The Black Sash would like to thank all those who have sent donations to the organisation as part of their tributes to Noel, including the Robb family; Cherry and Roger Fisher; Moira and Libby; the Haggie family; Sandy Tolosana; Mosa; Oliver; the Tilney's; the Dicey's; the Ratcliffe's; Robby and Libby Ardington; Di Carter; The Study Club for Noel Robb; Rosemary De Waal; the Power's and Jesse.
Click on READ MORE below to read the tributes we have received so far ...
A tribute to Noel Robb, Black Sash honorary life Vice-President, by Mary Burton (Black Sash Trustee)
Her life spanned decades of great significance in South Africa, and she witnessed enormous change, and contributed in no small measure to some of those changes. The record of her work is preserved in the documents of the Advice Office, and in her own book about the Sash. The archives of the University of Cape Town are grateful to have her own collection of papers, and all these will be important material for future historians. Her knowledge of the ramifications of the “pass laws”, and the injustice and misery they caused, was a powerful tool in the struggle for justice and a better life for all. Her own memoir, The Sash and I, is a powerful story of someone who was not prepared to let wrongs go by without trying to do something about righting them.
She was singled out recently in the book by Dennis Davis and Michelle Le Roux, Precedent and Possibility: The Abuse of Law in South Africa, where they describe the battle of Mr Komani to be allowed to have his wife live with him in Gugulethu. He approached the Advice Office, where “Noel Robb, one of the stalwarts of the office, sought to ensure the proper prosecution of Komani’s appeal… she wrote to Geoffrey Budlender … at the Legal Resources Centre. It proved to be a stroke of genius” (quoted in the Sunday Independent, 23 November 2008). The Komani family eventually obtained the requisite permission, paving the way for many other families to live together within the law.
Day after day in the office, she would listen to people’s problems, seek for possible solutions and explain the options. Determined to help, she would telephone officials and persuade or berate them. She maintained her own reputation for hard work and for high standards – know your facts, don’t exaggerate (things are quite bad enough without that), state your case firmly but politely. She read her way steadily through Hansard each week, pointing out issues that needed to be taken up. She prepared information for sympathetic Members of Parliament, most notably Helen Suzman, to enable them to ask penetrating questions of Cabinet Ministers.
Her work in Crossroads and the other informal settlements which arose in Cape Town in defiance of the pass laws was of particular importance. It was Noel who pointed out to us the change which was taking place during the 1970s in the minds of people who were no longer prepared to tolerate the restrictions on their freedom of movement. They had come, they were not hiding, they were determined to stay.
Responding to change was a particular talent of Noel’s. Many members have commented on her ability to take part in tough arguments, spell out her views, listen carefully to others, and if persuaded, change her mind. This openness kept her attuned to new ideas, and enabled younger members to know that their views were taken seriously.
She was one of those who did not wish to be described as a feminist, yet she epitomised the determination, independence, and courage of the feminist movement. She is quoted in the Sash article as saying “I am keen on Sash remaining women only, because I feel women are much more able to change their thinking as they get older through their close association with the thinking of their children” (she could have added grandchildren and great-grandchildren).
After the Black Sash changed its structures in 1995, she remained involved in the Legiwatch group, monitoring the new Parliament as we had done the old. She retained her clarity of thought and determination to stand on principle. Right back in 1989 she said “Whatever new government gets in, they will be doing things for pragmatic reasons and we will be standing outside opposing them”.
I have been particularly asked to speak of her impact on the current generation of people in the Black Sash, who are proud to hold her up as an example. National and regional offices have sent their condolences and tributes, and a place has been created on the Sash website for them. Those who cannot be here send their respect and regrets.
She had many interests in addition to the Black Sash, of course: the Marion Institute, St Cyprian’s School, this St Saviour’s church itself, the ASSET Trust, the University of Cape Town, and the famous study club to which she belonged and for which she prepared many papers over the years (and sharing her learning with many of us).
