An historical analysis of aspects of the Black Sash, 1955-2001

Benjamin, Eileen (2004-12)

Thesis (MA (History))--University of Stellenbosch, 2004.


In this research the early development of the Black Sash is briefly explored, together with how it altered over time. Changes in the internal structures and its effect on the membership are benchmarked, together with the reasons and reasoning that compelled the organization to undertake a complete restructuring. An in-depth study is made of the disorientation brought about by the collapse of apartheid. Particular attention is paid to the resistance to, and ultimate acceptance of, the inevitability of offering a professionalized service. Attention is focused on the relationship between the Black Sash as a white women’s protest movement and the wider white community, content in the main to support apartheid. The degree to which the Black Sash was accepted by the black community as an equal partner in the struggle for a democratic South Africa is discussed and the criteria by which the organization has been evaluated. In addition, liberalism, per se, is evaluated from a “grassroots” perspective. From 1973, socio-economic developments in the wider society saw many Black Sash members returning to the workplace. This left them with little or no time to offer the organization during formal working hours. In order for the work to continue, paid staff had to be employed to augment the volunteer component. During the 1986 States of Emergency, members of banned organizations joined the Black Sash, and it became an amalgam of different views, generations and political opinion. This represented a significant ontological shift and altered its character in the eyes of the public, but also created internal fissures. The focus of this research is on the response of the Black Sash and its membership to the changing environment in which it was forced to function. By the 1980s, members were finding it difficult to relate to the new protest movements that were rapidly gaining black support and the black on black violence. Ultimately, except for its service arm, namely the advice offices, it emerged as an organization in limbo, appealing neither to the white minority nor the black majority. Women from other race groups, whose membership would have corrected the demographic imbalance, were reluctant to join a predominantly white organization with a tangible camaraderie, built up over the years as a result of members’ shared backgrounds and experiences. This threatened its effectiveness as an advocacy group, and access to the funding that was a vital element in its survival. Structural changes offered the only solution. One of the intentions of this research is to draw attention to the reinvented Black Sash Trust. As a multi-racial, multi-gender, professionalized NGO, managed and staffed by salaried personnel of all age groups, with minimal white volunteer input, it has replaced the two-tiered membership based structure, with a semiprofessional service arm. Having redefined its role and as the end product of slow, almost imperceptible but unavoidable innovations over time, it is developing its own identity, which encompasses much of the original Black Sash ethos.

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