The Black Sash: An Anti-Apartheid Movement

Abstract

This extended essay deals with the South African women’s organisation the ‘Black Sash’, and undertakes a historical investigation which examines the question: To what extent did the Black Sash influence the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between the years of 1955 to 1970?

In order to determine the organisation’s influence on the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa, both primary and secondary sources were used to examine the Black Sash’s aims, its influence on the South African government and population, its relationship with the media and a comparison between the Black Sash and other anti-apartheid and human rights movements of its time.

The investigation was limited to the time period of 1955 to 1970, in order to incorporate the founding date of the organisation and the years in which the Black Sash dedicated itself to supporting the anti-apartheid movement.

Despite the fact that many different organisations and individuals protested against the South African apartheid system, this essay does not consider ‘in depth’ the other factors which influenced the anti-apartheid movement during the latter half of the twentieth century in South Africa.

After evaluating the available evidence, the investigation undertaken leads to the conclusion that the Black Sash influenced the South African anti-apartheid movement during the years of 1955 to 1970 to a minor extent. Although the organisation was unable to effectuate the amendment of apartheid legislation, and achieved only limited successes in comparison to other more radical anti-apartheid organisations, the Black Sash were able to educate previously politically and socially ignorant white South Africans on the racial issues of the country, and they served as a reminder to the South African politicians that the morality of their actions was under scrutiny.

Introduction

The research question for examination is: ‘To what extent did the Black Sash influence the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between the years of 1955 to 1970?’. This issue can be debated through an examination of the organisation’s method of operation, achievements, failures and the effects that other organisations had on the movement. For particular scrutiny will be the extent to which the organisation influenced the apartheid movement as it pertains to the South African government (in terms of legislation and the perceptions and behaviour of politicians), the South African population, and national and international media. The research question is taken to mean an investigation of the extent to which the Black Sash influenced the perceptions, beliefs and behaviours of the instigators of apartheid (namely the South African government) and those that supported it (namely the South African people and the national and international media).

In order to contextualise the research question it is necessary to understand how the South African policy of apartheid led to the formation of the Black Sash. The Afrikaans term ‘apartheid’ is used to describe the “rigid policy of segregation of the nonwhite population” in 20th century South Africa (Dictionary.com Unabridged, n.d.). In 1948, the National Party of South Africa won the South African general election based on the policy of apartheid (Hunt Davis & Johns, 1991, pg. 15). Adopted henceforth, the policy continued until its official renouncement in 1992. Under the terms of apartheid, marriage between whites and non-whites was prohibited, some occupations were reserved for “whites-only”, and health, education and transport were segregated (Adams & Fry, 2004, pg. 340). Despite the government’s justification that through segregation “each race would develop separately but equally”, the white minority of the country held many social, economic and political advantages over the black majority (Adams & Fry, 2004, pg. 340). As of 1978, the South African black population of 19 million people were allocated just 13% of the land, as opposed to the 87% of land area which was owned by the white population of just 4.5 million people. The annual expenditure on education per white pupil ($696) was over fifteen times greater than that spent on a black child ($45), widening the inequity between the white and black populations of the country (Carter, n.d.). Many organisations during the 20th century in South Africa dedicated themselves to fighting to overthrow the apartheid system which created such inequity between the races.

One of these organisations was the ‘Women’s Defence of the Constitution League’ (WDCL), later known as the ‘Black Sash’. The League was formed on 19th May 1955, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and initially consisted of a group of six white women (Michelman, 1975, pg. 24). The Black Sash, which was initially formed to protest the ‘Separate Representation of Voters Act’ (a piece of legislation which sought to remove Coloured voters from the common electoral roll, making it impossible for non-whites to be represented in government), worked to advocate equal voting rights, greater respect for South Africa’s constitution and political accountability for what they believed to be “immoral” laws (Michelman, 1975, pg. 60).

One of the reasons why it is believed that this topic is worthy of investigation is that it is important to examine whether it is possible for an ordinary group of people to influence their government and their people, and consequently the course of history. Furthermore, the Black Sash was an organisation comprised entirely (during the earlier years at least) of white women who were protesting a system which was, in many ways, advantageous to white people, demonstrating a largely selfless ambition to advocate for a more egalitarian society. Of particular interest is the fact that the women of the Black Sash defied their social boundaries by protesting on the streets during a time period when a woman’s primarily role was in the home. This leads the writer to contemplate the ability of humans to defy their social boundaries and act upon personal belief, making this not just an interesting topic, but an important issue which the writer feels morally obliged to examine. Much can be learned from this issue, as there are many human rights issues around the world which remain unresolved. Therefore, the more educated one is about the possibilities of changing the world, the better equipped society will be to form a better world in the future.

