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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Book launch – Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer

Join author Jonathan Ancer in conversation with author, journalist and tweet writer, Gus Silber discussing Craig Williamson, the apartheid ‘super-spy’ turned killer.

Event Details

  • Date: Wednesday, 26 April 2017
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: Love Books, The Bamboo Lifestyle Centre, 53 Rustenburg Road, Melville, Johannesburg. | Map
  • RSVP: Savannah Lucas, Jacana Media,, 011 628 3200

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Want to learn how to write non-fiction? Join the Writing Masterclass with Christa Kuljian at Bridge Books


Join us for Jacana Media’s new series of Masterclasses for aspiring writers.

Christa Kuljian, author of Darwin’s Hunch and Sanctuary, will present the Masterclass at Bridge Books and share her insights on writing, non-fiction writing in particular.

Contact Bridge Books or visit for details.

Event Details

  • Date: Thursday, 30 March 2017
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: Bridge Books, 85 Commissioner Street, Johannesburg
  • Guest Speaker: Christa Kuljian
  • Cover charge: R150
  • (includes a copy of her book)

  • RSVP:, 079 708 4461,


  • Darwin's HunchBook details

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    The Road to Soweto – commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising

    The Road to SowetoNew from Jacana Media – The Road to Soweto: Resistance and the Uprising of 16 June 1976 by Julian Brown:

    The struggle of a student generation continues.

    2016, a year of recollection and remembrance – it is 40 years after the Soweto Uprisings, a date that marks a significant shift in the struggle against apartheid, but it is the year where a generation of so-called “born frees” are again fighting for access to education.

    In the four decades since the Soweto Uprising, a consensus account of the politics of the mid-1970s, and the role of Soweto in them, has emerged. In this account, the Uprising arises out of a period of political quiescence. It is the moment of the emergence of a new generation of activists – mostly under the age of twenty years – who would go on to drive politics in the future. And it was the product of local resistance to national state policies and practices, shaped by the experiences of students in Soweto, of youth gangs in the neighbourhood and their contingent encounters with the police, and taken up nationally. This consensus story sees the Soweto Uprising as a solitary moment of transition, from apartheid hegemony to popular resistance.

    The Road to Soweto begins by giving an account of the decade that preceded the Soweto Uprising of June 1976 that not only transforms our understanding of this crucial flashpoint of South Africa’s history, but also creates a longer, more evolutionary, historical narrative for the overthrow of apartheid. It argues that the suppression of opposition movements after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 did not lead to a period of “quiescence”, as many writers maintain, in which activists retreated into private acts of dissent and the opposition went underground, followed, a decade later, by a sudden eruption of the townships, first in Soweto, and then across the country. Rather, these years were marked by experiments in resistance and attempts to develop new forms of politics which prepared the ground for the uprising in Soweto, introducing new modes of organisation, new models of protest, and new ideas of resistance, identity, and political ideology to a generation of activists. The explosion of protest in Soweto was a catalyst for the reshaping of South Africa’s politics and began the processes that led to the end of the apartheid order and the creation of the new post-apartheid state, but it did not do so in isolation.

    About the author

    Julian Brown is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Wits University. He is the author of South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics in South Africa (Jacana, 2015), as well as of a number of scholarly articles on South African politics, history and sociolegal studies. He completed a DPhil in Modern History at the University of Oxford in 2009.

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    Nelson Mandela’s life in brief: Latest Jacana Pocket Biography by Colin Bundy launched with Ronnie Kasrils

    Colin Bundy

    The launch of the latest in the Jacana pocket biography series took place in early December when the highly respected historian and academic Colin Bundy presented his most recent book, A Jacana Pocket Biography: Nelson Mandela at The Book Lounge.

    Ronnie Kasrils and Colin BundyA Jacana Pocket Biography: Nelson MandelaThe author was joined in a fascinating conversation with Ronnie Kasrils, the former freedom fighter and Minister for Intelligence Services who wrote the prize-winning memoir, The Unlikely Secret Agent.

