It was an afternoon of reflection, recollection, laughs and hearty conversation as a group of Black Sash stalwarts gathered at the University of Cape Town (UCT) recently to celebrate the organisation’s 66th anniversary.
The event was hosted by UCT Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng at Glenara, her official residence, and she was in good company. Professor Phakeng was joined for an intimate lunch by Babalwa Ngonyama, chairperson of UCT’s Council; Mary Burton, president of the Black Sash (1986–1990) and a former member of UCT’s Council; and former UCT VC Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Several other Black Sash stalwarts also attended the event.
The Black Sash was established in Johannesburg on 19 May 1955. It was a non-violent South African resistance and human rights organisation aimed at liberal white women who opposed the apartheid regime. The organisation was initially founded as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League, but was renamed the Black Sash because members wore black sashes during their protest meetings, as their trademark.
“Connecting with you [means] connecting with women who are leaders, and who have shown that active citizenship works.”
“On this very special day, I thought that it’s an opportune moment for me to connect with you. And connecting with you [means] connecting with women who are leaders, and who have shown that active citizenship works,” said Phakeng.
Phakeng told her guests how, during a recent visit home, her mother told her about her grandmother’s political involvement during apartheid, and her participation in the Women’s March to the Union Buildings in 1956. Phakeng said she was curious, and asked her mother how so many women knew that they had to turn up for the march – in an era before cell phones and television news, and when even having a radio was simply a luxury.
But that didn’t stop the women from mobilising their communities. Her mother told her that a group of women dressed in khaki skirts and shirts with black sashes would walk the streets and share details of upcoming meetings and marches with the community. The women would encourage community members to join these events.
“She said my [grandmother] was a member, and she used to wear that uniform. That’s how she joined the march in 1956,” Phakeng said.
Phakeng described South Africa’s fight for liberation as “a big fight” – one that involved many organisations and individuals, and which crossed gender and racial lines across the country. Many people stood up for the oppressed, and the Black Sash played its role in this process, Phakeng added.
‘Women with a common cause’
According to Burton it wasn’t “much fun” to be a white woman who opposed everything in the 1950s. But joining the organisation was one way of dealing with injustices in the country.
“[We] not only [opposed] the apartheid government, but the generations of discrimination and the practice of separation that [continued] for so many years. To stand up against that… we used to say, we could ruin any dinner party,” Burton said with a chuckle.
In her view, she continued, two things sustained members of the Black Sash during that tumultuous time. One of them was the threat that the pass laws would be extended for women. Burton said that by then the pass laws had been around for a long time; but suddenly realising what it meant for the lives of thousands and thousands of black women was “just too much to bear”.
The other was the solidarity, friendship and support the women afforded one another while fighting “against something unjust, and doing something about it”. This kept them going; knowing that they were united in the same cause made everything easier.
“Being women with a common cause and a common purpose and a belief that ‘[we] can make a difference’ is what kept [us] going.”
“Being women with a common cause and a common purpose and a belief that ‘[we] can make a difference’ is what kept [us] going,” she said.
It was wonderful, Burton said, to be at Glenara on the 66th anniversary of the Black Sash, in the company of so many wonderful women. She said the event had deepened their awareness of the contribution women can and should make to building a just society for all people.
Today, Burton said, what makes the Black Sash of the past proud of the new Black Sash Trust is to see the ways the organisation and its members have carried forward the same ideals and commitment as their predecessors.
Dr Ramphele remarked that decades later, she still wishes that the majority of white South Africans had adopted the same attitude and ideals as members of the Black Sash, to influence change in the country.
She said that there is a special place in her heart reserved for members of the Black Sash, because of their selfless contribution to the struggle for liberation. Ramphele said the Black Sash comprised a group of privileged women who stood up during a time when it was “not fashionable”, but who chose not to use their privilege as an excuse to sit back. Instead, they mobilised and were active citizens.
“Not only did they stand up against the vicious apartheid system, they are continuing to challenge the post-1994 government that is failing to live up to our dream of social justice. They’ve been very consistent, as women who believe that a just society is not only possible, but the only desirable future for us. I take my hat off [to] them,” she said.
“If you want change, you must stand up for it. Not just as a once-off protest, but to stay the course until you reach the goal.”
An honour and a pleasure
Finally, in closing, Ngonyama told the audience that it was an honour and a pleasure to “cut bread with women like yourselves”, who she said have set a strong foundation for the women at UCT and across the country.
“When I was reflecting on what this organisation has done for us – not just for UCT, for South Africa as a society, and for the continent itself – I really feel like we owe you a lot,” she said.
Ngonyama added that today, in her role as chairperson of UCT’s Council, she can carry out her duties and speak with confidence thanks to role models like the Black Sash stalwarts who fought to ensure that women’s voices are heard. She said she also feels secure knowing there’s a network of women she can approach for support.
“I feel like I’m in good company, being shaped in my thinking and my thought process by people who deeply understand human rights issues.”
“People that you mingle with, people who you cut bread with, people who influence your thoughts, your behaviour and your actions, they actually shape you. I feel like I’m in good company, being shaped in my thinking and my thought process by people who deeply understand human rights issues,” Ngonyama said.
She told the audience never to underestimate the impact of their sacrifices.
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