Aims of the Black Sash

As previously stated, the initial focus of the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League was the removal of the Separate Representation of Voter’s Act (1956), or Senate Act, on the grounds that the Act would alter the entrenched clauses in the constitution in relation to the voting rights of Coloured voters.

According to a Black Sash propaganda poster posted in Cape Town, 1955, in addition to the specific aim of the removal of the Senate Act, the “general aims of the League” were:

  1. “To exercise pressure for the restoration and encouragement of political morality and the preservation of constitutional government;
  2. To fight the intimidation and fear which is spreading throughout the country; to strive to make South Africa a free country in fact as well as in name;
  3. To keep its members informed on political matters and to help them to recognise their personal responsibilities in a democracy.
  4. To use its influence to draw the two sections of the European population together;
  5. Above all, the aim of the League is the restoration of good faith and good feeling throughout South Africa and, by fighting apathy and ignorance, to bring wisdom and tolerance to our divided nation.”

(Reprinted in Rogers, 1956, pg. 97-98)

Evidently, the primary aims of the League in 1955 did not include securing equal voting rights for the black majority in the country. Apparently, their objection to the Senate Act lay more in the fact that it would change laws stipulated in the South African constitution without following the required legislative processes (such as a referendum), than in the fact that the constitutional rights of the Coloured people were not being upheld. Therefore, it would seem that at first, the Black Sash sought for equal rights for non-whites more as a by-product of the “preservation of constitutional government” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 97-98).

However, the Black Sash was forced to change its tactics when they failed to achieve their initial aim. Although the Supreme Court immediately declared the Senate Act invalid on constitutional grounds, it was successfully re-enacted in 1956 due to the skilful political manoeuvring of the National Party (Clark & Worger, 2004, pg. 48). After the Act was passed, “the Sash recognized that its concern must extend to the results as well as the methods of authoritarianism; but it was only after 1959 that the organization came to take an uncompromising stand against the political and legal manifestations of apartheid” (Michelman, 1956, pg. 198). Henceforth, the Black Sash turned its attention to “opposing legislation on its moral substance rather than its procedural validity” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 58).

Influence on Politicians

The South African government was the main target of Black Sash protests, as they were the body that proposed the “immoral legislation” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 43), and were therefore the architects of the apartheid system.  The Black Sash’s main method of protest against the government were their silent vigils, which were conducted outside any building where a politician was set to make a public appearance, with venues including government buildings, town halls and airports. The women dressed in white and wore a black sash draped over their shoulder (The Silent Critics, 1955), extolled with the slogan “eerbiedig ons grondwet” (in Afrikaans), or “Respect our Constitution” (see appendix A for image) (Rogers, 1956, pg. 80). Members would stand silently with heads bowed, to symbolise their ‘mourning’ of the South African constitution, as they believed its integrity had been compromised with the passage of the Senate Act. As a politician walked past, the women would raise their heads and follow the politician’s progress with their eyes, serving as a reminder of their disapproval of the government’s actions (The Silent Critics, 1955, September 26).

The silent vigils were a unique form of protest which captured the attention of the South African population through their peaceful yet highly symbolic nature. The vigils were also highly effective in capturing the attention of the politicians, who, by job definition, relied on the approval of the general public. It was difficult for the politicians to maintain an air of popularity at public events whilst Black Sash members glared at them disapprovingly. Essentially, the Black Sash would act as the “moral conscience” of the occasion by reminding both the politicians and the general public of their disapproval of what they considered to be “immoral legislation”(Michelman, 1975, pg. 60).

As a consequence of these vigils, ministers used “back entrances of public buildings, went the wrong way on one-way streets, jumped fences, and surrounded themselves with bodyguards to avoid Black Sash demonstrators” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 51). Ministers would buy tickets for events under false names and would arrive at events without notifying the public (The Silent Critics, 1955). Despite the best efforts of the ministers to evade the Black Sash vigils, more often than not, ministers were greeted by unavoidable rows of Black Sash women, glaring at them in obvious disapproval. Indeed, one minister who flew to subsequent commitments in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg respectively was met by fifty Black Sash women at each port (The Silent Critics, 1955).