    Kasrils described the book as “eminently well done” while highlighting the challenge that the demands of brevity imposed upon an author. He cited the letter Karl Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann where he says: “I’m begging your pardon with my letter because of the length… You see I’m in a hurry and I haven’t had time to make it more succinct.”

    Bundy reflected on the fortuitous nature of the project that made it easier in some regards than his previous book, Govan Mbeki: A Jacana Pocket Biography. Because Mandela’s life was so widely documented he could leave out some of the widely known facts and “go for the telling details, the anecdote that nailed the subject, leaving plenty of room for opinion as well as detail …”

    For well over an hour a passionate discussion on the life of the first president of a democratic South Africa held everyone in the audience enthralled. The speakers explored the dramatic political changes that occurred at the time of Mandela’s liberation and election, weighed the decisions that were taken at the time and considered the spontaneous unfolding of events that occurred some 20 years ago. Kasrils reflected on the legacy of remembrance, noting that Mandela became the face of the ANC on his 60th birthday when people around the world flooded the postmaster at Robben Island with postcards.

    “This began the process of his becoming an icon and the personification of the struggle, shifting the awareness from the 10 Rivonia trialists to a single face, that ultimately became larger than life.”

    In Bundy’s view, icons are a short cut to understanding that help people formulate their thinking. He said:

    The South African drama played out in the full glare of the world media. What made their job a little easier was that it came with a ready made hero. Since 1978 there had been an accretion of symbolism around his absence. His silence reverberated. Then on 11 February 1990, suddenly the myth became man. There he was, beautifully dressed. We remember the famous iconic photo where he stands hand in hand with Winnie. The next morning he gives that rather exhausted address from Cape Town City Hall balcony.

    The next morning he meets over 200 local and international journalists in the garden at Tutu’s mansion. The press conference lasts two hours. Every time a journalist puts up his hand, Mandela would recognise him and say, ‘Oh, I read your article in so-and-so …’ but more than that, he did this extraordinary thing that later became so familiar to us: that mixture of gravitas, dignity, self deprecating humour, and very careful balance. At the end of that press conference, 200 hard-bitten journalists swallow their objectivity, forgot that they were reporters, and stood up to applaud the man.

    Bundy noted that this was a particularly significant moment that was about myth, a sudden icon, and an icon living up to a degree of what was expected of him. “It foretold a lot of what came later, his position as anointed leader, his willingness to adopt that position and to speak for the movement,” he said.

    Kasrils suggested there was an element of the confident play actor in this moment, that Mandela knew he had people eating out of his hand. “Because he could afford to be that modest one has to ask whether it was genuine,” he continued.

    Bundy pinpoints 1978 as the moment when a conscious myth-making began about Mandela:

    It’s also the moment when regulations on Robben Island become more relaxed. From 1979 onwards, Mandela wrote daily on big full page calendars. Over the years, Mandela logs various peace prizes, honorary doctorates and external affirmations of his position of leadership.

    He’s very consumed with the realisation that he will have to live up to the expectations. He senses fully what they are. He spoke from Cape Town saying, ‘I’m here as a servant of the people’, but he’s very consciously adopting a leadership role.

    Kasrils reflected on the fall out on Robben Island between two groups of ANC leaders that left Govan Mbeki and Nelson Mandela in a locked position, where issues of temperament and personality were involved. Mandela was one of “a pantheon of capable leaders” but his leadership was contested by Govan Mbeki. Kasrils said, “While none could compete with his stature, he was a boring speaker … but by God they deferred to his leadership! He was the messiah. Not just of the ordinary people, but of those with money, those that fix things, the corporate world, here and internationally. He was the answer to their prayers.”

    Another fascinating turn taken in the discussion between Bundy and Kasrils was the mention of An Inconvenient Youth by Fiona Forde. Kasrils reflected on the issue of how Julius Malema touches a raw nerve calling Mandela a sell-out. “He’s a rough diamond. He makes people think. You might not like what he says …”

    Bundy said that Malema did not invent a criticism of Mandela:

    In 1993 a young black truck driver told Jeremy Cronin that the real Mandela had been killed in prison, that his lookalike had been coached for years until he was ready to be released and that was the man they could do business with.

