Retired' is an inadequate way to describe Rosemary Smith. While she may be withdrawing from the board of trustees for the Black Sash, she is consistently active and willing to do more to change the state of our country. " I have a lot of energy and a concern for the fellow person and this keeps me going;' says Smith. She began her civic involvement when she still lived in England - her birthplace.
There she became a social worker and was involved in the United Nations Student Organisation in Bristol. While in England, she married a progressive Afrikaner, Malvern van Wyk Smith, later a distinguished professor of English at Rhodes, and moved to South Africa. He was politically involved and she believed that she too needed to do something to bring an end to apartheid. "When I came to South Africa I felt paralysed by what was happening around me. Beggars came to my door and I couldn't help. I thought there must be more I can do to change the system.'
The Black Sash was the organisation that made the most sense to her and she joined in 1967. At the time, the Sash was an organisation of concerned white women who chose a nonviolent means of resistance to apartheid. Smith became involved in the advice offices in Grahamstown, where people flocked to air their grievances about the apartheid regime. 'As the activities of the Black Sash enveloped me I began to find, if at first timidly, a voice and an identity. "The organisation was destined to become an important and fulfilling focus in my life;" explains Smith in her autobiography Swimming with Cobras. Counselling detainees, participating in protests, standing in her black sash on High Street, housing people who were running from the police and confronting officials on the state of the country were all in a days work.
She started off as a member then became secretary, chairperson and eventually the national vice president in the 1980s. "Anything I've done has not been my achievement. Its been in a group," Smith says. Swimming with Cobras, was released in 2011. It tells the story of her experiences as she entered an alien land with a multitude of problems. The book's title refers to an occasion when Smith was peacefully swimming in the Kariega River when a cobra swam past her. The notion that 'danger is never far away' is paralleled with the situation in South Africa under apartheid, where people were fed false information and knew little about their country. Danger bore a human shape in the form of apartheid assassins like Eugene de Kock and Dirk Coetzee. "I chronicled a time that belonged to a lot of people. I wasn't special. I just decided to write it down." The strength of the Black Sash lay in the fact that they remained unaligned. "We kept with the true facts and wanted to be independent. "We didn't believe the militant option was going to get anyone anywhere. And women are the peacemakers after all," she smiles. "One of my proudest moments was when Mandela thanked the Black Sash for their work when he was released from prison in 1990."
Shortly after apartheid ended, membership of the Sash was disbanded and many believed that they had achieved the goal they had fervently fought for. It became a professional organisation, which it remains to this day. Smith became a Black Sash trustee and continued her work in the advice offices. She believes that even though apartheid's atrocities and laws had been removed, there is still a need for people's stories to be heard. "The Eastern Cape remained the Cinderella without the plums;' she remarks.
Despite an aging body, Smith is still giving of her time. She has become more involved in other organisations since 1994, including the Grahamstown Friends of the Library, where she has served as the chairperson for the last nine years. Pondering the current state of our country, Smith remarks, "I could be negative and ask: Is this what we fought for? But we mustn't fall into a trap of disillusionment and anger. There are still many who want to build up our country." She hands over this task to the young people of our country, who need to take responsibility for issues of public concern.