‘Time Magazine’ reported that “the government was goaded into irritable complaint” by the Black Sash tactics, as ministers frequently ridiculed the Black Sash with unsavoury labels such as “Weeping Winnies” and “foolish virgins” (a title bestowed by the then Prime Minister Johannes Strijdom) (The Silent Critics, 1955).  Although these comments were designed to belittle the Black Sash, an article appearing in the ‘Natal Mercury’ suggests that these comments were evidence of the success of these vigils. The article reports that “cabinet ministers…go out of their way to sneer at it [the Black Sash movement], but that is nothing more than a measure of their irritation. When a Prime Minister steals away and hides in an aeroplane for an hour to escape the “Black Sash” ordeal, it is obvious enough that the movement has got completely under the Government skin” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 103).  Therefore, the Black Sash’s silent vigils served as a constant reminder to the politicians that they disapproved of the apartheid system and considered the Senate Act and ensuing apartheid legislation to be immoral.

Legislation

It was the Black Sash’s hope that through their silent vigils and other methods of protest, the organisation would be able to persuade politicians to change apartheid legislation (Michelman, 1975, pg. 33). However, the Black Sash was completely ineffective in this endeavour, as they were “unable to influence the government to revoke or amend even a single law” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84). According to Cherry Michelman, author of ‘The Black Sash of South Africa’, the Black Sash did not possess “any political or moral leverage against the government” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84). The value of her opinion as that as an American lecturer, Michelman is less likely to be biased by close emotional connection with the issue, and is therefore able to provide a more objective analysis than if she was a South African citizen. Furthermore, Michelman’s sentiment is confirmed by the fact that, as discussed on page six, despite vigorous protests, petitions and rallies carried out by members of the Black Sash, the organisation was unable to achieve its initial aim, as the ‘Senate Act’ was passed on 2 March 1956.

Although Michelman is dismissive of the Black Sash’s achievements in regards to influencing the government, the organisation was able to draw large crowds (5,000 people were in attendance at a public meeting in 1955) at public protests, rallies and meetings, and garnered thousands of names on early petitions (Rogers, 1956, pg. 111). These events demonstrate a direct attempt to alert the government to the depth of public disapproval of apartheid legislation. However, in the opinion of the government, the Black Sash protests and subsequent public mobilisation did not pose a significant threat to the strength of the ruling administration. The Prime Minister’s secretary wrote a letter to the National President of the Black Sash expressing the government’s stance. The letter stated that “the government… has no confidence in your organization. It cannot… be impressed by any petition sponsored or instigated by it” (Fred Barnard, July 12, 1962). Therefore, this letter demonstrates that while the Black Sash were able to cause individual politicians to feel uncomfortable as the morality of their actions was being scrutinised, the Black Sash were ineffective in influencing government legislation, and therefore only influenced the architects of apartheid to a minor extent.

Influence on South African Population

As stated on page four, the second part to the investigation is an examination of the extent to which the Black Sash influenced the perceptions, beliefs and behaviours of those that directly or indirectly supported apartheid, including the South African population, given that it was their support which kept the government in power. As many white South Africans had little understanding of the racial issues in the country, a primary aim of the Black Sash was to educate the white populace about racial legislation such as the Pass Laws (legislation designed to limit the movements of non-whites). According to a newspaper article in the ‘Natal Mercury’, the actions of the Black Sash had a “remarkable psychological effect on opinion throughout the country… particularly in Afrikaner circles”. In the journalist’s opinion, the education programs were said to be “bringing home shame-faced realisations of what is being done” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 103).  The journalist’s belief in the effectiveness of the Black Sash education campaigns and protests was supported by another writer on the subject, Cherry Michelman. Michelman states that the “Black Sash protests kept them (the racial and legal issues) before the public eye, no matter how unwilling the public eye was to focus on them” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 92).

‘Newly-educated’ South Africans were then encouraged to act on their moral realisations through participation in marches, rallies and public meetings. In 1955 it seemed as if the education programs were taking effect and had “caught the imagination of the public” through spreading a sense of the power of the public to make a change in society (Ackermann, 2000). In that year, on 12 November, the Black Sash gathered 5,000 people on the steps of City Hall to pledge: “In pride and humbleness we declare our devotion to South Africa. We dedicate ourselves to the service of our country. We pledge ourselves to uphold the ideals by which our Union was inspired” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 111). With that event, the Black Sash was able to achieve on a small scale their primary aim of uniting their “divided nation” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 97-98).  The Black Sash were able to inspire thousands of people to pledge their support for the common goal of a more united society, thereby having an indirect effect on the dividedness that apartheid stood for.

Despite these initial successes, as time passed, it became increasingly difficult for the Black Sash women to attract support for their petitions and public gatherings. Mirabel Rogers’ reports of thousands of people gathering to support the Black Sash cause were premature in their declarations of success. Her book was written after the first year of Black Sash operation, and was unable to anticipate the changes in South African society as harsher penalties were imposed for protesting apartheid laws. Due to the passage of the ‘Public Safety Act’ and ‘Criminal Law Amendment Act’ in 1953, the government was able to impose harsh penalties for protesting against or supporting the repeal of a law, with punishments including fines, whipping and imprisonment (Carter, n.d.). Furthermore, white South Africans were “fearful to support anti-government petitions, for fear of reprisal through loss of jobs, loss of government monetary support or potential loss of passports” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 141).

