Defender of the voiceless

SHEENA Duncan, a two-term president of the Black Sash, died in her sleep early on Tuesday.

SHEENA Duncan, a two-term president of the Black Sash, died in her sleep early on Tuesday.

She was born in Johannesburg in 1932, the eldest of five children. She was educated at Roedean School in Johannesburg and left South Africa in the 1950s to study at the Edinburgh College of Domestic Science in Scotland.

She returned to South Africa eight years later and worked for the social welfare department of the Johannesburg City Council as a home economics officer.

Duncan was the daughter of the late Jean Sinclair (Order of the Baobab, posthumously), a founder member of the Black Sash, a women's organisation which, during the apartheid era, worked for the advancement of basic human rights and civil liberties for South Africans bearing the brunt of apartheid's injustices.

The Black Sash still provides much-needed paralegal services to those in need through their advice offices situated in various cities.

The organisation was founded in 1955 on the principle that through both individual and collective practical acts of assistance and voicing grievances, people had the ability to confront the government and to effect change.

They also worked at publicising the infringements of human rights through their nonviolent protests by way of candlelight vigils held outside Parliament and at other public venues.

With her mother being the leader of the Black Sash, Duncan was destined to follow in her footsteps. She joined the Black Sash in 1963, working tirelessly against the inhumane laws and the effects of apartheid on ordinary South Africans, especially women.

She held various positions in the organisation, including regional chairperson and editor of the Sash magazine. She rose through the organisation's ranks, becoming its national president in 1975. Duncan wrote several articles, booklets and pamphlets, especially on issues such as forced removals and pass laws.

In the 1970s, she joined the Anglican Church's Challenge Group, a movement that sought to end racism within the church.

She also represented the Anglican Church on the South African Council of Churches' justice and reconciliation division.

In 1986, Duncan received the Liberal International Prize for Freedom for her outstanding contribution to human rights and political freedom.

She also received honorary doctorates in law from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1990, the University of Cape Town in 1991 and the University of Natal in 1995.

She was the honorary life president of the SACC, chair and patron of Gun-Free South Africa and patron of the Black Sash.

She was awarded the Grand Councillor of the Baobab (silver) in 2006.

Duncan had an outstanding career as a public figure deeply involved in the struggle to promote social justice and basic human rights.

She chose to pursue a path of commitment and practical action to bring about change.

Her life exemplified devotion to the highest ideals of justice and freedom. - PresidencyZA