Quaker United Nations Geneva director: ‘Freedom is a constant struggle’

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, South African politician, Quaker, radical feminist and peacemaker, became director of the Quaker United Nations office in Geneva in 2021 – and the first African director of any Quaker international agency. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/Kasmira Jefford)

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who will be speaking at the opening of Geneva Peace Week on Monday, on how she became a South African activist fighting for women’s rights after the apartheid, to a Quaker and peacemaker.

Tucked away in one of Geneva’s quiet residential areas, the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) – though located not far from the Palais des Nations – feels a world away from the imposing neoclassical headquarters of the organisation it supports.

The dining room table of what looks like an old family home is set for tea. In one of its chairs sits Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a former South African politician, long-time activist, pacifist and feminist, who took over as its director in 2021, becoming the first African to hold the position.

Like the cosy room that we sit in, Madlala-Routledge has a warm and open presence that at once makes you feel at home. But behind that is a woman who has spent her life tirelessly and resolutely fighting for civil rights in South Africa during and after the apartheid.  In 1979, she joined the then-banned African National Congress (ANC). She was also one of the leaders of the women’s rights group, the Natal Organization of Women (NOW), and part of the South African Communist Party.

In 1994, Madlala-Routledge was elected to parliament and became deputy minister of defence in 1999, followed by deputy minister of health where she helped implement new measures to tackle the country’s Aids crisis.

As director of QUNO, her aim is to advance the faith-based NGO’s work across four main areas  – peace and disarmament, human rights and migration, climate change, and just and sustainable economic systems. The organisation also offers its Geneva home as a meeting place for peace mediation and diplomacy.

Ahead of Geneva Peace Week where she will be speaking,  Madlala-Routledge tells Geneva Solutions about her experiences as a South African activist, finding the Quaker faith – and why freedom and human rights, once won, demand nurturing and constant work.

GS News: What’s the relation between Quaker beliefs and human rights and how does this shape the work of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva?

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge: The Quaker United Nations Office was established 75  years ago, in 1938, to help the UN carry out its original goals of peace and prosperity for all nations following the First and then the Second World War.  Quakers refuse to carry arms. We believe every human being is sacred, so it is wrong to kill. We support those in need, victims of war from all sides offering humanitarian assistance. But more importantly, we play a major role in peacemaking before, during and after a war. We believe that peace is not the mere absence of violent conflict but the presence of justice.  So that leads us, based on our faith, to address the root causes of war and conflict – poverty, inequality, economic inequality, exclusion. All social ills, unequal distribution of resources to climate injustice – we regard them as threats to peace and justice.

“Peace is not the mere absence of violent conflict but the presence of justice.”

When did you become a Quaker?

I became a Quaker around 30 years ago at a time of huge conflict in my country, where legalised racism was being used as a way to oppress people. There was a very small group of Quakers in Durban where I lived and I found them very impressive because they combined their faith with active work for justice.

Being an activist - did it resonate with Quaker values?

[Becoming a Quaker] enhanced my activism in a powerful way. With politics (I was in extra-parliamentary politics at the time fighting for basic human rights in my country) you are confined to your party political view and there is a kind of line of command where you don’t have enough space to really explore and to engage with others. With the Quakers I found I was able to stand on my own system of beliefs and I was able to engage and interact with all sorts of people. So I felt liberated.

You became director of the QUNO in Geneva in 2021. But this was not your first time in the city…

Switzerland was the very first country, the very first place I came as a young activist, to the United Nations. I was invited to speak on International Women’s Day about our experiences as women in South Africa…I was nervous to address an international audience but I was familiar with the issues because I was experiencing them personally together with others in my country. I was already by then an activist, working in an organisation that I had helped to start, the Natal Organization of Women (NOW). In fact the woman who invited me to speak, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka [at the time coordinator at the World YWCA in Geneva -ed.], subsequently became the deputy president of my country – the first woman to be in that position – and after that she became executive director of UN Women (from 2016-2021).

You were deputy defence and deputy health minister of South Africa (1999-2007). Did you ever aspire to be president?

No, I think it’s a very big job, but I do aspire for a woman to lead South Africa.

In 1991, you served on the working group that drafted South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution. How is your experience from that time, helping South Africa transition from a period of turbulence and conflict, useful to you today?

