The cover says it all. Sheena Duncan, with one hand propping up her chin and the other taking down the story of a client at the Johannesburg Black Sash Advice Office. A study of intense attention and concentration, the core of Sheena Duncan's greatness: collecting accounts of the problems faced by poor working class people in order to help them find a way through a tangled web of legislation. The notes she is taking will be fed into the Black Sash's records to be used for lobbying and advocacy efforts to bring about more humane legislation – and ultimately a new and more just political dispensation.
For more than 40 years Sheena based most of her political understanding, leadership strategies and human rights activism on what she learnt from this face-to-face interaction with women and men "who presented the truth of apartheid to her day after day, month after month, year after year." This book, together with Mary Burton's "Black Sash: Making Human Rights Real" is a most timely and important study because more than ever we need the work of advice offices in every township and rural village across this country, even in the "new South Africa". We are in a highly destructive phase of our new democracy with endless protests about inadequate service delivery: schools, clinics, libraries, buses and trains are burnt in a frenzy of rage and frustration.
Imagine if there was a well-run advice office in every township and every village, skilled people collecting the information about socio-economic problems with Sheena Duncan's rigour – and relentlessly putting a comprehensive picture of what is happening under the noses of government officials and politicians. Government should be devoting funds to this effort, but leaving it to NGOs and Faith-Based Organisations to run such offices. How much money could be saved by providing such a mechanism for people's problems to be heard and vigorously brought to the attention of government. An early warning system that would save millions currently being squandered as a result of violent protests.
There's another reason why this book is important at this time. We hear endless complaints about the lack of leadership in South Africa. This book could be seen as a user-friendly manual on leadership, revealing the endless ways in which Sheena Duncan displayed the great leadership that South Africa needs at this time. She had the ability to sustain harmony among an amazingly diverse group of Black Sash members. She pointed the way forward like light in a dark tunnel. Her colleagues describe her as a thorough professional, always on time, keeping good records, studying whatever documents needed to be studied, having all the documents needed, and following up meticulously. She demanded excellent performance from staff, and gave them the support they needed to produce such performance; regularly being on the phone to the smaller, more distant Black Sash regions to see what help they needed; writing lengthy circular letters for all the members to give them guidance on the issues that needed to be tackled, and thereby giving everyone the feeling that they were part of a family.
Of special relevance to Sash members was Sheena's knowledge of the law, acquired without any formal law studies. One of her colleagues, Alison Tilley, says that "she read law and bills as if they were novels, ploughing through reams of paper every night with a small whisky at her side. OK, a large whisky." Tilley also admired how Sheena "absorbed information like a sponge, retained it as knowledge, and shared it broadly."
Nevertheless, despite the serious aspects of her leadership, she was described by another colleague as "loveable, approachable, a joy to talk to and a delight to know."
I have focussed on Sheena Duncan's leadership of the Black Sash of which she was for many years national president. But she was also involved with a number of other organisations like the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Gun-Free SA and the End Conscription Campaign, to each of which she gave herself with similar whole-hearted enthusiasm, as AnneMarie Hendrikz details in such an engaging way in this book. The SACC, in appointing her one of their two female Vice-presidents together with Virginia Gcabashe, found that they had a leader "who could craft resolutions, develop a constitution, know who to contact for what purpose, interpret legislation for church leaders and community activists alike, advise and encourage well-informed protest and solidarity actions, write user-friendly booklets and enable ordinary people to put them to good use, travel and speak nationally and internationally, assist with evaluations of regional councils of churches, and in many more ways respond to the needs of others when asked to do so." I know from personal observation how she was every bit the equal of the highest-ranking clerics in the land, but she didn't bully the bishops – she didn't need to.
Sheena was also a realistic, practical person with no illusions about the difficulties the new South Africa faced, when years after getting the vote, millions of our citizens still have no affordable access to healthy food, clean water, security of person, housing, adequate education, electricity or transport, and remain almost powerless to change the conditions in which they find themselves, despite the obscene wealth of people at the other end of the spectrum. Nor do the poor seem to have much hope of finding work which might help them to buy such basic rights. In fact Sheena prophesied that it would take several generations before there would be much change in South Africa.
I hope many people will read this book which, as Mary Burton says, "demonstrates the power of dedicated resistance to injustice". Read it and be inspired to play your part in bringing about much-needed social and economic change in this country.
This review by Paddy Kearney first appeared in "The Southern Cross".