Sheena Duncan – human rights stalwart

For their triumphs and for their tears

Remember all our women in the jails

Remember all our women in campaigns

Remember all our women over many fighting years

Remember all our women for their triumphs and for their tears.

  •  from Women's Day Song.

Dr D.F. Malan (right), who led the assault on the South African Constitution and his successor, who completed the job, Mr J.G. Strijdom.
Dr D.F. Malan (right), who led the assault on the South African Constitution and his successor, who completed the job, Mr J.G. Strijdom.

An assault on freedom

The struggle against apartheid started before the 1948 election victory of the Nationalist Party, but became more and more intense as the government put into action it's plans to racially dismember South Africa.

One of the bastions against such dismemberment was the clause in the Constitution agreed at the time of Union in 1910 which guaranteed the limited franchise held by “coloured” (i.e. people of mixed race) living in the then Cape Province. This was a thorn in the apartheid regime's side which they were determined to remove by whatever means they could.

The means they chose at first was the Separate Representation of Voters Act. This Act set up a separate voters' roll for the coloured voters in the Cape Province who had until that time been on a common roll with white voters. This was a direct contravention of Section 35 of the South Africa Act, one of the so-called “entrenched clauses” of the 1910 constitution which guaranteed that coloured voters in the Cape could always be registered as voters on the same roll as whites. The Act was challenged by four coloured voters registered on the existing voters' roll, a challenge which went all the way up to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court at Bloemfontein. This court ruled in favour of the appellants and declared the Act null and void and of no legal force or effect.

Cartoon by Bob Connolly in the Rand Daily Mail of 5 January 1956, commenting on the enlargement of the Senate.
Cartoon by Bob Connolly in the Rand Daily Mail of 5 January 1956, commenting on the enlargement of the Senate.

Forceful and uncompromising action

The government's response to this decision of the highest court in the land was to deride the “six old men of Bloemfontein” (a reference to the six judges of the Appellate Division who had made the finding) and promise “forceful and uncompromising action” to overturn the ruling.

This “forceful and uncompromising” action was to introduce a Bill making Parliament the highest court in the land, with competency to adjudicate on constitutional matters only. Parliament would be essentially both player and referee. This Bill was passed, the Act then was challenged and again found to contravene the 1901 South Africa Act and the entrenched clauses in particular.

Again the government declared its intention to fight this decision by any and all means at its disposal.

The means the government used were three – firstly the size of the Appellate Division was increased from five to eleven, giving the government the opportunity to appoint judges favourable to its position; the second move was to enlarge the Senate from 44 to 89 members with a large proportion of the new members being appointed by the ruling party; the third was to re-introduce the Separate Representation of Voters Bill, now being assured of the required two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament sitting jointly to alter the entrenched clauses.

A South Africa Amendment Act was passed with the required two-thirds majority in 1956, effectively ending the struggle to retain the rights of coloureds to have direct representation in parliament and ensuring that apartheid would rule, not the Constitution.

Black Sash women stand silently in protest at the disenfranchisement of coloured voters as Prime Minister Strijdom gets into his official car.
Black Sash women stand silently in protest at the disenfranchisement of coloured voters as Prime Minister Strijdom gets into his official car.
A typical Black Sash protest
A typical Black Sash protest

The conscience of the nation

Many protests against this cynical abuse of the Constitution were held. Six white women, Jean Sinclair, Ruth Foley, Elizabeth McLaren, Tertia Pybus, Jean Bosazza and Helen Newton-Thompson, got together with others and formed the Women's Defence of the Constitution League in 1955.

They took their protest against the violation of the solemn undertakings made to coloured voters at the time of Union in 1910 to the streets in a unique way. They would stand, usually dressed in white with a black sash draped from their right shoulders, silently holding placards decrying the government's actions, wherever and whenever Cabinet Ministers or other senior Nationalist Party members would be appearing in public.

The black sash was to indicate their mourning the death of freedom and constitutionality in South Africa. The press soon picked on the black sashes they wore and called their organisation “The Black Sash.” The organisation grew into a powerful group of women who, in addition to their silent protests, started Advice Offices all around South Africa where people who ran foul of the myriads of regulations governing the lives of blacks could find support, advice and comfort.

The organisation became, in Nelson Mandela's words, in his first public speech after his release in 1990, “ the conscience of the nation.”

Sheena Duncan

This long introduction serves to place in context an important, but often overlooked, aspect of the long and difficult opposition to apartheid, especially then role of those relatively few whites who actively and effectively opposed the encroaching tyranny.

It also places in context the life of one woman who died earlier this week, because she was the daughter of Jean Sinclair, one of the founders of the Black Sash.

