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How the women in Pavs Pillay’s life shaped her eco-activism

by | Aug 24, 2020

With a letterbox stuffed with acceptance letters to study occupational therapy, physiotherapy and medicine from The University of Witwatersrand, Pavs decided to continue the work of her role models and fight for social and environmental injustices. In 2001, she graduated with a Master of Science degree in marine biology. “As an Indian we say you have five career options: doctor, lawyer, chartered accountant, a teacher, or a failure. Anything else falls under category five. But my heart was set on the environment and conservation. Being surrounded by the calibre of women I had grown up with, I couldn’t ignore that.”

Born in Pretoria in 1974, Pavs is widely regarded for the work she does in marine conservation as WWF South Africa’s Environmental Behaviour Change Manager and as the head of WWF-SASSI. Pavitray ‘Pavs’ Pillay credits her circular thinking and need to fix, nurture, and protect to the very central figures in her life: her grandmother and her mother.

Climate action and feminism are inextricably linked

Pavs says women have always been change agents, advancing equality, sustainability and climate action. Climate action and feminism, she says, are inextricably linked. Pavs attributes this to the inequality and exploitation women have been exposed to under centuries of misogynistic, patriarchal systems. “When you have been downtrodden for so long, it is very hard for you to do that to somebody or something else,” she says.

“You cannot have social justice without humanity. You cannot have environmentalism without women. You cannot expect to fix an environmental problem without trying to understand the communities or the people within the system and taking them along on the journey.”

“It is all about who you learn from. Whether male or female, people will say their first role model or inspiration was their mom, their gran or their older sister,” says Pavs. For Pavs, both her grandmother and her mother led her down her chosen path.

Grandmother: Mrs TP Pillay

Born at the beginning of the 20th century and having lived through two world wars and two epidemics, Pavs’ paternal grandmother, Thayanagee Perumal Pillay lived by ‘less is more’.

Pavs Pillay's grandmother, Mrs Thayanagee Perumal Pillay. PHOTO: Supplied

Pavs Pillay’s grandmother, Mrs Thayanagee Perumal Pillay. PHOTO: Supplied

She reused and preserved everything. To make food last, she would freeze, pickle and make preserves. Starchy rice water was saved for making thickeners, and any excess water from the sink was collected to water the garden. “From her, I learnt a lot about politics, environmentalism, conservation and social issues and how it all intersected.”

The daughter of president of the Transvaal Indian Congress G.K.Thambi Naidoo and adopted daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, Pavs remembers the woman who made such an indelible impression on her life as “the most phenomenal activist in the most understated way.”

Mrs Pillay cooked the meals for the Treason trialists between 1956 and 1961. She persuaded Indian merchants to donate the ingredients she needed for these meals. If they did not oblige, she threatened to expose them at prayer services: “These guys are fighting for your freedom. If you don’t help, I will tell everyone at the next temple meeting!” Pavs recounts her grandmother’s words with a giggle.

From left, Pavs Pillay's grandmother, Mrs Thayanagee Perumal Pillay and Nelson Mandela. PHOTO: Supplied

From left, Pavs Pillay’s grandmother, Mrs Thayanagee Perumal Pillay and Nelson Mandela. PHOTO: Supplied

Along with her aunts and their friends, Mrs Pillay marched alongside 20 000 women to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in resistance to apartheid and to protest the abusive pass laws. “I remember talking to her about the march. She said the fervour was phenomenal that day. It was a big moment for her and for many other women in so many ways. Traditionally Indian women were to be seen and not heard. By marching, she was making a very big cultural statement.”

Mrs Pillay never stopped marching. She was arrested multiple times throughout her life including at the age of 80 when she protested the tricameral parliament elections in 1984.

Pavs reflects on what her grandmother might say about the current socio-political landscape: “Firstly, she’d probably say: ‘Oh my god, you and Greta Thunberg are still marching!’ I think she’d be proud, but at the same time she’d say there is lots more work to do. She’d always tell us: ‘don’t sit back on your laurels! There is a lot of stuff for you to do if you want to change the world.’

Pavs’ grandmother, who passed away at 83 in December 1991, was very focused on changing systems. She taught Pavs that almost any problem could be traced back to a flaw in the system. “She would say that the systems were made by white men. And made with consideration for only very few. Unfortunately until the world decides to reinvent those systems, the planet’s climate crisis will not change.”

Mother: Mahaluxmi Pillay

Pavs’ late mother, Mahaluxmi Pillay, whom she lost very early in life, was the second influence on her career choice. She believed that you could not have environmental justice without social justice.

“My mom grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Vereeniging, Gauteng. She absolutely adored animals. She would not kill anything. The veld teemed with rabbits, guinea fowls and snakes and as a result, we had all sorts of creatures slithering, sliding and flying into the house. The gardeners would want to hack their heads off but my mother would freak and use pillow slips to catch the animals and set them free.”

Pavs’ mother taught her that humanity cannot be separated from the natural environment and that this kind of thinking has been brought to light by women, not by men.

Pillay family photo. Pavs Pillay seen front row sitting on her grandmother's (Mrs TP Pillay) knee. PHOTO: Supplied

Pillay family photo. Pavs Pillay seen front row sitting on her grandmother’s (Mrs TP Pillay) knee. PHOTO: Supplied

Pavs started her career during Apartheid South Africa, but since then the working and social landscape for women has changed. Younger generations who have had different educational and home experiences are starting to fill the environment and conservation spaces. They are watching their mothers and sisters play in the space. They see things differently to the often more conservative older generation.

As Women’s Month in South Africa draws to a close, Pavs leaves women and girls around the country with some sage advice: “You do not put down women. It goes against everything we are. We should be building each other up. It took us so long to get the vote and it took us so long to be heard in our fight for equality. If we break ourselves down, we have no chance in the climate fight.”

Images: Supplied

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