Duncan, Sheena (1932—)

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Duncan, Sheena (1932—)

White South African anti-apartheid activist, pacifist, and protester against capital punishment, who was twice-elected national president of the South African women's political group Black Sash. Born Sheena Sinclair in 1932 in Johannesburg, Transvaal, South Africa; daughter of Jean Sinclair (co-founding member of the Black Sash, an all-women's mostly white English-speaking organization dedicated to fighting apartheid); attended Roedean Girls School, Johannesburg, and Edinburgh College of Domestic Science (Scotland) where she qualified as a domestic science teacher (1953); married a Johannesburg architect, in 1955; children: two born between 1956 and 1963.

Worked as a Home Economist for the Johannesburg City Council Welfare Department (1953–54); married and moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe, 1955); returned to Johannesburg, South Africa, to join the Black Sash as director of Johannesburg Legal Advice Office (1963); invited by U.S. government to spend six weeks there studying paralegal services (1974); served first term as national president of the Black Sash (1975–78); served for three years as chair of the Johannesburg Diocesan Challenge Group to eliminate racial discrimination within the Anglican church; invited by YWCA Conference on Human Rights to speak to delegates in Britain and Holland (1983); served second term as national president of the Black Sash (1983–86); invited by Swedish government to discuss apartheid legislation with the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry (1984); arrested while praying in front of the South African Parliament Building in memory of black mourners killed by police at a funeral (1985); awarded Prize for Freedom by the Liberal International Congress in Hamburg, Germany (1986); called for international economic sanctions against South Africa (1986); elected vice-president of the South African Council of Churches (1987); organized legal advice centers in churches around the country in conjunction with the Family, Home and Life Division of the South African Council of Churches; appointed to the South African Human Rights Commission (1988); as member of the South African Council of Churches, called for moratorium on all pending capital punishment executions (1988); reelected National Advice Office Co-Ordinator for Black Sash (1990); appointed member of Independent Board for Inquiry into Informal Repression (1992).


contributing editor of Sash magazine (1966–74); wrote various brochures such as "You and the New Constitution" (1983) and "'The People,' 'These Persons,' or 'Me,'" (1993); (coauthored with A. Chaskalson) Influx Control: The Pass Laws (1984).

Twice elected the national president of Black Sash, the South African English-speaking women's organization, Sheena Duncan guided the association through its most difficult times in the 1970s and 1980s. Once 10,000 strong, by the mid-1990s membership had fallen to about 2,000, a trend that reflected both the banning of the organization's outdoor political assemblies in 1977 and its struggle to redefine itself in postapartheid South Africa as a source of expert legal advice for black South Africans. Under Duncan's leadership, the focus shifted away from organizing neatly dressed white women standing in silent protest outside government offices to assisting the black community with the convoluted apartheid laws that placed so many restrictions on their daily lives. Largely as a result of her efforts, Black Sash, once dismissed as nothing more than a white liberal feel-good organization, became a highly respected resource for a broad range of legal information.

Apartheid refers to the explicit government policies and laws put in place by the minority white Afrikaans-speaking National Party that took control of South Africa in 1948. Their policy of legalized white supremacy in South Africa was finally toppled when the human rights activist and lawyer Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 from 27 years of detention on Robben Island, a maximum-security prison near Cape Town, and later elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994.

During the apartheid era and under Duncan's leadership, Black Sash became a source of free expert legal advice for black South Africans and was especially effective in helping blacks deal with the notorious pass laws. Beginning in 1910 for men and 1956 for women, black South Africans were required to carry a pass book as a form of identification, until the pass laws were rescinded in 1986 and replaced by other means of control. Black South Africans discovered with a pass book "out of order" were immediately arrested, fined, often jailed, sometimes beaten or tortured by the hated white South African police and likely banished to the rural homelands where many faced hunger and disease. By 1982, over 200,000 black South Africans were arrested each year for pass law violations. The net effect was to severely restrict the movement of black South Africans from their homes in the poor rural areas to jobs in the mainly white urban areas.

Sheena Duncan was born in Johannesburg in 1932, the eldest of five children. Hers was a well-to-do Scottish family in which she enjoyed the privileges of her family's social and economic position. She was raised with the assistance of a white nanny and attended the private girls school, Roedean. Duncan credits her school headmistress Ella Lemaitre with providing her with an "introduction to things being wrong." Recalled Duncan to Beata Lipman : "She was a personal friend of Trevor Huddleston and of Alan Paton, so that some of my very earliest memories of becoming aware arose from visits to places like Diepkloof Reformatory, which Paton was running, and having Father Huddleston coming to talk at school and knowing what kind of work his Community of the Resurrection was doing in those days. They're the kind of churchmen who have intelligently used their compassion and their knowledge of what goes on in a wider political context."

