that's where, you know, being in government, you know, I started to take part in government.

I was asked to bring together the small, you know, municipalities. We didn't have Cape Town as a municipality. We would have a municipality in each and every area, be it finance, and that. So, there were many municipalities in white areas, but in Black areas, with all those millions of people who were staying in Black areas, you just have one area that you must go wherever you, I must go and go to Google it to find anything within the municipalities. So, I was asked to, there was it a group that was formed and approaching different agencies, that we prepare for the new form of whatever, because now you will no longer have just whites, colored, and African, you would have one municipality. So sort of moving those smaller municipalities into Cape Town municipality.

This started in 1990, 1991, and then we were completed around about 1993 and established the Cape Town municipality, which, I mean, is a Metro for Cape Town.  1994, 1993, then we were preparing for the first democratic election in South Africa. You can imagine how exciting it was and how many people, you know, wanted to be part of that. Not necessarily part of being in the cabinet. We didn't know anything about, you know, being an MP and cabinet and that. So many people, even some of the people we were working with, all ran to be members of parliament. And I mean, as a community activist, I, you know, remained behind. In fact, I told them because people know where I dream about who goes, where on the list and that, so I said, no, no, no, we're still doing work in the municipality. I'm not going to move.

So mainly the municipality, this is where, you know, so my first, you know, position there, [I] became a chair of this metro, which is called Cape Town. And from there two years later, I was appointed as the Mayor of that city to, I think we served till about ‘95, ‘96. And then I continued being the Mayor that no, no, no, not having Mayor, sorry, I was a Chair of the Committee. And then from there I became the Mayor of Cape down. I became the mayor twice. I became the mayor, and then at some stage with the election in year 2000 we, we lost the election and national party was the one that won a bigger number, but not all. They went into something with the Democratic Party and were able to be the one that are controlling the Metro. Within a short space of time, after a year. They fought for whatever reason, the National Party now requested to merge with, to come to the ANC and which after long deliberations that was agreed too. They had a condition that well, if they are coming to the ANC…

Charity Famakinwa (20:55):

Madam Ambassador, I think I just want to go back to the time that you worked during the first democratic government of South Africa that was led by the late former president Nelson Mandela…

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (21:10):

Working in an environment where President Mandela was president of the country was very exciting. First, he was observing most of what we were doing as the city, when there are visitors coming to the city, when there are programs, especially programs of really, you know, inviting people of all colors so that we can learn to live and talk together. But even more importantly, you know, on many a times, a phone would ring and pick up or at some stage, you know, their receptionist would pick up the phone. There was a time when out fortunately I was going to my office and I would hear the receptionist saying, “Who must I say is calling?”, but in a very rough way. And I heard the voice on the other side of the President saying, “Tell the mayor it's Nelson Mandela.” I quickly grabbed the phone from her, how can you ask the President [that]?

So, I quickly grabbed the phone and said, “Mr. President, it’s Nomaindiya speaking to you.” And Oh, you know, here he was telling me about somebody went to him and ear fed to me and I must listen to that person is going to come. She's going to come. It was a woman, she's going to come before four o'clock. So, I mean, there was a relationship of respect, but also I think, you know, just that spirit that Comrade Mandela had for everybody was something that really bring the whole country: brown, Black, and white into saying we reconcile with what was happening in South Africa, and we're moving forward.

Charity Famakinwa (23:53):

Now you have a picture next to you of a moment that you shared with the late President Mandela. Can you talk to us what was happening there?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (24:01):

This picture, we had a partnership with Cape Times again. You remember, out of all the provinces Cape Town was the west province, divided province. So here for some time as a city, we would do programs that force us as different racial groups to air something together and discuss and have convenes. So, this is one of the campaigns we, I just forgot its name. This is one of the campaigns we had that brought people to the city, but also, we had also other convenes that would be done maybe on the 1st of December, which is AIDS day and bring not only people from Cape Town, but from other provinces too, and you know, to the city. So this is this when our President visited us. And then I think it was, I don't know if it was in it, you know, the city itself or the garden that is near the city.

Charity Famakinwa (25:30):

Coming from having learned so many lessons from the great unifier such as the late statesman, Nelson Mandela, and being in America today, where there is a huge anti-racism movement, you know, that is gaining grounds. Of course, it's not a new thing, but it's been gaining ground in the recent years. Do you think that you know, South Africa can play a special role in the U.S. today in terms of supporting anti-racism movements and how, how do you see or envisage yourself playing that role?

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (26:09):

When we've had the American voices screaming and fighting on our behalf for, I mean, against their budget in South Africa, they spend lots of their time fighting for sanctions, fighting to make sure that their Apartheid government doesn't come and represent their agenda instead of representing people. I think we owe them something. It is our time to assist in whatever we can and not necessarily being back, but creating a better world for everybody. Surely, how would be dictated by those comrades that  understand that we are where we are today because of them.

How do I assist? I think both South Africa and, you know, the United States have been through a lot. At the moment, yes, I'm a diplomat sent to America, so there are certain things that I cannot do as a diplomat, but definitely together with lots of people who can see what they want to take this kind of, we will be able to assist from a distance. So yes, my, one of my roles being here, yes, it can be trade and investment from South Africa to U.S. and U.S. to South Africa, but also it can be building a formidable relationship that countries, these countries would be much closer. Of course, if countries are closer the people of those countries would also be close to each other.

Charity Famakinwa (29:29):

Thank you so much Madam Ambassador for your time. Is there anything you want to say in closing? Just in terms of the space women now occupy in the world, we've just had a new, the first female Vice President of the U. S. and the space that young girls are now growing up in watching women take their place in leadership.

Amb. Nomaindiya Mfeketo (29:51):

I think for each and every woman, what happened in the last election, the first Black woman, being elected as a deputy president. It's something that we are very excited about. Now, surely it means there's work lots of work to be done. In fact, just looking at their executives that have been elected since the election and nominated into very important positions, clearly what you see here is the equality of women in whatever needs to be done. And those are the same women who were champions of motivating communities in different areas to come and vote and bring back America. I'm confident that Deputy-President Harris would influence lots of young children, young women, to know that there's nothing stopping them in this country, and hopefully many other countries, to be the presidents of those countries, let alone the deputy president. Thank you very much.

Speakers for the Session


H.E. Nomaindiya Mfeketo

Support Just World Educational

If you find this project worthwhile, engaging, and useful, please consider supporting our mission. We strive to expand the dialogue on vital international issues by providing educational materials and a platform for critical thinkers.

JWE has a golden opportunity to make a difference in this country...
Richard Falk

Stay in touch! Sign up for our newsletter: