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.