Dear Friends of the Sash
We are currently engaged in a process of careful and strategic planning in order to ensure that we contribute to South Africa’s development in the best and most effective way. Part of this self-assessment has been to re-evaluate the historic reasons for locating our advice services in areas where we had a strong Black Sash volunteer presence. Since this is no longer the case, we believe it is necessary to re-assess how and where we offer these services, and how best we can manage our resources in the interests of the poor and vulnerable communities we serve.
As a result, we have taken the decision to close three of our seven advice offices, and to consolidate one provincial office in the Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. Our Knysna office has already been closed, and our offices in Pietermaritzburg and Grahamstown will be closed at the end of February. We are extremely grateful to our staff for the spirit in which these decisions have been received. Some of them will transfer to the existing provincial offices, while retrenchment arrangements are being negotiated with others.
Of course, these decisions have also been taken in the light of the current financial constraints facing many non-governmental organisations in South Africa, and indeed, worldwide. Over the last five years, a number of long-standing international donors have changed their strategic focus away from South Africa and subsequently reduced or ended agreements with organisations such as the Black Sash. Our challenge now is to find donor partners from within South Africa who are keen to support our human rights work. We are indebted to those funders who have continued to place their confidence in us. But their commitment to us requires us to exercise even greater responsibility to use their funds in the most efficient and effective way. The number of people seeking our face-to-face advice-giving services has decreased, which may be a cause for celebration as it could indicate that government is improving its capacity for delivery in some areas. It may also be that our contribution towards rebuilding and supporting the advice office sector is bearing fruit. At the same time, we are aware of the growing need for improved monitoring and protection of our hard won human rights which could be better managed in partnership with organisations in all nine of our provinces. These factors will all form part of our planning for the future
All three of the advice offices we are closing have incredibly rich history’s and impressive track records, notching up more than a century of service between them. We wish to thank all our staff, volunteers, partners and the early Sash pioneers for the incredible commitment and support they have offered these offices over the past five decades. With your help over the past ten years alone, we have managed to offer one-on-one advice services to over a 110 000 clients and their dependents, securing nearly R105 million in social grants and other financial provisions that were due to them. This excludes court order awarded to the Black Sash in 2001 in which the government was instructed to pay out almost R2.1 billion to a large number of social assistance beneficiaries.
With your support, we have also developed Paralegal Guides (including our unrivalled Social Assistance Paralegal Guide), information sheets and training manuals which resource our courses, support fellow paralegals and assist with our extensive public education to enable vulnerable people to understand and access their social and economic rights. Your collective help has also allowed us to improve front line delivery of state services through our innovative Community Monitoring and Advocacy Project (CMAP) which expands not just our ability, but that of hundreds of community organisations, to conduct advocacy on the basis of sound findings. And your encouragement has allowed us to claim numerous legal victories, including our settlement with the Department of Social Development to clear the social grant appeals backlog as well as the recent Appeal Court decision to allow us to continue our bread price-fixing case to recognise the right of consumers to compensation when companies are found guilty of collusion. We have also managed to help reform various policies and pieces of legislation to protect the poor, including the National Credit Act which holds companies liable for reckless lending. And after many years of vigorous campaigning, we recently celebrated the extension of the Child Support Grant to all vulnerable children under 18.
We remain deeply concerned about the current funding crisis facing many of our country’s established civil society organisations. We believe it is now critical that South Africans begin to provide greater financial support to the NGOs that form the backbone of our democracy, and deliver daily on our collective Constitutional duty to protect and provide for the most vulnerable in our society. We need to be wide-awake to the implications of this sector being forced, through lack of funding and support, to reduce its work, its presence and its profile.
Strength and peace to you all for the coming year,
Elta House, 3 Caledonian Street
Tel: 021 686 6952
Fax: 021 686 7168
BLACK SASH: MAKING HUMAN RIGHTS REAL
- The Black Sash Grahamstown Advice office opened in the mid 1960’s following a bus accident in which the injured passengers were pursued by an unscrupulous lawyer. This prompted the local Sash membership organisation to set up a Saturday morning clinic where people could learn more about their rights, and receive free advice and support. From these humble beginnings, with no telephone and case notes stored in shoe boxes, the office became busier and more professional, helping thousands of poor and vulnerable people over the past five decades navigate their way through the maze of legislation that governed their lives. During the 70’s and 80’s, the office provided enormous support for detainees and their families in the Eastern Cape, and later became expert in dealing with exploitative insurance agents who targeted workers in rural areas. Before the first democratic election in 1994, Sash staff and members conducted extensive voter education, which included performing a play to more than 5000 farm workers and other clients.
- The Black Sash Pietermaritzburg Advice Office opened in 1975 in Thomas Street, sharing office space with COSATU. Jane Voss was instrumental in getting the office up and running, and Pat Merrett acted as convenor for many years, organising the volunteers as well as the paid staff. Victoria (Busi) Nyide, who worked at the office for 25 years, was interviewed for the Alan Paton Oral History Project shortly before she died. She was quoted as saying, “each time I went to the office I would say to myself, I know the people who are here are not visiting us, they are here because they have problems and they need help and they need somebody to respect them and talk to them politely, someone to treat them with dignity”.
- The Black Sash Knysna Advice office opened in January 1987 in the foyer of St George’s Hall and was initially run by volunteers. It was kept going through the commitment of a handful of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay residents, from both the "townships" and from the town, who wanted to do something practical to address the crushing repression of the 1980s. More recently, the Knysna office was involved in the development of a highly regarded debt and credit manual which is used by hundreds of community-based organisations throughout the country and other advice-givers (such as union representatives, priests and social workers) to help those with financial difficulties.