Rosemary van Wyk Smith became a trustee of the Black Sash NPO around 1999. She was an elder from the Black Sash in its previous incarnation, and retired in January 2014 as a member of the board.
On behalf of the board of Trustees, fellow board member Mary Burton has written the following about her journey with the Black Sash.
Rosemary joined the Black Sash not long after arriving in Grahamstown in 1966 as a young English wife and mother, determined to make a success of her new life there. Although she did not find it easy to adjust to the Eastern Cape scenery and the harsh political divisions she encountered, and although she soon had four young children to bring up, she began to learn more about the injustices of apartheid. She undertook some research work for HW van der Merwe, used her social welfare training to find part-time work at a welfare agency located within Rhodes University, and subsequently helped to run a pre-school. She provided as much support as she could to her husband Malvern’s work for the Progressive Party.
From 1968 onwards she became more and more involved in the Black Sash work – its protest demonstrations, its Saturday morning Advice Office and its discussions and debates. She says in her book, Swimming with Cobras, “As the activities of the Black Sash enveloped me I began to find, if at first timidly, a voice and an identity”.
Rosemary worked for 12 years for GADRA, the Grahamstown Area Distress Relief Association, based in the advice section, located in a pre-fab office in Fingo Village (next to the beer hall). Here she learned about the daily lives of African people, their desperation over the resettlement policies being imposed on them and the creation of two “homelands”. Among her colleagues were several other Black Sash members, and together they, and the two organisations, acquired the skills and perseverance which gave them strength to face the deeper repression which marked the 1980s.
As the prisons filled, and the resistance movement became more active, not only in Grahamstown itself but also in the towns around it, the need for greater involvement grew. With others, Rosemary found herself attending funerals in Adelaide, travelling to other towns, and organising a support programme for political prisoners and detainees, which later grew into a significant de-briefing project for released detainees and their families. The chapter in her book about that period of the 1980s and the mass detentions in the Eastern Cape in particular is moving and insightful.
Rosemary had become the Regional Chair of the Black Sash, and a brave and outspoken leader. In addition, her warm and thoughtful personality meant that all the Sash members and staff felt cared for in the small band that made up the organisation. At National Conferences she often spoke for the smaller regions, insisting that their concerns be recognised and their voices heard.
In 1987 she was elected a National Vice-President of the Black Sash and served in that role for 3 years. In April 1989 she was part of the IDASA delegation to Harare for the “Women in the struggle for Peace” conference. In January 1990 she was one of the delegation of women from within South Africa to go to Amsterdam to the Malibongwe conference, where they met women in the exile movement.
After 1995, when the Black Sash changed its structure away from a membership-based organisation, she took on the full-time position of manager of the advice office in Grahamstown, and worked there until 1999.
She became a Trustee of the Black Sash soon after 1999. When she retired from her employment with the Black Sash, her friends and colleagues gave her a book of tributes. Many of these teased her about being arrogant and intimidating, which is sometimes hard to believe. However, she herself likes a Tibetan proverb: “Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep!”