We could not leave out of any tribute the pleasure we had in Noel’s company. Always interesting and well informed, amusing and stimulating. Travelling in the 1960s to national conferences by train in her company was an education in itself. Advice on handling teething babies, recalcitrant teenagers, even recalcitrant husbands, was handed out equally with useful information about the coming conference debates.
This can be no more than a glimpse of all that Noel was to the Black Sash and to the thousands of people who sought its assistance. Her life was one of service and achievement, and we are proud to have been associated with it. We will never forget her."
A tribute from Legiwatch - "A great champion of Justice for All. She will be sadly missed by her colleagues in Legiwatch" - Cape Times, 28 January 2008
A tribute from Diana Andrews - who was one of the first Advice Office Workers with Noel, Lettie Malindi and the late Barbara Versfelf in Athlone. Di is now 84 years old and leads a very active life...
"Noel, I salute you, an indomitable character, from whom I learned and gained so much. I so admired your fortitude, your fighting spirit that never gave up. You studied and knew the law and forever searched for loopholes in it. You were untiring in your efforts to alleviate the lot of those legislated against, You were strong, a force to be reckoned with - a little scarey at times! But also, you were gentle, considerate and with an inner humility, I valued who you were and all you gave of yourself so unstintedly. A big thank you, and to your family, who meant so much to you, my loving thoughts and condolences."
A tribute from Dot Cleminshaw
A tribute from Dr Laurine Platzky - Deputy Director-General Governance and Integration and 2010 FIFA World Cup Coordinator, Department of the Premier
Provincial Government of the Western Cape.
"Noel Robb was immensely clear and strong in her convictions, never apologetic or shy to speak the truth. I remember in the early 1970s when there was a meeting at UWC to discuss yet another ghastly apartheid-related happening. Noel was representing the Black Sash, I was there as a student leader from UCT. An earnest UWC student was putting forward some idea for action which Noel thought either irresponsible or unworkable. She disagreed with him, His response was 'you are disagreeing with me because I'm black'. 'Oh no' she said clearly and calmly 'I'm disagreeing with you because you are wrong'. None of us would have dared to say anything in those sensitive days of the emerging black consciousness movement..."
A tribute from Vertrees Malherbe
"Noel would have been matter-of-fact about this event: “95 years old – had a good life – lots of children, grandchildren and greats (it’s being close to our children which keeps women like myself open to the world and up-to-date) – never meant to join the Black Sash but I did, just like that, when I heard what it was doing and kept on learning from it (our biggest mistake was closing down the membership – in case you never heard me say it) – there was time for St Monica’s and bridge, for travel and my study group, and all those people with cameras and tapes who came for my thoughts and life story.” Noel’s influence for good on many lives has been incalculable. Go well, dear Noel.
A tribute from Mary Newman
A tribute from Lorna Levy
A tribute from Bastienne Klein - Volunteer 1989 - 1993 and Advice Office Director 1993-1997
"I encountered Noël on becoming a volunteer at the Sash Advice Office, in 1989. She lost no time in telling me that she'd been running the advice office long before I was born! She would balance out this powerfullness by explaining how to deal with advice seekers, and was one of the most endlessly patient women when it came to dealing with a case - especially when she knew she was right. She had a shrewd sense of what was fair, what was a right, and never gave up when dealing with officials - a task seldom rewarded by the medal it deserves.
I particularly valued her insights on coming to this advice office work, around about her 40's. She would often chide me about the gauche youthful insistence that the law could be used to deal with the government itself, when trying to win a case. She was all for finding a way with officialdom first, before shooting from the hip. Her sense of humour was infectious, particularly when reporting the Hansard at Sash's Regional Council meetings: one such was the parliamentary report on how many people had changed their racial classification. '14 coloureds were reclassified Indian' she would boom authoritatively with a straight face, while we collapsed with laughter at the ridiculousness of it all.