After graduating from high school, Duncan was escorted by her mother to Edinburgh, Scotland, and delivered into the hands of her aunts for further education as a teacher of domestic science. When she returned to Johannesburg in 1953, she married her childhood sweetheart, an architect, and they relocated to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where their two children would be born.

But the similarities between Duncan's family and other advantaged white South African families did not run deep. Raised in "a home where conversation was conversation, not gossip," Duncan recalled that family discussions "tended to range around subjects of public interest." In an interview with The Washington Post, she noted: "The focus was on World War II and when we talked about injustice, we were thinking about the Jewish people." Talking with Peggy Dye Moberg , a writer for The Christian Science Monitor, Duncan said, "I cannot remember a time when I was not against apartheid. I was brought up in a house where the concept of justice was very strong. My Christianity was also a strand. The gospel demands that you heal

the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisons. That means more than running soup kitchens. It means curing the reasons for the sick and hungry." As a child, Duncan was taken to see Sophiatown, a black township outside Johannesburg. "That was an exceptional thing for a white child to be taken into a black town. There were hundreds and hundreds of children there, and I was a child, too. Later in the 1950s when it was announced that all the houses would be knocked down and all the black people moved (to make way for white urban growth), it meant something to me."

Black Sash was formed in 1955 in Johannesburg by Duncan's mother, Jean Sinclair , and four other women from the Women's League for the Defense of the Constitution. Sinclair explained, "We enlisted only women because the men were quarreling among themselves and there was a feeling that women would get on with it." These women were mainly English-speaking members of General Jan Smut's United Party which was defeated by the Afrikaans-speaking National Party in 1948. The women protested the new policy of removing people of mixed race ("coloureds") from the voters roll in the Cape region of South Africa. The women wore black sashes slung diagonally from their right shoulders, displayed placards criticizing apartheid government policies, stood in silent protest with their eyes cast down at their feet and mourned the death of democracy outside government offices. If the demonstrators did not speak out loud, they could not be arrested or prosecuted for an illegal public display. Although they lost this first fight, they gained their name, Black Sash, and broadened their campaign to defend the civil rights of those who suffered the most disenfranchisement under the intensified apartheid legislation of the National Party—black South Africans. The group's early protest strategy included very organized stands. Protesters who were standing alone had a support person within view, whose job it was to draw away any member of the public who attempted to engage the woman holding a placard in conversation. This strategy was intended to keep the protester from being accused of involvement in an illegal gathering.

Black Sash was one of the first white organizations to call for universal voting and the abolition of the death penalty. They also maintained contact with banned organizations that were fighting for the same issues but using civil-disobedience tactics declared illegal under apartheid. According to Kathryn Spink , by the late 1960s the press would telephone Black Sash offices whenever an incident occurred:

Through its advice office work the Black Sash could keep a unique finger on the pulse of what was happening in the black communities even when restrictions on the media denied such information to other parties…. The advice office could thus mobilize and "conscientise" both those who worked in them and the people who came for assistance…. This was the starting point for various strategies employed to force the government to act, strategies in which the essential ingredient was public knowledge. The initial step was invariably to inform the public of carefully substantiated facts of which, in segregated South African society, it might otherwise be totally unaware, and so raise public concerns about a particular grievance.

To this end they collected petitions challenging the three pillars of the apartheid National Party government: (1) physical removal of blacks to "homelands" where they were confined on less than 14% of the total land in South Africa, (2) a system of passes and laws designed to keep blacks from moving permanently into the white urban areas, and (3) a political structure that stripped South African citizenship from millions of blacks.

As a result of this change in Black Sash's agenda and an increasingly hostile political atmosphere, membership that peaked at 10,000 in the 1960s soon dwindled to a fifth of this number. Michael Hornsby, writing for The Times (Johannesburg), notes, "It was one thing for middle-class ladies of English background to be asked to protest against the unconstitutional machinations of a Boer government, it was quite another to expect them to campaign for equal citizenship with blacks." In her 1990 article, Duncan recalled, "They called each other 'Mrs.' and wore hats. But those women in the early days were considered communists by their peers." In response to accusations by whites that women like Duncan were dishonest communists, and that a militant grouping existed within Sash, Duncan remarked, "It's very hard to make white people know and understand the truth. They have no dealings with black people." She wrote in 1990: "We are simply a human rights organization."

Despite their political activities, most Black Sash members escaped punishment and prosecution by the National Party. In Cry Amandla! South African Women and the Question of Power, June Goodwin quotes Duncan: "We're not banned because the government doesn't think we're effective enough to worry about, that is, because we're women. We're immune because we're unequal…. Women's lack of equal ity in the Nationalist Afrikaaner society is extraordinary." In 1985, Duncan wryly commented to Andie Tucher that Black Sash "has certain advantages in pressing for reform, and that to some extent women protesters are protected by their sex…. We have a very old-fashioned gov ernment that does not take women seriously. And it is quite an advantage to be regarded as an ornament." In the same year, she told The Washington Post, "Just as the visibility of Bishop Desmond Tutu gives him greater protection, being white gives us more protection. But that in turn gives us greater responsibility."