Sinclair's daughter Sheena Duncan died at age 77 in Johannesburg. She was a formidable yet engaging person who campaigned tirelessly for the rights of blacks, who was energetic and highly intelligent in the way she used information and moral teachings to oppose oppression, and she was highly effective in promoting justice and human rights in South Africa.

Sheena was offered a position in his administration by Mandela, but turned it down, saying she still had much to do to promote human rights and to improve the lives of others in South Africa.

Typically, she wrote on the Black Sash website:

“One cabinet minister in the new democratic society told us we had to choose between being adversarial towards, or cooperative with, government. We do not agree. We will cooperate whenever we can assist in forwarding the achievement of rights, but we will also be adversarial when government infringes those rights. And we will do all we can to protect the civil liberties that were so hard won - should that ever be necessary in the future. We will probably be around for a long time to come because there is so much work to do and nothing just happens unless people make it happen.”

I become almost tearful when I read those words, I can hear Sheena say them. They express so much of who she was and what she stood for.

A personal memory

A personal anecdote about Sheena is perhaps not out of place in this celebration of an anti-apartheid stalwart.

While I was still an associate editor of the ecumenical news agency EcuNews, based in the South African Council of Churches, back in 1979, I went to report for the news agency on an ecumencial conference in Gaborone, Botswana. Archbishop Emeritus (then still Bishop) Desmond Tutu and Sheena were both attending the conference as delegates. To save money the South African delegates shared rooms and it so happened that I got to share a room with Tutu.

The first morning of the conference Tutu went for his customary morning jog. On his return, after showering, he said we would celebrate Mass in the room and he called Sheena to come and join us. Tutu took out all the requirements for the Mass and told me to act as server, Sheena was to be the “congregation”!

This is a little memory that I have cherished ever since. To have been together in such a way with two such amazing people was a privilege beyond words.

More by this Author


Comments 42 comments

katiem2 profile image

katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

Oh I love this Sheena Duncan human rights stalwart tribute, what an amazing woman! Sharing a room with Tutu WOW imagine! Thanks and Peace ;)


msorensson profile image

msorensson 6 years ago

What a lovely tribute. Thank you.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks, Katie. Yes I have been very blessed in getting to know some really amazing people. I will always treasure them.

Melinda - thanks for your kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


BJBenson profile image

BJBenson 6 years ago from USA

This was a special moment for you that I am so happy you shared with all of us. To be at the beginning of a birth of a new South Africa. How exciting. I hope you have more to tell us.

Wonderful Hub.

My oldest was born in 1990. How old I feel.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

BJ - you are only as old as you feel, they say. And I feel very young still (though my joints don't want to believe me!) although my first-born was born in 1971, wopuld you believ!

Yes, this was indeed a special moment in the long struggle for democracy in our lovely land.

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, I truly appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

Tony an excellent hub on a very strong and brave woman. I can only imagine what it must have been like in SA in those days.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Billy - thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. Those days were bad, but they threw up so many great people who did so much for freedom and human rights, like Archbishop Tutu and Sheena Duncan.

Love and peace

Tony


chasingcars 6 years ago

Wonderful post; what an interesting life you have lived. I suspect our two countries have much in common. The big difference seems to be that your country has resolved many civil rights issues which our country will seem to have to bear into perpetuity. And the US was puportedly begun with the goal of personal liberty built into its constitution. It's true that the rights of "minorities" cannot come into fruition without the help of the brave and honorable insiders. Your country produces great heroes.


ladyjane1 profile image

ladyjane1 6 years ago from Texas

Tonymac what an interesting hub and so informative. Wow I am so impressed about you sharing a room with Tutu, I can see why you cherish this memory. Cheers.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Chasingcars - thanks for the comment which is deeply appreciated. There are indeed similarities but also many differences. In the US issues of discrimination were against minorities, in South Africa it was against the majority. The defence of human rights, though, transcends issues of minority or majority. All have rights equally and the struggle is to have those rights realised.

Ladyjane - thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. And ys, it is a memory to cherish!

Love and peace

Tony


"Quill" 6 years ago

awesome Hub and a tribute to the great happenings we see and hear about the SA...

Blessings


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Quill - thanks so much for dropping by and your kind comment. Much appreciated, sir!

Love and peace

Tony


wrenfrost56 profile image

wrenfrost56 6 years ago from U.K.

Another fascinating and well written hub Tony and huge respect for Sheena Duncan.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Wrenfrost - thank you so much for dropping by and for your kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


reddog1027 profile image

reddog1027 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

A great hub giving tribute to the women who fought a good fight. I often wonder if I was ever in a situation facing great moral wrongs if I would have the courage to stand up and made my voice heard as these women did. agai


barryrutherford profile image

barryrutherford 6 years ago from Queensland Australia

great Hub !


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Carol - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I'm sure that when the hour of need is there the people who can meet the need are there - and you would certainly be one!