Her legendary standing outside parliament and other places, in protest, was one of the ways I learnt that women place their bodies physically on the line, to make a statement. I went with her into a township advice office, learning how important it was to take oneself to where people actually lived and experienced the problems they were reporting to us.
She taught devotion to the task by being there every week, and giving advice in the best way possible. When one wrote letters of commiseration and sympathy to her - she always replied. She was a great example of a woman with the capacity to respond to the world around her, and to the individuals who approached her.
I'll miss seeing you arrive in your long black boots, Noël!
I am grateful and thankful that I was able to work alongside her."
A tribute from Di Oliver, Black Sash Trustee
"One of the values of the Black Sash is "Rigour". Noel embodied all the
values of the organisation, but always impressed me most with her rigour.
It was what she expected of those of us who worked in the Advice Office.
Without lecturing us on the need for accuracy and backing up what we said
with facts, she set the pace, the standards and the tone. Day after day she
started work at 9h00 in the Advice Office and kept her head down until it
was time to go home for lunch. The more complex the problem that people
coming to the office presented to Noel, the more she worked like a dog with
a bone. She often had huge delegations of people coming to see her and as
they gathered around her little desk in the corner, she and Mrs Malindi or
David Viti would unpick the problem meticulously and discuss whether there
was any possibility of redress. I wonder what has happened to all those
files in the old "Bantu Affairs Administration". There would be many
amongst them with Noel's meticulous, handwritten account of how the dreaded
Pass Laws affected every facet of people's lives.
Apart from her political work in the Sash, especially her meticulous
scrutiny of Hansard and Government Gazettes, I so admired the way Noel spent
all those voluntary hours in the Advice Office. She clearly had a very busy
home to run and family to attend to. She was in demand at the Marion
Institute and Race Relations, at the same time as being an active support to
her close and lifelong friends who were also involved in opposition to
apartheid, like Moira Henderson in Dependants Conference, Eulalie Stott in
the City Council and many others who relied on her incisive analysis of the
political trends and formulating responses to them.
She believed in being a personal witness to situations and often went where
no 'white' people had ever ventured unless they worked for the State. She
was a mine of information about the deteriorating conditions in which the
majority of people lived and hosted many foreign visitors seeking
information, often accompanying them on visits to flash points. She was
courageous, fearless and strong. She was also a wonderful friend and made
those of us who were in awe of her feel we were a welcome part of her life.
She encouraged us to have opinions and she never failed to back down or
change her mind if she felt she had been wrong. I shall miss her
enormously - and miss sending her Christmas-cum-birthday cards that she
never failed to acknowledge, right to the end of her remarkable life."
Ros phoned on Friday night and told me of your mother's death.
My love and sympathy, Robud. It will have been an enormous shock for you but a condolence that she went in her sleep. Such a blessing for her.
What a hole she'll leave in your life.... It's probably for you all, as it was when my mom died, the end of an era - there's extra sadness in that. And for so many, many people it will also be hugely significant. Helen Suzman so recently, and now Noel.
Newcomers to the Black Sash were often in awe of her. She would speak so authoritatively and with such strong conviction. But awe soon turned to admiration for the depth of her knowledge, for her enormous courage and her practicality. I first got to know her in the early 70s in the Advice Office. I soon saw how her commanding ways were reinforced by a fierce integrity. How well she used her manner when dealing with Bantu Administration! What backbone she gave us! She helped us to speak fearlessly. She was always so clear sighted and gave of herself tirelessly (as I know you do).
What a privilege it was to share those years! It was a university of sorts, yet even though we might know each others' ideas and opinions through debate; very often, we knew virtually nothing about each other's personal lives. Despite that in our work together there was a true spirit of liberte', egalite', fraternite'. I miss that.
I am sad that Noel is no longer fighting the good fight, as she did, I believe, until the end. I so dearly wish I could be there to pay my last respects.
My love to you, Robud. I have mislaid my South African phone book, but right now I'm sure your phone is ringing hot. You will have so much to organise."
You're in my thoughts.
With much love,