I have learnt now, so many years later, that freedom is a constant struggle and one that you need to defend. Having struggled in South Africa for the rights that we now enjoy in our constitution, I thought, “this is it, we have achieved what we were fighting for”, not realising that in fact the journey had just begun in defending those rights and making sure that they are implemented effectively. And this is something I am bringing to my work here at QUNO because we effectively work on the same issues [defending human rights] but at the international level.

“freedom is a constant struggle and one that you need to defend”

Today’s conflicts are becoming more numerous and complex. What tools do we need to address them and do current peacebuilding methods still work?

I am looking forward to Geneva Peace Week for this reason, because there are experts who will be there and sharing their knowledge, especially around the complexities that we see in conflicts around the world. There are conflicts that are manifesting themselves in ways they didn’t exist before, where people’s identities are being manipulated and weaponised. It’s often about mobilising people against “the other”  – the person who you regard as your enemy. Whether it’s religion, ethnic identity, geography – they become a tool for mobilisation and for demonising “the other”. And the current ease of spread of misinformation or disinformation is what has also changed.

Concerning the war in Ukraine, the prospect of bringing the warring parties to the table to discuss peace have been fading.  The Russian ambassador to the UN in Geneva himself recently told journalists that negotiations at this stage were “pointless”. What alternatives do you see?

I don’t think we have alternatives to talking. All wars must end so why not end them sooner rather than later? We keep pushing for negotiations, for an end to this open and violent conflict. Quakers have particularly been challenged, because we have said we are anti-war, to identify and express alternative ways of dealing with conflict. And of course it becomes difficult when a war has broken out, to see how it will end. But I think the important thing is to recognise that it’s become a global war, which means that it touches all of us. It's not just the shortage of energy, resources. It’s also how it’s become a digital war. And now it’s threatening to become a nuclear war. So that causes all of us to find a way to work together to find solutions and to create space for people to talk.

Going back to your early years as a social activist,  you’ve been a lifetime advocate of women’s rights. What moments from your youth inspired you?

I learnt a lot in my youth from older women who had done amazing things, brave things, even marching to the Union building in Pretoria to protest against the extension of pass laws to African women. These were laws preventing them from coming into the cities, curfews etc., and these women – large numbers of them – gathered outside the seat of government in Pretoria in 1956 to protest. This is was what really inspired me. In fact this is how we started our organisation (NOW) commemorating the 9 August, now an international holiday, when women marched and gathered in Pretoria – 20,000 of them – and there were all racial groups standing together in solidarity with African women.

How were women’s rights represented in the negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa?

The struggle initially was for national liberation, to liberate the whole nation which went with the right to vote no matter what race you are. But alongside that, women mobilised for their own rights because we believed that liberation would not be full for us if we did not get equal rights as men. Our movement [Madlala-Routledge’s organisation NOW and other women’s groups joined forces to form the Women’s National Coalition - ed.] insisted that our liberation could not wait.  The men in our movement were reluctant to support our struggle. They said, “let us get liberated first as black people and the other freedoms will come”. But we said no, they won’t come naturally… So leading up to the negotiations that started after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, women got together across race and across class and adopted a charter of women’s rights, which we called the Charter for Effective Gender Equality, and that charter contained all the rights that women wanted in the new constitution. So today, South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world because it respects women’s rights that we ensured were included.

Are those rights still upheld today?

They are not really upheld and it’s again another struggle to get them to be upheld and for all to enjoy the rights that are given in our constitution. I’m encouraging younger generations to do their part, because – as I started by saying, freedom is a constant struggle – and  every generation needs to do their part to fight and defend these rights.

In your experience, what is unique about what women bring to peacebuilding and in resolving conflicts?

I will be speaking about this at the Geneva Peace Week. I don’t want to fit the stereotype that women are more peaceful but I think because of our closeness to nature and our child-bearing role. I am not saying all women bear children but there is a sense of protectiveness that starts with protecting our children, our families and therefore our world. So women play an important role in the communities in a peacemaking capacity. But you still find they are missing when it comes to peace negotiations and other peacekeeping roles and leadership roles. And that was why I was personally very excited when the UN passed the resolution 1325 [in 2000, linking gender equality to the maintenance of international peace and security - ed.] But this is what women had campaigned for – the UN didn’t just wake up one day and decide women should have equal representation in those decision-making structures.  It was a battle. And despite this resolution having been passed, we still have too few women in these structures… For sustainable peace, we [Quakers -ed.] believe that there has to be justice and this includes gender justice.