Black Sash's white women build bridge over apartheid wall

With each major blow to human rights, each assault on the rule of law, and each erosion of racial justice over the past 28 years in South Africa, they have stood by to mourn the occasion.

When the law permitted, mass marches and cross-country caravans were staged. Today they must stand solo, propping up placards of protest. But always there is dignity, and the trademark - a black sash draped across one shoulder.

That perseverance has made the Black Sash one of South Africa's most enduring , respected, and effective protest organizations. Although most of its members are white, it has built bridges to blacks across what appeared uncrossable chasms of legally enforced segregation and discrimination. Made up of women, the group has put feminism to work in a society still overtly partial to the opposite sex.

In a phase of South African history that most whites appear to perceive as one of ''reform,'' the Black Sash has been thrust to the forefront once again. President Sheena Duncan - daughter of one of the Sash's founders and the dominant force in the group over the past eight years - says the twin goals of helping blacks cope with what is, in fact, an increasingly oppressive system and debunking the myth of ''reform'' among whites have never been so urgent.

''We are finding that we have a great use right now,'' Mrs. Duncan said.

History seems to be testing anew the depth of the Black Sash's commitment. The group was formed in 1955 when the National Party manipulated the Constitution to exclude Coloreds (persons of mixed race) from the voting roll.

Today's ruling Nationalists are moving to give the franchise back to Coloreds as well as to Indians under a proposed new constitution. But the black majority would still be excluded.

However attractive broadening the vote may be, the Black Sash strongly opposes the proposal. The group detects the same end - albeit by different means - as that sought in 1955: to more deeply entrench apartheid.

As has been the case through most of its history, the Black Sash is swimming against the current of white opinion. Whites massively approved the constitution in a recent referendum.

Duncan concludes that whites were not duped, but got precisely what they want. ''They were voting 'yes' because they think this is a very clever way of maintaining white power while improving the lot of the Coloreds.''

Duncan is distressed at the vote and convinced the new constitution - which may still be put to a vote of Indian and Colored South Africans - would seriously worsen race relations in this country. But a self-avowed optimist, she is upbeat about a number of developments.

In her view, black politics is passing out of the ''black consciousness'' phase, with its emphasis on black self-assertion and exclusion of whites, into a more embracive phase. Duncan supported black consciousness and Black Sash tried to sensitize whites to black grievances. She is delighted to see blacks and whites working more closely together again.

''In our office now it is really exciting, people are buzzing in and out. There is a kind of unity not seen since the 'defiance campaign' of the early 1950s,'' she said, referring to the period when blacks and Coloreds launched a drive to defy apartheid laws through civil disobedience.

The emerging black activists of today are ''democrats in the true sense of the word. They aren't haters,'' Duncan says. She is encouraged by the organizational depth of new groups like the United Democratic Front - formed by blacks and Coloreds to oppose the new constitution - and by their toned-down rhetoric.

Standing in protest, with their sashes as symbols of mourning, is a small part of Black Sash activities these days, partly because outdoor political assembly is outlawed. Most of the Sash's energy is poured into helping blacks find their way through the warren of restrictions that govern almost every aspect of their lives, and exercise what rights they do have.

This work puts Sash workers in a unique position here. They know - as much as any white can - what it is like to be a black in this white-ruled society.

In the Johannesburg office alone, more than 12,000 cases were taken up last year. Highly complex legislation, often given misleading labels by the government, must be boiled down to essentials and understood in a way that can be clearly explained to the largely uneducated blacks who come to the Black Sash for guidance.

There are eight advice offices in the country, run voluntarily by Sash women, save for a few paid staffers.

Although she has no legal training, Duncan has distinguished herself in the translation of legislation and making sense of regulations. Academics, journalists, and attorneys routinely seek her expertise on how new legislation or regulations will affect blacks.

For instance, when the government unveiled its progressive-sounding ''Orderly Movement and Settlement of Black Persons'' bill in 1982 - which actually proposed a severe tightening of the pass laws here - it was the Sash that sounded the alarm. The legislation has been shelved but may be reintroduced.

Such experience has convinced Duncan that the South African government is is using subterfuge. The government speaks of reform and on some issues, if looked at in isolation, is acting in a mildly reformist manner, she says. But viewed in its entirety, she feels government policy is crafted to physically and politically exclude the majority of blacks from what is deemed ''white'' South Africa, while coopting and rigidly controlling the small segment of ''urban'' blacks who are needed in the economy.

The question often asked about South Africa is whether change that is taking place is real reform or just cosmetic. The answer, Duncan says, ''is neither.'' The changes are fundamental, but ''the aim is to make apartheid irreversible.''

Her view is regarded as extreme by most whites here. But even her critics concede her arguments are bolstered by an understanding of laws and regulations.

If there has been a criticism of the Black Sash over the years by more radical activists, it is that it has focused more on what some would call softening the harshness of apartheid than on providing a vision of the future.

''We have no illusion that (the Black Sash) is going to achieve democracy in this country. But we have a very important role to play,'' said Duncan.

The focus of the Black Sash stems from its firm philosophy of nonviolence. ''If you say you are committed to nonviolence, you have to demonstrate that there are other and more efficient ways of setting about winning rights,'' said Duncan.

Two cases of blacks trying to exercise their rights and being thwarted by bureaucracy have led to important court rulings upholding the rights of blacks. Both cases started in Black Sash offices.

The strategic implications of blacks learning to exercise their rights is long-term, according to Duncan. Even with the coming of black-majority rule to South Africa, she feels democracy will not work unless ''people know that they have rights and know how to work for them.''

In the arena of white politics, the Sash endorsed the idea of a universal franchise in South Africa before the opposition Progressive Federal Party did, she points out.

That the Black Sash has survived since 1955 puts it in rather elite company among protest groups. Most have crumbled under government crackdowns.

Having a membership of small, white, middle-aged, females has helped the Black Sash survive, said Duncan. ''Even people who don't agree with us would be a little horrified if they shoved us into jail.''

In its early days the Black Sash had 10,000 members. Most of those were English-speakers worried about their own rights. Duncan says the Sash has shed that element. Today it is growing again, but has about 2,000 members.

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