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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.