Coupled with the negative consequences and punishments associated with protesting apartheid laws was the fact that it became increasingly difficult for the Black Sash to capture the imagination of the public once the novelty of their dramatic silent vigils had diminished.  Hence, Black Sash membership dwindled as members became disillusioned with the cause and the minimal results the organisation was achieving, especially after the passage of the Senate Act. One observer, quoted in the Johannesburg ‘Sunday Express’ on 11th November 1955, expressed a sentiment which mirrored that of many other South African’s who left the organisation due to their frustration with its ineffectiveness.  The observer labelled the Black Sash women as “crazy or frustrated or something”, and noted that he considered the Black Sash a “waste of time because the Senate Bill has been enacted; it is now the law, so what do they think they are going to achieve?” (Strijdom, 1955), while others dismissed the Black Sash as an “ineffectual joke” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84). Therefore, while the Black Sash was initially able to unite thousands of South African’s to strive for a more united nation, and was able to educate the white populace on matters of racial legislation, thereby increasing awareness of apartheid issues, the organisation was unable to maintain public support for their cause, and thereby only influenced the South African population (the indirect supporters of apartheid) and thus the anti-apartheid movement to a minor extent.

Relationship with the Media

The media plays a key role in influencing public opinion as it has the ability to control (to a certain extent) the information that citizens of a country have access to, and therefore has the ability to influence their perceptions of different people, events and organisations (McCombs, 2004, pg. 2). Therefore, it is vital for organisations (like the Black Sash) whose power relies on the size of their support base that the media is publishing articles, cartoons and editorials which support, or at least publicise, their cause. In South Africa, a strong relationship with certain writers and cartoonists provided increased exposure for the Black Sash and a greater public awareness of their goals. In this way, the media gave the Black Sash an opportunity to influence public opinion and increase public disapproval of the government. Bob Connolly, the cartoonist for the Rand Daily Mail, was a strong supporter of the Black Sash and drew hundreds of political cartoons in favour of the Black Sash cause (Rogers, 1956, pg. 95). The cartoons often depicted the Black Sash’s struggle against the Senate Act and the tactics which politicians employed to evade their silent vigils (see appendix B)(Rogers, 1956, pg. 53). His cartoons served to increase the exposure of the public to the Black Sash cause, and his witty cartoons provided a reminder to the general public of what the Black Sash termed the “immorality” of the South African government (Michelman, 1975, pg. 12). In terms of written media, the Black Sash was also frequently mentioned in South African newspaper articles and editorials when the organisation was gaining momentum in the late 1950s, and they experienced both negative and supportive press. However, as public support dwindled, so too did the media’s coverage of Black Sash events (Michelman, 1975, pg. 129).

Partly due to the fact that it was never one of their primary aims, the Black Sash itself did not attract widespread international media attention. The Black Sash was the subject of several news stories in publications such as the ‘London Economist’, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and ‘Time Magazine’, but lacked widespread international coverage. However, the tactics of the Black Sash did contribute to the anti-apartheid movement which gained significant international exposure and demonstrated to people around the world that South African citizens were willing to stand up to the apartheid system imposed by their government. Therefore, while the Black Sash did not significantly influence the media (and subsequently public opinion), to a minor extent they were able to use the media as a tool for highlighting their cause and aims.

Comparison between the Black Sash and other anti-apartheid and human rights movements

Many organisations and individuals other than the Black Sash protested against the South African apartheid system during the twentieth century. Unlike other anti-apartheid organisations operating during this time, such as the ‘African National Congress’ (ANC), members of the Black Sash committed to protesting in a way that was entirely legal, as they believed that “open refusal to obey… laws would mean extinction” for their organisation (Michelman, 1975, pg. 153). While the ANC sought a ‘national democratic revolution’ and possessed a military element which was involved in “terrorist” activities, the Black Sash believed revolution would destroy South Africa economically and refused to condone violence, preferring to operate in a manner that was entirely peaceful (Michelman, 1975, pg. 154). Their form of passive resistance has drawn comparisons with Mohandas Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ campaigns, which were characterised by their peaceful protests (London Economist, 1955). By protesting in a peaceful and dignified manner, members of the public were less likely to spurn the protestors, and they were able to attract support from more conservative sectors of society, than if they were protesting in a violent or disrespectful manner.