    It’s a nice fable but when Mandela is in his prime, in the run up to the elections and as president, it became very difficult for people to voice their criticism. Once he was ailing and very old the occasional, usually partisan critique was expressed. So vehement was the media and State disapproval that few could offer their dissent.

    Zakes Mda, an independent minded author, wrote an obituary that lacked the reverence dripping from the obituaries. He wrote: ‘There is an increasingly vocal segment of black South Africans who feel that Mandela sold out the liberation struggle to white interests.’

    Bundy also cited the composer Neo Muyanga saying that the criticism of Mandela is kind of code for black anger at white South Africans, positing the question: If Mandela is so sacrosanct for whites, must he not be suspect in some way?

    In Bundy’s view, Malema caused such a furore because he is criticising something beyond himself and the EFF. “The last six months, Rhodes Must Fall, and particularly during Fees Must Fall, has seen youth and student activists increasingly distancing themselves from the 1994 settlement and therefore, from Mandela, because he is so closely associated with it,” Bundy said.

    “Fees Must Fall has potentially been the moment where the ANC loses the allegiance of better educated, urban Born Frees. That scares the political party rigid. It certain should,” he said.

    “It’s because Malema is voicing those undercurrents, that kind of sussuration of discontent that echoes with Africanist impatience, that have made his remarks so combustible!” Of particular significance was the parallel drawn between Julius Malema and the young Nelson Mandela.

    Kasrils believed it was vital to assess the context in which the changes took place between 1990 and 1994:

    There’s aspects of Mandela’s life with which we are all very well acquainted. Everybody was petrified that we were looking into the abyss as we faced Boipatong and the ‘Third Force’.

    Nobody thought or imagined that the leviathan National Party was moving towards universal franchise. We then have a Mandela – in brilliance – who is able to bring round those of us who didn’t believe. He was absolutely correct. It was possible. In retrospect it is easy to see how the barons of industry emerged intact. Because we didn’t have a grip on economic controls, we have not been able to deal with poverty, with rubbish education and health. Therefore, you put it off, when the chickens come home to roost, they’re as big as turkeys!

    Bundy reflected on the critique of the “sellout”. There’s a fascinating way in which that individualised and personalised critique is a mirror image of the lionisation of Mandela as the saviour. “They’re both historically barren and mythic. Mandela’s key role was symbolic. More than any other single politician he voiced the aspiration of the black, disenfranchised majority, and at the same time, he assured white South Africans that they were part of the future. Obviously, he didn’t do it on his own. He did it because there were very strong intellectual, political, social, local and international forces driving those decisions.”

    Bundy and Kasrils noted that the economics were overlooked:

    Mandela was not an economist. On 11 February he said we’ll nationalise the banks and the land and everything else in a speech written by a committee. By the time he gets to Davos 18 months later, he personally removes nationalisation from the agenda, but he was moving in step with the leadership of the party, and in particular, the exiled leadership.

    By that time they’ve bought into an acceptance of the need to compromise, specially on issues of the economy. Mandela’s role was twofold. First, he was personally susceptible to the blandishments, flattery and persuasion and arguments of capitalists. Malema’s right. If Madiba is lunching at Brenthurst, why shouldn’t the ANC executive?

    The dire situation South Africa now faces is a measure of the truth that “the chickens are coming home to roost”. Of particular prescience was Kasrils’ “mea culpa”. He repeated a number of times the deep regret that he did not stand up to Mandela on the importance of addressing poverty via economic remedies.

    This was an evening to remember and those who were present benefited hugely from hearing this eloquent, passionate and well informed dialogue.


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    Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:



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    Criminals were Subversive to the Normal Regime – Nigel Penn Launches Murderers, Miscreants and Mutineers

    Nigel Penn

    The latest exciting publication exploring the quirkiest characters in our colonial history comes from master storyteller, Nigel Penn. The launch of Murderers, Miscreants and Mutineers: Early Colonial Cape Lives took place at The Book Lounge where history buffs mingled to enjoy a terrific evening of fascinating anecdotes. Penn was joined in conversation by his colleague, Vivian Bickford-Smith.

