Black Sash crusader Sheena Duncan dies

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Black Sash stalwart and anti-apartheid activist Sheena Duncan’s contribution helped lead to the realisation of the dream of a democratic and non-racial South Africa, the African National Congress says.

“Principled and committed in the fight against apartheid oppression, Sheena Duncan will be sorely missed for her contribution,” the party said in a statement. Duncan, 78, died in her Johannesburg home in the early hours of Tuesday morning after battling with an illness for some time.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Black Sash said Duncan’s mother, June Sinclair, had been a founding member of the Sash in 1955, and Duncan herself had joined the organisation in 1963. The South African Press Association reports she served two terms as national president before becoming the founding chair of the Black Sash Trust and later the organisation’s first patron.

Duncan was a leading member of the South African Council of Churches, becoming its honorary life president and chair and patron of Gun Free South Africa.

In 2006, she was made grand counsellor of the Order of the Baobab for what the citation called “her excellent contribution to the struggle for a non-sexist, just and democratic South Africa”. Sash national director Marcella Naidoo said Duncan had been the leading expert in understanding the impact of the apartheid-era pass laws and exposing their absurdity. “Equally important was her commitment to finding peaceful ways of opposing oppression and injustice,” she said.
“Indeed, this will be her legacy: an enduring commitment to work for justice, an unshaken faith in peaceful ways of doing so, a warm and courageous heart for supporting those who suffer.”

Duncan left two daughters and two grandchildren, the Sash said.

Duncan was born in Johannesburg in 1932, the eldest of five children. She was educated at Roedean School in Johannesburg and left South Africa in the 1950s to study at the Edinburgh College of Domestic Science in Scotland. After qualifying as a Domestic Science teacher she moved to the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). She returned to South Africa eight years later and worked for the Social Welfare Department of the Johannesburg City Council as a home economics officer.

The Black Sash is a women’s organisation which, during the apartheid era, worked for the advancement of basic human rights and civil liberties for South Africans bearing the brunt of apartheid injustices. The Black Sash still provides much-needed paralegal services to those in need through their advice offices situated in various cities. The organisation was founded in 1955 on the principle that through both individual and collective practical acts of assistance and voicing grievances, people had the ability to confront the Government and to effect some change.

Sinclair formed the organisation from white middle class English-speaking women to protest the Senate Bill the National Party (NP) government had tabled in Parliament to remove Coloured voters from the voters’ roll in the Cape Province. As the Apartheid system began to reach into every aspect of South African life, Black Sash members demonstrated against the Pass Laws and the introduction of other apartheid legislation. Its members “used the relative safety of their privileged racial classification to speak out against the erosion of human rights in the country,” Naidoo said in a speech in 2005. The organisations took its name from the striking black sashes they wore over the shoulder during public protests as a mark of mourning and to protest against the succession of unjust laws passed by the NP.

A biography of Duncan, released by the Presidency in 2006, adds that the Black Sash also worked at publicising the infringements of human rights through their famous non-violent protests by way of candle-light night vigils held outside Parliament and at other public venues. “With her mother being the leader of the Black Sash, Sheena was destined to follow in her footsteps. She joined the Black Sash in 1963, working tirelessly against the inhumane laws and the effects of apartheid on ordinary South Africans, especially women,” the biography, released to mark Duncan receiving her Order of the Boabab, adds.

She held various positions within the organisation, including regional chairperson and editor of the Sash magazine. She rose through the organisation’s ranks, becoming its national president in 1975, the same year in which her mother retired from this position. Duncan wrote several articles, booklets and pamphlets, especially on issues such as forced removals and pass laws. In the 1970s, she joined the Anglican Church’s Challenge Group, a movement that sought to end racism within the church. She also represented the Anglican Church on the South African Council of Churches’ (SACC) Justice and Reconciliation Division.

In 1986, Duncan received the Liberal International Prize for Freedom for her outstanding contribution to human rights and political freedom. She also received honorary doctorates in Law from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1990, the University of Cape Town in 1991 and the University of Natal in 1995. She is the honorary life president of the SACC, chair and patron of Gun-Free South Africa and patron of the Black Sash.
“Duncan has had an outstanding career as a public figure deeply involved in the struggle to promote social justice and basic human rights. She could easily have opted for a comfortable life without regard to the plight of the millions around her. Yet, she chose to pursue a path of commitment and practical action to bring about change. She was and remains an unrelenting activist for justice and the pursuit of human rights for all. Her life exemplifies devotion to the highest ideals of justice and freedom.”