Books about the Black Sash 

Hands Off Our Grants Defending the Constitutional rights to Social Protection

South Africa has one of the largest social security systems, which has been lauded by the Constitutional Court as an important achievement of the post-apartheid government. The livelihoods of millions of poor people, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas, have come to depend on it. The distribution of social grants continues to contribute significantly towards alleviating poverty and inequality. However, during the Zuma era, the social security system came under brazen attack, enabled by the alleged complicity of those in political power.

Hands Off Our Grants is more than a grim tale of state capture. The book details how the Black Sash’s Hands Off Our Grants (Hoog) campaign, supported by civil society organisations, mobilised behind beneficiaries to reclaim their constitutional rights to social security. It is a story of grit, dedication and collective victory in achieving social justice for those affected by irregular, fraudulent and unlawful deductions from social grants.

It is also an important reminder that accomplishing a fair and just society needs citizens who are prepared to take a stand together.

 Swimming with Cobras by Rosemary van Wyk Smith  

“This memoir is more than the story of one woman’s journey, it contributes to the political and social history of our country. It places on record the work of the small group of women in the Black Sash who continued to protest against injustice and to work in the townships, even during the darkest days of Apartheid. Liberal middle class women are sometimes patronised or diminished by those who move in more ideologically correct, left wing circles. This book may help to revise these kinds of rather unthinking judgement.”

 - Extract from a review in the Sunday Independent, 2.9.12, by Rob Gayla

My Mother Against Apartheid by Susan Collin Marks (article adapted from her forthcoming memoir, Singing Peace: Wisdom in a Time of Conflict)

"In 1955, six White women in Johannesburg said enough is enough when the government enacted a law to disenfranchise “Coloured” (mixed-race) South Africans, rescinding their right to vote.  Along with a wave of other women, my mother, Peggy Levey, joined this group.  Their formal name was the Women’s Defense of the Constitution League, but everyone called them the Black Sash.  She was soon elected regional chair.

We lived in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province, a world away from Johannesburg.  My mother was regional chair of the National Council of Women and would later be mentioned as a potential candidate for Parliament.  Now she stood in the town square carrying a placard and actually wearing a black sash to mourn the death of the constitution, as the government set about eliminating the few remaining rights of non-White South Africans.  

It is hard to convey the courage and conviction it took to join, let alone lead Black Sash in a police state.  Members were spat on and sworn at as they held their placards, and some old friends avoided them, afraid of association with dissidents. Some of my classmates weren’t allowed to play with me after school.  But for my mother, Black Sash was only the beginning."

Read the full article in the Spring 2021 Edition of Reinventing Home at

Sheena Duncan by Annemarie Hendrickz

The biography, SHEENA DUNCAN, described by Mary Burton as ‘A rich and honest portrayal which demonstrates the power of dedicated resistance to injustice’, was first launched in Cape Town on the Black Sash’s 60th birthday celebrations on 19 May 2015.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was one of the many distinguished guests at 6 Spin Street and author Annemarie Hendrikz read his Introduction to SHEENA DUNCAN as part of the proceedings, following a moving tribute to Sheena from human rights activist colleague and friend, Aninka Claassens.

  • More details about the book can be seen on the Facebook page.
  • SHEENA DUNCAN is available at all leading bookstores or as an ebook.  It can also be ordered via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

The Black Sash by Mary Burton

This is the story of a remarkable organisation of mostly white, middle-class women who became known for standing silently in public, singly or in line, wearing a black sash and carrying a trademark poster in protest against the injustices of apartheid.

Though they lost their first campaign – against the disenfranchisement of ‘coloured’ voters in the mid-1950s – they turned their attention to other unjust laws and over the decades carved out a unique role for themselves, bearing witness, developing expertise and expert knowledge, and generally moving way ahead of the rest of white society in campaigning , for instance, for a universal adult franchise, for an end to capital punishment and for legal abortion.

Though harassed by the government, the Black Sash was one of the few white organisations that won widespread credibility and respect, both locally and abroad, and by the 1980s had become a recognised part of the broad movement for change in the country.

Writing from prison in 1985 to congratulate the Sash on its 30th anniversary, Nelson Mandela said:

“In spite of the immense difficulties against which you have to operate, your voice us heard right across the country. Even though frowned upon by some, it pricks the conscience of others and is warmly welcomed by all good men and women."  

This uniquely South African story is written by Mary Burton, herself a national president of the Black Sash for several years and, later, one of the Truth and Reconciliation commissioners. With an insider’s perspective she helps us understand what drove this group of women, what it was like to be involved, and what lessons we can learn from the Sash’s history.

Standing on Street Corners by Mary Kleinenberg and Christopher Merrett

Publishers, The Natal Society Foundation, say:

"This book looks specifically at the Natal Midlands (Pietermaritzburg) region and the distinctiveness of its contribution. Like other regions it supported the liberation struggle through public protest and educational campaigns aimed at exposing iniquitous apartheid legislation. In a police state this required considerable determination and courage. During the darkest hours Natal Midlands Sash kept alive hope for universal civil rights in a democratic South Africa.

Whether Sash was a political pressure group of women, or a women’s organisation challenging patriarchy it generated lively debate. Environmental issues were also accorded a high priority. Fifteen interviews show that involvement in Sash was a life-enhancing experience for many members who have looked back with pride and honour at their part in the anti-apartheid movement from 1955 to 1994."

The book is available in bookshops or is freely downloadable here (as 2 megabyte file):