    The author, who is a professor of history studies at the University of Cape Town, also wrote the award-winning Rogues, Rebels and Runaways and The Forgotten Frontier.

    Nigel Penn and Vivian Bickford-SmithMurderers, Miscreants and MutineersThe Book Lounge owner Mervyn Sloman introduced the speakers, praising the readability of Penn’s writing.

    Sloman cited Murderers, Miscreants and Mutineers as particularly suitable for those erstwhile students of history who had “issues” with the subject and loathed reading dry and dusty narratives. “This book is for everyone. It’s patently evident how much Nigel enjoys writing about his subject, which is sex and violence.”

    Bickford-Smith took over the mic, peering across the crowded room with a curious expression on his face. “It’s an honour to be here, but I have to wonder how many murderers, miscreants and mutineers are sitting in the audience tonight.” Those in the audience soon learned that the colonies attracted some undesirable characters, so it was not too far a stretch to imagine that some had remained to attend the celebratory launch. In a similar vein, the author wondered aloud whether anyone present at the gathering self-identified with the title.

    On a more serious note, Penn paid tribute to the meticulous scholarship of his editor and publisher, Russell Martin, whose keen eye and vigorous support had enriched his own books and many other South African publications. He also spoke about the interface between the landscape and the topic of his research, saying, “Wherever I am on the face of the planet I like to interrogate my immediate circumstances and ask about what happened here in the layers of the history. In the case of South African history so little has been written and so much is yet to do. When you think about the Cape hinterland, the Cape interior, you find some of the most diverse and magnificent scenery in the world – the Karoo, the mountains, the desolate and majestic landscapes that present themselves to the eye.”

    Bickford-Smith observed that geography had a great explanatory role in the history that Penn had written. “Theorists about landscape and issues of representation posit a tension between the observer and the observed, a dialogue, or dialectic that goes on between them,” Penn said, adding that contemplating the landscape served as a stimulus to his imagination.

    “In the Cape mountains are rock faces, ravines and secret retreats containing rock art. One of the great and provocative questions that the landscape put to me was an attempt to try recording the history of the people who put that rock art on this landscape. The Forgotten Frontier was an attempt to recapture the history of those exterminated, or extinct people, who once inhabited the Cape landscape, but who no longer exist.

    The tyranny of distance made it possible for those who committed murder to get away with it, to escape. Penn spoke about wanting to write the story of someone he’d discovered in the pages of the archive. He soon realised that the best stories of the hidden people from the past usually appeared in the criminal records because of the detail they contain.

    “Some historians can write history from tax returns, the examination of tree rings, or long-term forces in history, and the great transnational themes. Hats off to them. I read and admire their work, but I enjoy trying to resurrect people who once existed and have been forgotten. The best place to find them is in the detailed narratives of most criminal records. Hence most of the subjects I write about have fallen foul of the law and attracted attention because of what they’d done – challenging and subverting normal practises of the routine banal surface of existence. They were deviant, subversive and challenging to the normal regime,” Penn said.

    Penn explained that, in many ways, the history of the world is the history of the contact by societies who once were discrete and separate, who then came together. The process of bringing people together is the frontier – we are all hybrids, mixtures, result of complicated interactions predicated on different modes of production. Frontier was place of possibility for freedom from racial oppression, slavery and economic systems.

    Penn was at pains to emphasise that the colony was not always a benign place. “Genocide and massacre happened. Power issues of the day were sorted out this way, as were the labour relations, and who owned the land. It remains an important formative agent in development of the country.”

    There is much riveting material awaiting those who have not yet picked up a copy of Murderers, Miscreants and Mutineers – a fascinating and rich source of information for those who find themselves captivated by the history and geography of the Mother City.


