Pregaluxmi Govender

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1993
This description of Pregaluxmi Govender's work was prepared when Pregaluxmi Govender was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993.


Pregaluxmi Govender founded a model workers' college supported by the independent trade union movement. The trade union movement has historically reflected the hierarchies of race, gender and class in South African society in its leadership. The college is designed to help redress these inequalities. In the first democratic elections of May 1994, Pregaluxmi was elected as an ANC member to the national parliament.

The New Idea

We are prisoners of our own history. So starts the briefing on the Western Cape Workers College. The year-old Workers College has heralded a process of worker empowerment that seeks to consolidate and build working class leadership in the union movement. Unlike existing worker education programs in South Africa and internationally, which typically focus on basic shop-steward training, the Workers College places a strong emphasis on personal as well as organizational and political development. The college provides training in areas such as labor law and collective bargaining, the political economy, international trade union theory and practice, as well as personal assertiveness and stress management. In its own words, the college will "provide workers with the necessary tools to think through issues independently and creatively, to plan and to initiate effective action without dependence, to articulate their thoughts and experiences for themselves, to have no fear of authority (whether it be in the form of the state, capital, or of their own worker comrades), to be un-intimidated by the form or the content of meetings (whether they are large congresses or small commissions on complex issues such as the economy), or of the language used or the confidence of others." The Workers College has and will continue to develop educational practices that sustain participatory and critical learning processes. To this end, the Workers College aims to develop in its students the personal, political, and practical skills necessary to work collectively, to build democratic organizations and to empower others, and to initiate and support changes at existing education institutions to make worker education more accessible.

The Problem

South Africa's apartheid history has continually denied workers access to information and to practical and theoretical skills. No other educational institution currently exists in the country with the specific objective of promoting worker education. As a result, the increasing numbers of unionized workers have few opportunities to deepen their understanding of labor issues and the role of trade unions in transforming society. The South African trade union movement has developed strong democratic structures and traditions based on shop-floor organization and elected representation. Because of its organized democratic base, the unions have emerged as the most powerful instrument in the alliance of organizations making up the broad liberation movement. Yet in most unions today, many high-ranking leaders are still committed intellectuals who are not from the ranks of workers, are typically non-African, and are predominantly male. Given the leading role trade unions have come to occupy in South Africa, a complex industrializing country, senior union leadership positions require the skills and broadened frame of reference normally associated with advanced formal education. Because of the historical denial of education to black South Africans, approximately two-thirds of African workers are functionally illiterate, with the commonly quoted figure for so-called colored workers being one half. Of these, perhaps half never attended school and the other half completed less than four years. The first rung of elected union leadership, the shop stewards, have eight to ten years of (inferior "Bantu") education, and thus have little chance of rising to the senior leadership positions. Women have even less opportunity to rise through the union hierarchy. While constituting a substantial portion of union membership, they make up only 15% of shop stewards. The unions recognize that they must urgently develop internal worker leadership if they are to retain their leading role in shaping a new, democratic South Africa. The Workers College is a practical response to this assessment. Its curriculum emphasizes the ways and means of strengthening participatory democracy within the unions by building the personal capacities of all union members. In the words of one Workers College student, "The Workers College changed my perception of building power and how to use power. We must build power for the collective good, encourage individuals in our organization to develop and take responsibility for the running of our organization, even if it means that those in power are sowing the seeds for others to take their place - we must not fear this."

The Strategy

In September 1990, Pregs brought together a group of trade unionists to conduct a feasibility study for a workers college in the Western Cape. Several months later, she tabled the report to the major trade union confederations and affiliates and to independent unions for discussions within union structures. This consultation process gave birth to the Workers College Council. The council comprises representatives of all participating unions with more than 500 paid-up members. Unions are proportionally represented on the council and 50 percent of the members of each delegation are workers. The council elects eleven unionists onto the Board of Trustees of the College and the University of the Western Cape elects a further two. The Board of Trustees appoints the coordinator, and lecturers are drawn from unions, universities and organizations. As a "shared product" of the two competing union federations and the leading non-aligned unions, the college is uniquely positioned to share its experience throughout the independent trade union movement. The unions think of the Workers College as "their own" experiment in worker leadership education. The college is situated at the University of the Western Cape because of that university's commitment to addressing the educational needs created by apartheid education. The university has negotiated an agreement with the college that recognizes the independence of the college and also describes the terms of support the university will provide to the college. By 1991 the college had completed a three-month, non-residential course with four modules: organizational management, the history of trade unions in South Africa' political economy, international trade unionism, and labor law and collective bargaining. Personal skills and gender issues are integrated into all of the modules. The pilot course was run as a block session to minimize the drop-out rates that plague other worker-training programs. Upon successful completion, students receive a certificate at the University of the Western Cape graduation ceremony. This is a direct challenge to existing legislation, which under South African law prohibits anyone without a high-school degree access to a college diploma. The program's primary students are union leaders, i.e., senior shop stewards and full-time officials. The school encourages diversity with respect to student gender, place of origin, and union rank. Each participating union is entitled to at least one and a maximum of three participants in the course. Applicants must be excused from their usual work for the duration of the course. The Board of Trustees make the final student selections. Educators, trainers, and facilitators at the college are all part-time, and are drawn from trade unions, universities, and other organizations. Unionists are integrally involved in developing educational materials and teaching techniques. While academics and nonprofit service organizations are drawn in, the unionists are responsible for the content, method, and course direction. The course work includes group-work, visits to industrial courts, union activities and simulations, debate, research, music, and movement. As part of an attempt to develop a long-term funding base, Pregs is introducing direct union support for the school. This is part of a series of steps Pregs is taking to prepare the college to eventually run without her. Pregs hopes that the Workers College will both be a model and an encouragement for many other programs like it. She also hopes that it will stimulate participatory democracy in the unions and help them address the neglected areas of race and gender.

The Person

Pregs began working in the trade union movement in 1987 as media officer for the Garment Workers Industrial Union. She later became the National Education Officer of the more progressive Garment and Allied Workers Union, and then the collective bargaining and research officer for the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union. During this time, she published pamphlets, articles, manuals, and educational materials dealing with labor and gender issues. Pregs became the full-time coordinator of the Western Cape Workers College in 1991. From an early age, Pregs had a strong sense of self and community. She and her family of five were forced to relocate to Durban's flatlands because of the Group Area Act. She spent her childhood in a two-roomed flat in Durban, immersed in a constant flow of writers, activists, family, and friends. Pregs' history of public entrepreneurship and activism began in high school. There, she helped set up the first campus Pupils Representative Council. At the University of Durban Westville, she took part in negotiating the first Students Representative Council (SRC) constitution on behalf of the student body. She was also a founding member of the Women's Committee at the university. Pregs remembers her involvement in the 1980 student boycotts as one of the turning points in her life. Confronted with a complicated set of racial politics and undemocratic leadership both outside and within the progressive movement, Pregs made the conscious decision to commit her work and life to developing effective, independent, and democratic leadership.