Sheena Black Obituary, Death – Sheena Duncan, who passed away from cancer at the age of 77, served as president of the Black Sash, a group of white women who provided urban black people with useful legal counsel and embarrassed the apartheid regime in South Africa with their nonviolent vigils. Duncan oversaw the Johannesburg office of the Black Sash. I was one of many journalists and diplomats who observed her and her fellow Sashers at work in the middle of the 1970s. She listened as a woman who had spent her adult life in the city was told to return to her rural town while being enveloped in tobacco smoke and assisted by an interpreter. Duncan was well-versed in the law and was aware of the slim chances. She dialed the person in charge of the diktat. She took notes
painstakingly argued, begged, and cajoled in vain. She swapped out the phone. She said, turning to face the elderly woman, “Don’t give up, we’ll try something else.” Her warmth gave optimism, but I’m not sure if it helped. Every time her large form came into view, one black journalist recalled, “our sorrows and fears lifted a little.” She “took up the cudgels and fought tirelessly against those of her own race who enslaved us, without profit or reward.” Duncan’s privileged upbringing in Johannesburg’s verdant north foreshadowed a life as a tennis-playing housewife. She went from Johannesburg’s Roedean School, where she was the oldest of five siblings, to Edinburgh College of Domestic Science, which later became Queen Margaret University. Before transitioning to a career in home economics, she taught in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Johannesburg policeman. Although her mother, Jean Sinclair, broke the mold, her father, Robert Sinclair, was an accountant. Jean and five friends founded the Women’s League for the Defense of the Constitution in 1955 as the Afrikaner government prepared to remove “Coloured” (mixed-race) voters from the common roll by filling the senate with their supporters. Although they were defeated, the encouragement they had received gave them the strength to locate the Black Sash. White ladies in sashes would demonstrate for human rights outside the Cape Town parliament during the worst of apartheid. Johannes Vorster, the prime minister, detested them but did not intervene. Because they were white and had powerful spouses, they got away with it.
When In 1975, Jean stepped down as president of the Black Sash, and her daughter was the natural successor. She had edited the Sash magazine and authored articles on topics like land rights, capital punishment, and civil disobedience. She became involved in an organization against racism in the Anglican church starting in the 1970s. In addition to talking about liberalism, Duncan and her husband Neil, whom she wed in 1955, actually lived it. One day when their daughter Carey returned from college, she discovered a township leader hiding in her bedroom while he evaded the police. Clients who didn’t like his wife’s political views put pressure on Neil’s architectural practice. Duncan led the Black Sash as president from 1975 to 1978 and again from 1982 to 1986.
and served as vice-president between them. She thought that any democratic organization should have frequent leadership changes to prevent it from becoming too reliant on a single individual. On the movement’s 30th anniversary, Duncan unexpectedly got a letter from Nelson Mandela, who was then incarcerated, praising the “formidable impact” of the Sash ladies. “Those who embrace universal beliefs that have altered the course of history and who are willing to face issues head-on must, in due course, command support and admiration far beyond their own ranks.” Duncan was awarded the Liberal International Prize for Freedom in 1986 for her support of political and human rights. She was elevated to the rank of grand councillor of the Order of the