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    Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:



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    Join Mary Burton for the Launch of The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace in Durban

    Invitation to the launch of The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace

    The Black Sash: Women for Justice and PeaceThe Black Sash Durban Regional Office and Jacana Media invite you to the launch of The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace by Mary Ingouville Burton.

    Burton will talk about her book, which captures the fascinating slice of South Africa’s struggle history, on Monday, 21 September, at Archies Café in the Diakonia Centre in Durban.

    The conversation will start at 12:30 for 1 PM, and afterwards books will be on sale, courtesy of Cedric of Adams Books.

    The Black Sash tells the story of how privileged, white women contributed to the fall of apartheid.

    Don’t miss it!

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    “We Have to Know Each Others’ Histories”: Mary Burton Launches The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace

    Mary Burton

    A large audience gathered at The Book Lounge on a chilly August evening to listen to Mary Ingouville Burton, long-time president of the Black Sash and a former commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

    Mervyn Sloman, who owns the shop, suggested that the spontaneous and uncharacteristic hush that fell upon those gathered was a mark of incredible respect for the author on the occasion of the launch of her book, The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace.

    Sloman said the book told the history of the organisation that Nelson Mandela described as “the conscience of white South Africa”. Many who had known and admired Burton – and some who had stood beside her in the quest for justice and peace in South Africa’s relatively recent history – were there to raise a glass to the book’s successful publication.

    Mary Burton and Mervyn SlomanThe Black Sash“I found it incredibly informative. The anecdotal style that permeates the writing makes for easy reading. It’s a book that enables you to get a sense of witnessing a lot of what went on in the Sash. I recommend it very highly,” Sloman said.

    Sloman noted that Burton had recently been appointed an honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies, which had created the space that facilitated the author to write the book which had taken more than a dozen years of research.

    Burton recalled first thinking about writing the book when the Black Sash changed its structure and became a different kind of organisation. Having perceived the need for the history to be recorded, she then felt it as a duty. She mentioned the enormous repository of archival material she had in her home, confessing that she was “a terrible hoarder!”

    She discussed the fascinating research that went into writing the book, including recorded interviews with former members of the organisation and combing the archives at Wits University where the personal papers of some of the founding members are stored. “I thought it would be an easy book to write because I knew the organisation so well, but it became progressively more difficult because as I gathered a huge amount of material I became more anxious about my capacity to tell the story of the organisation,” she said.

    Burton travelled widely to talk to those who had been active in the organisation. She recalled doing a group interview in the home of Judy Chalmers in Port Elizabeth. “All the wonderful stories and the memories came tumbling out. Those voice recordings are now available for future researchers,” she said.

    Describing the papers in the Wits archive as “a fantastic load of South African history” she reflected on the privilege and gift of the Black Sash history: “We were working with people who were literate and who were interested, many of them writers or journalists, or people who studied what we were working on. The documents are valuable and are part of our history. Many other organisations were on the run and couldn’t keep their documents safe. This is part of the contribution we make to South African history.”

    Sloman asked about how she had known when to stop. “There were so many wonderful stories – of great ingenuity and great courage – that I had to gather, and then prune. I think there is a bias in the book towards the early members. I ran out of space and time to use more information on the members from the later years,” she said. Sloman’s only criticism was that there was not much of the author in the book. He said, “I expected more of Mary in it!”

    For her, the intention was to focus on the women who made the organisation what it was. Initially her goal was to write an academic treatise about the history. “It was not about me,” she said and yet the group of writers who met at the Grail insisted that she put her own voice into the book. This was not an easy process, but one she did to enable the reader to connect with the text more fully.

    Burton commented on the new generation of South Africans who know very little about the country’s history of the last 60 years. “It’s only now starting to be taught in schools. If we are going to build a more united country, we have to know each others’ histories,” she said.

    The audience engaged with the author in a deep and penetrating question and answer session, followed by a long queue of readers who waited for Burton to sign their copies of The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace.

    For those of you who missed the launch, download and listen to the podcast, made available by The Book Lounge.

