About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Black Sash

The forerunner of the Black Sash was the Women's Defence of the Constitution League, established in 1954 as a direct result of the National Party's attempts to remove the coloureds from the common voters' roll. The present name of this liberal women's organisation stems from the black sash worn by members as a sign of mourning at demonstrations about the "rape" of the constitution.

Initially the organisation concentrated on placard demonstrations targeted at the government's injustices. Over the years it redefined its role, especially after regular confrontations with the police. (In any event, in the early eighties legislation stipulated that only one person at a time could participate in placard demonstrations.) During the early sixties the group became more involved in legal and material aid to people affected by apartheid legislation. One of its greatest successes was the establishment of pass law advice centres in most large cities and towns. The Black Sash has under-taken study projects and regularly disseminates information about discriminatory practices.

The organisation gradually shifted from a liberal to a Charterist position. It even released a statement making it clear that the Freedom

Charter (see African National Congress for discussion) was the only alternative to violent confrontation. The organisation made a major contribution to the establishment of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). Besides supporting the Freedom Charter, the Black Sash favours universal franchise, the protection of civil liberties, and the scrapping of discriminatory legislation. Over the years it has clearly moved away from resistance politics to human rights politics.

Although the Black Sash actively participated in the Five Freedoms Forum (FFF) it is not prescriptive about which political organisations its members support. At its congress in March 1990 in Grahamstown the organisation reconsidered its affiliation with groups such as the ECC, the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) and the Detainees' Support Groups. The Black Sash's commitment to non-racism makes it a natural ally of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). The view was taken that, despite the liberalization of South African politics, the Black Sash still has an important role to play. It was further held that the organisation should apply itself to issues specifically concerning women.

Among its national presidents have been well-known personalities in liberal circles such as Mary Burton and Sheena Duncan. The present national president is Jenny de Tolly. The organisation does not have a large membership, consisting mainly of English-speaking women with a university or college education.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.