Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is perhaps the only Quaker and pacifist to have found themselves second-in-command of their country’s defence forces.
Madlala-Routledge was born in KwaZulu-Natal and began to study medicine at the University of Natal. Her grades suffered after she was drawn into student politics by Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, and she switched to a science degree at the University of Fort Hare (where Nelson Mandela took his degree). In 1972, she was expelled for taking part in a student boycott.
In 1979, she joined the then banned African National Congress (ANC). In 1983, she became one of the leaders of the Natal Organization of Women (NOW), and in 1984, she joined the South African Communist Party. Altogether, she was jailed three times for her political activism – finally serving a year in solitary confinement.
She met her husband, Quaker Jeremy Routledge, in the early 1980s, through a campaign to end military conscription. Through the Quakers, she says, “I learned to understand that God is in everyone. This was an important transformation for me, to embrace it, to realise that even my enemy has God in him.” She became a Quaker and she and Routledge married in 1989.
In the late 1980s, she worked to rebuild a community outside Durban that had been riven by violence and intra-black conflict. Through this work, Madlala-Routledge recognised what a powerful resource women could be in resolving conflicts. She also became aware that women’s issues had not always been addressed by the anti-apartheid movement.
In 1991, she was one of four communist party delegates to the convention that negotiated the transition from apartheid, and served on the working group that drafted South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution. She helped to ensure that, through the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality, women’s needs were represented in the constitution.
In 1994, when South Africa held its first democratic and non-racial elections, Madlala-Routledge was elected to Parliament and – despite her well-known pacifism – was appointed deputy minister of defence in 1999. She went on to challenge the attitude among the military that, ‘if you want to achieve peace, you must prepare for war.’ She argued that this was an inherent contradiction and that, in Gandhi’s words, ‘you have to live the future you want.’
“You have to look at a different way to use your power. We made it clear that we were going to use our military forces for peacekeeping on the continent.” Madlala -Routledge knew there were powerful vested interests that wanted to see the new South Africa buy as many weapons as possible and tried – not always successfully – to challenge those views.
Madlala-Routledge is keenly aware that pacifism should never be merely ‘passive’. “I have never met a Quaker who thought that sitting and meditating would solve the world’s problems. Meditation is important, because you have to start with yourself, but then you have to go and work for peace.”
In 2004, she was appointed Deputy Minister of Health. In that role, she pushed for a more forceful approach to South Africa's HIV crisis - which was then killing 800 people a day and infecting 1,000 more - and was met by growing resistance from the health minister, Tshabalala-Msimang, who at the time was promoting so-called ‘African’ cures for AIDS, based primarily on diet.
She pressed for government officials to take HIV tests – with her and her husband setting a public example. But increasingly she was sidelined by the minister.
However, in 2006, the Minister fell ill and, in her absence, Madlala-Routledge was asked to rewrite South Africa’s AIDS strategy. This she did, drawing up a five-year plan to triple the number of patients receiving life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and to halve the rate of new infections. She built bridges with AIDS organisations in South Africa and fearlessly criticised earlier policies.
The following year, visiting a rural hospital with a high rate of infant deaths, she publicly described conditions there as a ‘national emergency’, infuriating her ministerial colleagues. Within weeks, although her strategy remained in place, she had been dismissed from her post.
More recently Madlala-Routledge has campaigned to end sex-trafficking of women in South Africa.