South African activist speaks out for black rights

Sheena Duncan looks you in the eye, laughs at herself, and talks about her country, South Africa, without turning bitter. Ms. Duncan is president of the Black Sash, a 1,500-woman anti-apartheid group in South Africa. For 23 years she has put her skills to work against apartheid, and recently she spoke at a reception in her honor at the Church Center for the United Nations.

Ms. Duncan stopped at the UN on one night of a three-week lobbying mission whose aim, she said, is to ``urge Americans to keep the pressure up on South Africa with economic sanctions.''

To the 100 people at the reception, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, Women for Racial and Economic Equality, the Quaker UN Office, and the United Methodist Church, Duncan described police whips, arrests of whole schools of black children, incommunicado jail detentions, and other methods the South African government has used to repress opposition.

When someone asked, ``Aren't you afraid?'' she said nothing for a moment. Then her voice -- which has a British accent, without the clipped ends of sentences -- carried over the speaker's lectern. ``Being white is one protection,'' she said. ``Being a woman is another. We are not taken seriously by the government, and we take advantage of that.'' Touching her blond hair going silver, she added, ``And being middle-aged helps, since the young are always suspect.''

Duncan then stressed the serious points that she had been hammering on throughout her trip on the East Coast:

``You Americans must understand that in South Africa the issue is not civil rights. People in the states equate apartheid with the kind of race discrimination you had in this country. That is a very wrong impression.

``There is a fundamental difference between your Constitution and ours. Your Constitution guarantees civil rights. In our country that is totally lacking. We have no bill of rights or constitutional protections. Rather, the purpose of apartheid -- and it is built right into the Constitution -- is to deny blacks political power.''

Since blacks won't stand for this denial of political participation any longer, Duncan foresees South Africa plunging into a ``situation of violence like Northern Ireland, continuing for decades,'' unless, that is, the white ruling party yields.

As a way out, Duncan says that ``the whole Constitution based on apartheid has to be rewritten from scratch,'' with power transferred into a democratic government where ``the majority of decisions would be made by blacks.''

This white woman speaking for South African black power is an Episcopalian of Scottish descent, born and raised in Johannesburg with a nanny from Scotland. In her childhood she was surrounded by black servants.

In an interview, Duncan talked about why she doesn't support the system that supported her privileged upbringing, about life under apartheid, the Black Sash, and what Americans can do to hasten the end of apartheid.

``I cannot remember a time when I was not against apartheid,'' she explained. ``I was brought up in a house where the concept of justice was very strong. In our house the servants were people rather than a presence who cleaned up after you.

``My Christianity was also a strand. The gospel demands that you heal the sick, feed the hungry, and visit the prisons. That means more than running soup kitchens. It means curing the reasons for the sick and the hungry. Our government claims we are a Christian country. Our constitutional preamble begins, `In humble submission to Almighty God,' and that means we are making certain claims.''

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,'' she said. ``Later, in the 1950s, Sophiatown was torn down because it was too close to the white area,'' she continued. ``Sophiatown's white bishop, Trevor Huddleston [a longtime anti-apartheid activist], made that a public issue. When it was announced that all t he houses would be knocked down and all the people moved, it meant something to me.''

The Black Sash has worked against forced removal of blacks since the founding of the group in 1955. The women have also advised blacks on their rights under apartheid laws, helped blacks gain access to the world media, organized protest demonstrations, and researched facts and figures on apartheid to convince local business people and the international community that the system must go. In addition, ``the current movement by young white males to resist conscription was started by white middle-aged femal es of the Black Sash,'' Duncan said.

What needs to be done to end apartheid is plain, in Duncan's view. The ruling white power must let go of its ``absolute control'' of two things: (1) the budget and government finances and (2) the land. ``Unless black people can vote for the central government which controls those most important resources, the blacks really lack political power. Actually, blacks have taxation without representation. We use the American slogan quite often -- no taxation without representation!''

Above all, said Duncan, ``there is no way there can be the needed change of the Constitution or negotiations politically without the release of Nelson Mandela and the other political prisoners, and the unbanning of the African National Congress. These are the people who would be involved in the negotiations.''

Duncan was blunt about what Americans can do. ``Apartheid has always been in the interests of profit,'' she said. ``I'm very much against the kind of capitalism we have in South Africa -- a very exploitative, a very much monopoly capitalism.'' She sees US economic sanctions against South Africa as a step in the right direction.

``It puts the businesses [of South Africa] in the position where profits are not to be made. When the banks refused to roll over our loans, and then President Reagan signed his executive order and the EEC [European Economic Community] countries came to an agreement on sanctions, that is what has galvanized our business community,'' she said.

Duncan urged further steps, such as ``no more loans to South Africa, stopping South Africa's landing rights, doing an arms embargo.'' She also said that Americans should demand release of political detainees, adding that ``it is important to attach a name to the detainees.''

The alternative? ``If the West relaxes pressures, I'm afraid we would enter a period that could last for decades, like the situation in Northern Ireland with the terrorist attacks. If you are against economic sanctions, you are actually condemning us to a cycle of violence.''

Of course, there are those who disagree with Duncan's advocacy of economic sanctions. John Chettle, Washington director of the South Africa Foundation, says that while he admires the work that the Black Sash organization has done in helping blacks ``lost in the maze'' of South Africa's apartheid laws, he believes that economic sanctions ``impede and hinder'' reform in that country. (The South Africa Foundation is an independent organization, funded by private enterprise, which disseminates informa tion on South Africa.)

The urging of sanctions, Mr. Chettle says, arouses South African nationalistic sentiment against being told what to do, making it harder to effect needed changes. He also believes Duncan imputes too much power to the private sector. Traditionally the business sector has been controlled by English-speaking South Africans, while the government is dominated by Afrikaners. To suppose that the business sector need only ``click its fingers'' and the government will jump is ``not the case,'' he says.

However, Gay McDougall, director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law (a human-rights organization based in Washington, D.C.), believes that ``the American public ought to take quite seriously'' what Duncan has to say about economic sanctions. She also puts the Black Sash at the top of her list of organizations that are helping blacks in South Africa.

Ms. McDougall cites the group's work in providing legal assistance and other care for blacks affected by forced removal from their homes. More recently, she says, the Black Sash has been active in documenting state violence in the townships.

Although the Black Sash is primarily an organization of women, Duncan pointed out that it is not a feminist movement and that men are now admitted as associate members. The group, at one time an all-white organization, is now open to all races. The group's name comes from the black sashes worn by early members as a ``sign of mourning for the rape of the Constitution'' when the nationalist government removed Coloreds from the voting rolls. The press called the members the Black Sash and the women kept th e title.

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