When the Black Sash are compared to the historical human rights champions of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, it could be said that their actions are timid and their successes negligible. However, when compared to those in their own white community who either championed white domination, or pretended that they had neither the will nor opportunity to act on this moral issue, their courage and determination are “indisputable” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 157). Furthermore, the Black Sash women were defying the social stereotype of women in the 1950s as housewives whose primary duty was to raise children and care for their family. It took a significant amount of courage and conviction to not only defy their social expectations but also to risk persecution, punishment, injury and the government backlash over their antics. As previously mentioned, there were harsh penalties for opposing apartheid, and any action against the apartheid system required great courage.

When evaluating the effectiveness of the Black Sash in comparison to other organisations and individuals, one must also consider the social and political situation in which the Black Sash existed. According to Helen Suzman, a former member of parliament in South Africa from 1953 to 1989, “what constitutes blazing liberalism in South Africa is merely careful conservatism in other countries”, due to the “basic conservatism among [South African] whites” during that era (Michelman, 1975, pg. 60). South African society was highly conservative and most whites were comfortable with the privileges afforded to them by apartheid (Michelman, 1975, pg. 60). Therefore, these widespread and strongly held political and social views made it difficult for the Black Sash to evoke change in social thinking amongst South Africa’s white population.

Therefore while the Black Sash did not influence the anti-apartheid movement to as great an extent as other organisations which fought for complete revolution and consequently the end of apartheid itself, the Black Sash demonstrated courage in opposing the apartheid system and provided an outlet for moderate middle-class activists to peacefully influence the anti-apartheid movement to a minor extent.

Conclusion

Based on the evidence shown above, the Black Sash had a minor influence on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between 1955 and 1970. It can be seen that while the Black Sash succeeded in one of their general aims of “encourag[ing] political morality” and acted as the ‘moral conscience’ of the nation, a “conscience is effective only if heeded” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 92). Although they succeeded in making politicians feel uncomfortable as they passed them on the steps of public buildings, and served as a constant reminder of their disapproval of the government’s “immoral legislation”, the Black Sash was unable to cause the removal or amendment of any apartheid legislation (Michelman, 1975, pg. 43). The government itself “dismissed” them as an “ineffectual joke” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84), and refused to negotiate or co-operate with them. Furthermore, although the Black Sash was initially able to influence thousands of people to join the anti-apartheid movement, the initial enthusiasm waned after the passage of the Separate Representation of Voter’s Act in 1956. Additionally, the Black Sash was unable to secure significant international support for their cause through the media, although this was not one of their primary aims.

While it may seem that the Black Sash did not achieve a great deal in their years of campaigning, their initial fervour inspired many white South Africans, for the first time, to consider their constitutional rights and those of their fellow citizens. To a certain extent, they increased the sentiment of public discontent with the practices of the government, and educated many on the human rights issues present in South Africa. Although they did little to further the anti-apartheid movement itself, perhaps their greatest achievement is that, as put by Mirabel Rogers, the author of ‘The Black Sash’ and a subsequent member of the organisation, they were “ordinary women” who “proved themselves capable of high courage and a firm stand for the sake of principles they value” (Rogers, 1956, pg. v). Therefore, based on the evidence provided, the Black Sash influenced the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between the years of 1955 to 1970 to a minor extent.

 

Reference List

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Black Sash. (2012). Our History. Retrieved April 11, 2012, from Black Sash – Making Human Rights Real: http://www.blacksash.org.za/index.php/our-legacy/our-history

Carter, C. (n.d.). The History of Apartheid in South Africa. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from Stanford University: http://www-cs-students.stanford.edu/~cale/cs201/apartheid.hist.html

Clark, N., & Worger, W. (2004). South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited.

Hunt Davis, R., Johns, S. (1991). Mandela, Tambo and the African National Congress: The Struggle against Apartheid, 1948-1990. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johannes Strijdom’s Secretary, Fred Barnard. (1962, July 12). [Letter to National President of the Black Sash]. Black Sash Papers’ Archive, Reel 6.

McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Michelman, M. (1975). The Black Sash of South Africa. London: Oxford University Press.

Rogers, M. (1956). The Black Sash: South Africa’s Fight for Democracy. Johannesburg: Rotonews.

Satyagraha in a Black Sash. (1955, November 19). London Economist.

Strijdom, H. (1955, November 11). Editorial Opinion – Haman Strijdom. Sunday Express .

Time Magazine. (1955, September 26). South Africa: The Silent Critics. Retrieved May 23, 2011, from Time Magazine: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,807618,00.html

The Women Set the Example. (1955, November 11). Natal Mercury.

 

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