According to Duncan, a key factor in avoiding the ire of the apartheid government was Black Sash's refusal to advocate civil disobedience. She explained to Goodwin, "One of the earliest national conference resolutions was that Black Sash would protest by all lawful means. That decision was made at a time when it was perfectly possible to do what they wanted by lawful means. In those days they could have mass marches, ten abreast."

However, by 1977, all outdoor political "assemblies" were illegal, and at the moment when membership was shrinking Black Sash was forced to develop new methods of peaceful demonstration. Under Duncan's leadership, the group's tactics expanded to include the distribution of posters, pamphlets, letters and handouts, to workshops and public meetings around the country, to press statements and international speaking tours. The group evolved into a sophisticated organization with an arsenal of peaceful weapons to force the government to change its policies of strict racial segregation under apartheid. With the belief that if the white community adopted these strategies they could make a positive influence on government action, Duncan explained to Spink: "One can seek action in court that will lead to an order being made that will instruct government to do something. One can force government to do things by raising sufficient pressure in the electorate and amongst members of parliament for policy to be changed. For example—to induce the government to provide houses for the homeless. Boycotting elections, signing petitions, silent vigils and demonstrations, and letter writing campaigns all need to involve the white community in order to expose the truth about pass laws and the homelands."

During the apartheid era, one of the group's main roles was the "support and encouragement and counseling" of blacks who became entangled in South Africa's intricate maze of pass laws and other discriminatory legislation. Black Sash worked to resolve cases of unfair dismissal, wrongful eviction, and applications for citizenship by arming clients with the necessary documentation and then directing them to the proper government offices. Speaking in 1985 to Dorothy Gilliam of The Washington Post, Duncan explained, "We play a limited supporting role to blacks. We never go to a community, but we wait for them to ask us. If, for example, a community is being removed to a homeland, they may ask us to help set up a press conference. People ask for help with all sorts of problems." When it comes to dealing with fellow whites, however, the Sash was more aggressive: "We try to be a catalyst by explaining to white South Africans what apartheid really means, to show them that civil war is inevitable on the current path." Tucher has called Duncan "particularly skilled at the important task of what she calls 'nagging and pushing and shoving' South African leaders, as well as the more sober business of providing an analysis of what's really happening and what different things mean for the international community."

Our task is to find non-violent ways in which power can be transferred to the powerless thereby creating a society of true peace and justice.

—Sheena Duncan

Often even legal training could not render the frequently amended pass laws decipherable because of their obscure provisions and tortuous language. "Outside of Sash," Goodwin writes, "nobody in this country—except the government's Black Affairs Department—understands that the pass laws and all that goes with them are the foundation, the cornerstone of the whole structure [of apartheid]. Sash has a broad vision of the system because of its day-to-day work at the advice offices. Almost no lawyers understand it; they never handle these cases."

Duncan compiled the brochure You and the New Pass Laws, which was distributed to 50,000 black South Africans in the 1980s and was widely recognized as the definitive explanation of the devastating implications of the pass laws which took from eight million black people the most basic civil rights. Spink notes that, no longer able to claim a share to the land and wealth of South Africa, blacks could be deported to the homelands, had no right to a South African passport, and were subject to arrest if caught in an urban area without a permit.

By the early 1980s, the tactics Duncan developed for addressing the inequities of the apartheid system were beginning to fail. In a 1983 interview with Joseph Lelyveld of The New York Times, Duncan admitted that she was "ready to give up work because she found that much of her time was either devoted to counseling those who were actually beyond her help or devising ways where people who have some rights can finally get them." The government had effectively closed many of the loopholes in the pass laws with new legislation, and Black Sash found it could no longer make a real difference in the lives of the blacks who sought assistance against many types of discrimination.

After the government rescinded the pass laws in 1986 by passing even more restrictive legislation, Duncan refocused her political tactics on organizing the successful 1986 "Free the Children" campaign to release more than 1,000 black children aged 10 to 17 from prisons. She noted, "There is more concern voiced for pets on state-run radio than for children." Black Sash estimated that at least 8,000 children were imprisoned during the nationwide State of Emergency in the first year, 1986. Duncan's organization delivered food to children in jail and organized national and international pressure to release them.

