Nelson Mandela famously described the women of the Black Sash as the 'conscience of white South Africa' during the Apartheid-era.
For many years silent, black-sashed volunteers were the scourge of National Party ministers forcing through apartheid legislation. The broad sweeps of this design blighted our history while the smaller brushstrokes, the application of the iniquitous policy of apartheid, wreaked devastation on the lives of individuals and their families. It also precipitated a long struggle against apartheid and for social democracy.
The Black Sash has always kept these two perspectives in sight – the implications of laws and policies and the practical effects that these have on the lives of the poor.
1990 heralded a new and initially fragile era. The Black Sash, with their unwavering commitment to human rights, were involved in the practical envisioning of our new South Africa and its constitution. A human rights culture was not built in that one magical day symbol of our freedom, April 27th 1994, the day when all South Africans could vote freely and fairly for their chosen representatives.
'As they had protested each major Nationalist infringement on freedom in the past seven years, the Black Sash members—largely women of English stock whose husbands oppose the government—once again vowed to stand stern symbolic watch until Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd's government forced the sabotage bill through to the inevitable successful vote. In the autumn chill, Black Sash Chairman Jean Sinclair, a 54-year-old Johannesburg housewife, and her handful of matronly recruits were swathed in overcoats as they lit their symbolic torch of freedom and posted placards reading "Reject the Sabotage Bill." '
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"In the 1950s, we were newsworthy, perhaps because we were riding the tide of white protest against the ruthless determination of the government at the time to impose what later became known as apartheid. At the end of that decade, one respected editor of an important newspaper tried to persuade our leadership to disband the organisation and to put all our energies into working for the United Party in the forlorn hope that the parliamentary electoral process could oust the National Party from power. We declined to take his advice."
"Born in 1955 out of outrage over a constitutional issue, the Black Sash spent its first 40 years in resistance to apartheid and its unjust laws. These were 40 years of persistent, apparently fruitless campaigning against the pass laws, forced removals, detention without trial, inequality and repression. Then, at last, the transforming
years of the 1990s brought the organisation back to constitutional issues once more, celebrating the prospect of a Bill of Rights and arguing for the right to administrative justice to be included. When the first six women aroused the support of thousands of others to march in protest against the Senate Bill and the Separate Representation of Voters Bill (which would finally disenfranchise ‘coloured’ voters), they could have had little idea of what was to follow."
The Black Sash was featured at a photography exhibit at the Institute for Photography in New York City entitled “Rise and Fall of Apartheid”.
Former Black Sash intern Ali Simpson (pictured) from the USA, who was based at the National Office in 2012, attended this exhibit and sent us some pictures.
The inheritance of the new South Africa was not only a miraculously negotiated peaceful transition. It was also a virtually bankrupt state and apartheid’s intentional impoverishment of South Africans of colour. These had to be faced in the context of the ruthless competitiveness of a global market and the eviscerating horror of the HIV/Aids epidemic, that silent fellow traveller that twins and insidiously entrenches the poverty that results from 40% unemployment.
Increasingly the face of poverty in South Africa, as it is globally, is a woman’s face. In the frame too, are the face of her own children, or the orphaned children of her sisters and daughters.
Fifty years after its founding the Black Sash serves the poor with integrity and courage. The trusted and long-established Black Sash advice offices give empowering advice. From these daily interactions with peoples seeking redress and relief, the Black Sash can with their characteristic rigour advocate for the laws and policies that will benefit the poor, that will enable them to realise the promise contained in our constitution that will make the rights promised them in our constitution a reality.