Barry - thank you. I appreciate your words.

Love and peace

Tony


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

great woman and so you are -- writing a hub for her, Happy weekend Tonymac, Maita


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Maita - thanks for your kind words. And Sheena was a great woman indeed!

Love and peace

Tony


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

Tony, this is an informative hub and a compassionate one. You have certainly known fascinating people. Thank you for sharing your stories with all of us... they expand my world.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 6 years ago from Canada

wow, the more I read of South Africa the more I can see what my cousin tells me about it. She was born in Sotuh Africa, and she did mention the name "sheena" I never quite undertood why she simply used one name, but now I do. Thanks for this hub, it's great.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Story - I have indeed been blessed. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Rebecca - glad to have helped your understanding! Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


Tammy Lochmann profile image

Tammy Lochmann 6 years ago

How amazing that you were acquainted with two outstanding people. I admire human rights advocates very much. They are some of the hardest working people on earth.

I really enjoyed your hub. HUGS Tammy


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Tammy - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate it very much. Hugs to you too!

Love and peace

Tony


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

Excellent article, my friend. Keep the fires burning. :)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

James - thaks for your heartwarming words. I appreciate your visit greatly.

Love and peace

Tony


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

I don't know why I do not get notices of all new hubs. It happens often, but not in all cases. I came by just in case and saw this wonderful hub of yours which, of course, is in your usual captivating style.

1. The fact that there were women of that calibre and bravery makes my hair stand on end.

2. Also, the fact that the daughter followed so capably in the footsteps of her mother, says so much about our responsibility as parents in raising children.

3. How could anyone, no matter how financially strapped, have a bishop share a room with anyone else, is a mystery of jaw dropping proportions

4. From now on any time you sarcastically run me down by saying that you will supposedly not propose to me or kiss me, I shall tell everyone that you have slept with a bishop! :-)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Well, DG, mind you tell them it was not with just any bishop. I chose the bishop to sleep with rather well, don't you think? I mean, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and all?

Thanks so much for your, as usual, witty and incisive comments. Good that you numbered them for easy reference!

I appreciate your words more than I can say (or write!). Thanks, sincerely, my good friend!

Love and peace

Tony


alternate poet profile image

alternate poet 6 years ago

Nicely done tribute with excellent backing information - ans I might not have know her if you had not slept with a Bishop huh !? :D


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks for the comment and the chuckle, AP! I think I would have written this even had I not "slept" with the good bishop, as I have had a long-standing admiration for Sheena and the Black Sash anyway.

Love and peace

Tony


ralwus 6 years ago

'. . .nothing just happens unless people make it happen.' Love that line, so true. You are a lucky man to have know her and Tutu. Great history lesson again. Cheers, Charlie


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Charlie - thanks for your valued visit and comment. I am indeed very blessed in the people I have been so privileged to know.

Love and peace

Tony


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

Wonderful history lesson and a great tribute!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks Habee for the visit and your kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

Thank you for featuring a remarkable woman and a nice remembrance. Thumbs up, Maita


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Maita - thank you very much for dropping by and commenting. Sheena was a wonderful person.

Love and peace

Tony


valeriebelew profile image

valeriebelew 6 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

I knew little about this subject before reading this hub. Sheena must have been a brave and strong woman. Very informative and educational hub. Thanks for sharing it. (: v


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Valerie - thanks so much. Sheena was an incredible woman and I was extraordinaril fortunate to have known her, albeit realitvely slightly! She was wise and strong and incredibly honest.

Love and peace

Tony


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

“One cabinet minister in the new democratic society told us we had to choose between being adversarial towards, or cooperative with, government. We do not agree. We will cooperate whenever we can assist in forwarding the achievement of rights, but we will also be adversarial when government infringes those rights. And we will do all we can to protect the civil liberties that were so hard won - should that ever be necessary in the future. We will probably be around for a long time to come because there is so much work to do and nothing just happens unless people make it happen.”

I will be glad when Americans and all the world can hold these thoughts to their hearts and leap across party lines and FIRST- repair our "injustice system" Thank you Tony!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - there is much in the world that needs fixing, that's for sure! And people like Sheena have helped me keep the faith in humanity that we can do it! Thanks for the support, bro!

Love and peace

Tony


Carey Duncan 6 years ago

Dear TonyMac04

I am Sheena Duncan's younger daughter, and have only just picked up your blog. Thank you for this, and for taking the time to do all the intro bit. My sister, Lindsay, and I have been so touched by all the tributes that literally poured in after Sheena's death. If we knew your real identity, perhaps we'd remember the name!

Keep up the good work and thanks again.

Carey Duncan Haouach


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Carey - thanks so much for your wonderful and much-appreciated comment. I now have your email add from Bernard so will contact you today!

Love and peace

Tony

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