Regarding the main function of Black Sash as political pressure, "which we carry out through educating the black community," Duncan rededicated her efforts in the post-pass laws era to providing free legal advice at several Black Sash office locations around South Africa. Michael Getler of The Washington Post described Duncan's downtown Johannesburg office in 1987: "Scores of black people fill a small complex of offices while the overflow crowd lines up patiently in the corridor and down the steps from the offices of Sheena Duncan…. More than 16,000 persons were helped here last year, an estimated 30,000 nationwide." Goodwin adds, "Duncan sits at a small table…. At her side, a black woman trans lates. In one afternoon she dealt with these issues: how to obtain pensions; how to transfer a house to a child; how to get one's name on the 22,000 person waiting list for a house in Soweto; women who need help because their husbands have deserted them." Duncan's work with women was widespread. She reported to Lipman: "In the South African Council of Churches we find as we go about the country with our work that women are often the strongest members of a local community, so that most of my work in the Council lies in teaching women's groups. You do find that the people involved at the grass roots in the rural areas tend to be women…. There's a sort of power of endurance in women…. Their sense of close responsibility for their children doesn't appear to be so easily destroyed by the dreadful social conditions."

One of Black Sash's central goals was to reach the white South African community without resorting to violence. "I am a staunch pacifist," said Duncan to Spink, "whose avowed aim is to find non-violent ways in which power can be transferred to the powerless, not out of any desire for the defeat or subjugation of the currently powerful, but in the true longing for a society in which equal distribution of powers would lead to peace and justice preserved in that creative tension which exists between conflicting interests of equal strengths."

Duncan credited her religious nature with her commitment to improving the circumstances of those not born to privilege. The church in South Africa, however, was not always a source of strength for her. "I was a child during the Second World War," she remarked to Goodwin. "I remember the glamour of uniforms…. And today, Christianity props up the system…. The church supports all sorts of militaristic functions in our society. The church prays for our white soldiers, but there is no suggestion that blacks on the other side are also Christian youth in need of our prayers." Perhaps it was this ultimate betrayal of her faith by the South African church that led Duncan in her 1986 presidential address to the Black Sash national conference to reveal a change in her position on civil disobedience. Spink reprinted part of her speech:

I believe that there is one small hope left in South Africa and that lies in those political movements and black communities who have withdrawn and are withdrawing their cooperation from the apartheid state. The withdrawal of cooperation entails civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is not to be taken lightly but only in deep respect for the idea of law. All societies need a framework of law in which people can know what it is to be free. It is the law which is necessary to uphold justice and democracy and peace in free societies. Civil disobedience must not be entered into when the law can offer redress. It is a last resort. In South Africa the law does not offer redress for the many gross violations of civil liberties and human rights which are part of the laws of this country.

The printed version of Duncan's speech was seized by the South African police before it could be distributed to the public.


Duncan, Sheena. "Forced Removals Mean Genocide." in Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa. NY: Basic Books, 1989, pp. 312–328.

——. "The Rights of Ordinary People," in Values Alive: A Tribute to Helen Suzman. Edited by Robin Lee. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1990, pp. 53–61.

Gastrow, Shelagh. "Sheena Duncan" in Who's Who in South African Politics. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985, pp. 78–80.

Getler, Michael. "Scenes of Irony Abound in a Land Defined by Race: Blacks and Whites Inhabit Two Worlds," in The Washington Post. February 11, 1987.

Gilliam, Dorothy. "Apartheid Resistance," in The Washington Post. July 29, 1985.

Goodwin, June. Cry Amandla! South African Women and the Question of Power. NY: Africana Publishing, 1984 (see especially chapter 14).

Hornsby, Michael. "Resistance Born from the Death of a Constitution," in The Times (Johannesburg). January 31, 1986.

Lelyveld, Joseph. "A White Women's Group Counters Apartheid," in The New York Times. February 27, 1983.

Lipman, Beata. "Sheena Duncan." in We Make Freedom: Women in South Africa. London: Pandora Press, 1984, pp. 131–135.

Moberg, Peggy Dye. "Sheena Duncan," in Christian Science Monitor. October 31, 1985.

"Sheena Duncan." Washington Post. July 28, 1985.

Spink, Kathryn. Black Sash: The Beginning of a Bridge in South Africa. London: Methuen, 1991.

Tucher, Andie. "Human Rights: South African Women Fight Apartheid," in Inter Press Service. October 11, 1985.

suggested reading:

Lazar, Carol (photographs by Peter Magubane). Women of South Africa: Their Fight for Freedom. Boston: Bulfinch Press (Little, Brown), 1993.

Lazerson, Joshua. Against the Tide: Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Walker, Cherryl. Women and Resistance in South Africa. London: Onyx Press, 1982.

related media:

"Women of South Africa" (2-part series), produced by Britain's Channel 4 (interview with Sheena Duncan in "Part 2: South Africa Belongs to Us"), 1986.

Kearsley Alison Stewart , Lecturer, Department of Anthropology and Women's Studies Program, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Duncan, Sheena (1932—)

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