Trustee News

Mary Burton named Patron of the Black Sash

Mary BurtonWe are delighted to announce that Mary Burton has been named as Patron of the Black Sash.

We believe that a Black Sash Patron is someone who demonstrates her belief in our core values and someone who contributes to the betterment of our community. She is also a woman who is admired by the staff and trustees for all that she has added to the organisation as well as wider society through the years.

Mary is the second person to be named patron of the Black Sash, following the late Sheena Duncan, who also embodied these characteristics.

Mary joined the Black Sash in 1965 and, besides being regional chair for several terms, served as National President from 1986-1990. She was one of the founders of the Advice Office Trust in 1985 (known as The Black Sash Trust from 1995) and served as a trustee continuously until 2016.  Besides holding high office within the organisation, she has always been known for her work ‘on the ground’, most especially her unwavering presence and support in the advice office. She put her journalistic skills to good use over the years by providing rigorous summaries, skilfully drafted resolutions and detailed written records of our work.

Apart from her work in the Black Sash, Mary has served in various other capacities. Amongst many other things, she was the Provincial Electoral Officer of the Independent Electoral Commission in the Western Cape for the first democratic election in 1994 and was also a Commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She served as Deputy Chairperson of the Council of the University of Cape Town, as Chairperson of the Convocation ofUCT and was the co-founder of the ‘Home for All’ campaign.

Mary’s contribution is widely recognised and she has been the recipient of many awards and commendations. To name a few, she is a recipient of the order of Luthuli (Silver), (a South African honour granted by the president), the Order of the Disa (the Western Cape's highest award) and the Reconciliation Award (conferred by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation). She is a recipient of the City of Cape Town’s Civic Honours and was awarded the UCT Vice-Chancellor’s medal for services to the university. In 2011 she received an honorary doctorate from UCT.

In 2015 Mary’s acclaimed history of the Black Sash was published, entitled The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace.

Mary Burton has dedicated over 50 years of her life to political activism and lobbying for human rights in our country and it is an honour for us now also to be able to call her Patron of the Black Sash.

Picture Credit:


Mary Burton awarded UCT Vice-Chancellor's Medal

A circle of Mary Burton’s family, friends and colleagues gathered at UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price’s residence, Glenara, on 28 July, to witness him handing the Vice-Chancellor’s medal to Mary.  The award recognized Mary’s outstanding contribution to her Alma Mater, the University of Cape Town – in her work as a Member of the University Council (which she served for two terms, one as Deputy Chair), as President of Convocation, as a member of the UCT Foundation Trust and in her numerous roles as member of committees and as honorary research associate.

Much of her time as research associate was devoted to early work on her book that will be launched next week.  In response to Dr Price’s heartfelt praise for her unique and committed contribution, Mary said that the University had played a significant role in her life and she was grateful for the opportunities afforded her to be so intimate a participant in the life of the University.  This had commenced with her registration for a BA degree when she was 39 and she found some extra hours in her day after the youngest of her four sons was no longer a baby.

Together with others, Black Sash trustees Mary-Jane Morifi, Jenny de Tolly and Di Oliver were proud witnesses of the award being given to Mary, while Deena Bosch represented Lynette Maart who was unfortunately in Johannesburg for a meeting.  Both Dr Price and Mary emphasized the significance of the Black Sash in the role it played in Mary’s formation and Dr Price praised the leadership Mary has given to the organisation over many years.  - Di Oliver


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!”