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    Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:



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    Dagga: A Short History by Hazel Crampton – A Book Sure to Ignite Debate

    Dagga: A Short HistoryJacana Media is proud to present a book set to ignite debate on emerging issues such as licensing, legalisation and taxation of dagga in South Africa – Dagga: A Short History by Hazel Crampton:

    “In a world stalked by biltong, Hazel Crampton’s latest literary cultivation is an enthralling and educative reminder of another enduring South African staple. Her pioneering short exploration of dagga displays a fine eye for telling detail, covers a lot of ground at an enjoyably brisk pace, and satisfies the reader’s inquisitiveness in all kinds of knowledgeable as well as unexpected ways. This gem of a book is enough to make you flap your wings.” – Professor Bill Nasson, Department of History, Stellenbosch University.

    Dagga: A Short History is a conversation piece, a witty and thought-provoking overview of dagga in South Africa, its origins, background as a legal drug, and later criminalisation. An entertaining and informative take on the law and the current medical debate, it is an essential contribution to emerging issues such as licensing, legalisation and taxation.

    About the author

    Hazel Crampton is the author of the bestselling The Sunburnt Queen (Jacana, 2004), The Side of the Sun at Noon (Jacana, 2014), and co-editor of Into the Hitherto Unknown: Ensign Beutler’s Expedition to the Eastern Cape, 1752 (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 2013).

    Dagga: A Short History (then, now and just now) is her fourth book. Hazel is an artist and lives in Grahamstown.

    Praise for The Sunburnt Queen

    Crampton’s style is compelling … as a reader, I was invited to delight, to analyse, to contemplate, to speculate, to critique – what more could one ask of such a text? – Wordstock, National Arts Festival

    Praise for The Side of the Sun at Noon

    The Side of the Sun at Noon is a perfect read for fans of South African history and is packed with facts and interesting information about historical events in our country’s story of the mysterious Chobona and the young fascinating Eva. – Sarah Beningfield

    Crampton is a historian with unique sensibility who writes unique books. – Professor Jeff Peires

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    Mary Burton’s The Black Sash Commemorates “The Silent Sisterhood that Haunted a Government”

    The silent sisterhood that haunted a government

    The Black Sash50 years after joining the organisation, Mary Burton has written The Black Sash: Women for Justice and Peace (Jacana Media), a book on the organisation’s history and contribution to democracy. Its release will coincide with activities around Women’s Month.

    Burton’s first Black Sash protest stand was in Kalk Bay on a fine day in 1965, after the government had threatened to proclaim the historic fishing village “white” under the Group Areas Act. Poster in hand, Burton and a group of women stood silently alongside the main road, black sashes draped across their bodies, the target of jeers – and the occasional murmur of encouragement.

    She recalls how the background sound of the waves and the cries of fishermen bringing in their catch had underscored the “cruelty and stupidity” of breaking up the lives of those who depended on the sea for their livelihood.

    Raised in Argentina, Burton joined the Black Sash barely four years after arriving here in 1961, the year South Africa left the Commonwealth. She was newly married to South African Geoffrey Burton, whom she had had met while studying in London.

    She recalls how hard it was for her to process the apartheid system. Although she worked at the Service Dining Rooms’ soup kitchen for indigent people, she realised far more was needed. But it was the magnitude and significance of the Group Areas Act in particular that galvanised her into joining the Black Sash.

    “In later years, protest stands and marches were restricted and prohibited, and breaking the rules led to attacks and arrests for many,” she said. “Black Sash women stood in all parts of the country in lone vigil, holding their posters, using the last bit of legal space left to them.

    “And even when those single stands were legal, the women were often subjected to abuse and intimidation.”

    New Book on Black Sash

    Generations of women have been the backbone of an organisation Nelson Mandela once called “the conscience of white South Africa”.

    Writing on the Sash’s 60th anniversary, Daily Maverick journalist Marianne Thamm recounts the organisation’s beginnings in 1955 “over a cup of tea by six middle-class white women outraged by the then-government’s attempts to remove ‘coloured’ citizens from the voter’s roll”.

