Mam Lydia Kompe-Ngwenya
(interview by Shamim Meer)
Mam Lydia Kompe-Ngwenya was born in a rural village in the Northern Transvaal, in 1935. At age 15 she felt the brunt of apartheid’s betterment policies which forced many African South Africans into wage labour. As a direct result Mam Lydia was unable to complete schooling, as her family was reduced to near starvation. As an African South African and in particular as a woman she was denied freedom of movement into the cities of so called white South Africa, due to the apartheid government’s influx control policies. As a worker (since 1970), a trade unionist, and an organiser of the Rural Women’s Movement Mam Lydia experienced first hand employers, fellow unionists and a state, each in their different ways relegating women to subordinate status. Mam Lydia has lived her life fighting these injustices. Since the inception of the post apartheid government Mam Lydia has been a Member of Parliament (1994). Now serving her second term, she tries to link grass roots work with her parliamentary responsibilities.
Q - Mam can you tell us what some of the things were that you personally gained from being involved in the trade union movemen?
Mam Lydia - I think I gained a lot of experience. I was really capacitated. I was really empowered. I could resist anything. I even said to myself if I was empowered like this before my marriage I would not have divorced because I would also empower my husband somehow or the other. Because I started to understand why people fight sometimes. Even in the family. I realised if you are both not employed, if there is not enough food and care in the home there’s always tension. Somebody is tense because you have not got enough
money to supply the home, particularly men who feel they are responsible for bringing in money. You resort to violence. I started to realise these things later when it was too late. But I learnt a lot of things.
And I learnt to live with all races. Because I want to say before I was very very very bitter with white people because of the laws that affected my life so much, particularly influx control I never thought I would ever be friends with whites. When I saw white people I just saw enemies. Every time when I see the police harassing us I just pray to God that Mandela gets released and we win the struggle and we get into power, then I’m going to join the police force and get revenge. And I’ll be the first one to arrest all these white people and give them their medicine to taste. The way I was bitter inside. But the trade unions changed me (...)
Q - Do you feel you are able to link what’s happening at grass roots with your work in the portfolio committees and the assembly?
Mam Lydia - In my opinion I think we should restructure parliament. Now that lots of laws have been passed we are not dealing with a lot of bills like on our first term. Maybe this would be a nice time to restructure so that those who are activists should be given the chance to be home for some time and do work, physical work. So we can meet the demand of our president that our focus should be on eliminating poverty, particularly in the rural areas. We cannot do that if we are not physically there for some time to assist. Because our local councillors are also new, they need some kind of boost and assistance from us at the top there. Sometimes we should come down and work with them. Not to step on their feet but to work as a team and assist wherever we can with the experience we have. And particularly when we find that the councillors are mainly men, you see. And it does not really match very well with the women’s groups we have, particularly in my area. I think we have very few women councillors. If some of us are back home at certain intervals and come and interact with them and let the big brains up there do some work. Then we can link our work. I mean we are not academics. We are good at other things and they are not good at the grass roots. So all these things link together you know.(...)
That’s why I always think that maybe the other alternative since government does not want to use NGOs is that some of us should come down and come and assist. We are still not going to be as accurate as an organisation that would take responsibility, which would see it as their job and be accountable to a department. Because a lot of money has been spent from the welfare department -- the money is supposed to go to the poorest of the poor to help them uplift their lives. Who is actually in charge of that money to see to it that it reaches its goal? Because we need somebody who is very appropriate, really committed, who has the heart to these very people. I really don’t know how to deal with that issue. But I still think my dreams are not yet met towards uplifting the poor and actually meeting the goals of the president that we need to stick our heels into uplifting the lives of the poor. My question is how are we going to do that because money has been allocated. How is the money going to be utilised. Next time it is roll over or disappearance because there is no one who takes the real responsibility that we can say what did you do with the allocation.