    These women launched the Black Sash’s forerunner, the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League. Their key strategies were “silent sisterhood” and “blacksashing” (wearing a black sash) during silent protest vigils. (The name “Black Sash” was adopted as a reference to the sashes they wore or draped over a replica of the 1910 constitution, which robbed the majority of South Africans of the right to vote.)

    This silent protest included “haunting” cabinet ministers; standing at the entrances of places they were expected to appear – railway stations, airports, or official functions. In Parliament’s public gallery, the women were forced to remove the sashes, but devised ways of replacing them – for instance, by wearing long black gloves – infuriating National Party members when they glanced up. Outside Parliament, others stood with bent heads, holding placards protesting against unjust laws.

    Hands-on activists

    The group was also hands-on, grappling with the actualities of racial segregation, influx control, migrant labour, censorship, detention without trial, and the states of emergency.

    For Burton, three areas stand out.

    First, the Sash advice offices worked to meet the daily needs of thousands of people, initially under the pass laws and later under the burden of poverty and deprivation.

    Second, the protest and advocacy work helped keep alive the public voice of opposition to injustice.

    “For decades, this had demonstrated in a tangible way the view of white people who were prepared to stand against apartheid.”

    And third, the group was determined to spotlight how poverty and violence affected women’s lives.

    During the 1970s there was growing interest in Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, and many white liberals were concerned about the dangers of nationalism, whether black or white, says Burton.

    “Yet Black Sash members worked with Steve Biko and the Black Community Programmes, and saw in the movement the value of developing independence and self-worth in the quest for liberation.”

    Personal Story

    The publisher’s blurb describes the book as “a story of hard work and dedication, of small victories won little by little against the odds, of personal courage in the face of injustice and repression, of vision, compassion and caring. It is a uniquely South African story”.

    Burton’s personal story is closely entwined.

    “Joining the Black Sash influenced the course of my life.”

    For one, it brought her to UCT in 1979 as a mature student (she was 39).

    “One of the most important realisations was that I did not know enough about South African history and political theory.”

    She took four majors: political science, comparative African law, social anthropology – and English, “for the sheer love of it”.

    “I went back to the Black Sash much better equipped to play my part in it.”

    She was its national president in the tumultuous years between 1986 and 1990. The State of Emergency was in force; the ANC had put out the call to make the townships ungovernable, and there were rolling national school boycotts.

    “The Black Sash found itself swept up in the mounting pressure for an end to apartheid, and played its part in protesting, monitoring and recording the drastic response from the authorities,” Burton commented.

    “In the increasing violence, the Sash longed for peace, but understood that this meant working for justice. A new generation of members joined the older ones, but numbers remained small.”

    As the work of the advice offices continued to grow, new outreaches carried their work into the wider field, opposing the forced removals of settled communities; even those far from the urban areas.

    Redefined role after 1994

    In the year after South Africa’s watershed elections, Burton took on a new role: one of 17 commissioners on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, serving on its Human Rights Committee.

    It was then that she began thinking about writing a history of the Sash; many NGOs were redefining their roles in a changing society.

    She had a vast collection of documents and newspapers that she augmented with records from the UCT and Wits archives, and recorded interviews with Black Sash members around the country.

    In 2008, thanks to Professor Brenda Cooper, Burton became an honorary research associate in the Centre for African Studies (CAS), first under Cooper’s directorship and then under Professor Harry Garuba.

    “This allowed me to deal with the mass of my accumulated papers, and to benefit from the contact with staff and students of the CAS.”

    But the book is not only a chronicle. Burton saw that the Sash’s metamorphosis over six decades could serve as a model for other NGOs.

    “I thought it would be useful to describe the often agonising process the Black Sash went through in 1994, resulting in the closure in 1995 of the membership-driven, broad-focus movement, and its replacement by a tighter, professionally managed advice office and advocacy organisation.

    “I still think it is amazing that the process worked – and that the Black Sash continues its work today.”

    * * * * * * * *

    The article was originally published in Monday Monthly, a publication at the University of Cape Town, and is reproduced with permission.

    Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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