Remembering: women on the front lines

2012-02-06 00:00

WHEN the Black Sash advice office closes its doors in Pietermaritzburg at the end of February it will be the end of an era for many of the volunteers who gave of their time and services.

The organisation was hugely instrumental in pushing for a basic social grant for families who were poverty stricken and living below the breadline.

In 1975, the advice office opened in Pietermaritzburg, and for the better part of three decades it has offered practical advice to disadvantaged people — first against the injustices of apartheid and then against the tide of social problems that arose in its wake.

The advice office was a place where deep friendships among liberal and like-minded people were forged and where there was, according to stalwart Mary Kleinenberg, a selfless determination to “fix the wrongs no matter how insurmountable they seemed”.

Many women were professionals who worked during the week and came in to volunteer at the weekends; others were ordinary women who felt their education, fighting spirit and common sense could benefit those who were illiterate and oppressed by the unfairness of apartheid laws.

For volunteers it was a place where they gave of their time and energy — not without reward because they crossed cultural boundaries and learnt about the plight of their compatriots.

Kleinenberg, one of the longest-serving members of the local Black Sash advice office, recalls that she was a rather timid volunteer when she approached the local organiser, Pat Merrett.

“I was not sure exactly how I could help, but I felt that I could help. In a few weeks she had me knee-deep in so many issues and I hit the ground running. There were many legal issues we had to tackle. The main ones were helping the elderly claim pensions, organising child-care grants, sorting out unfair dismissals and workman’s compensation, but in-between there were so many other types of cases.”

The advice office received no formal funding and initially ran out of a spare room at the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) offices. The volunteers paid membership fees and it was their contributions that helped to run the office along with a few donations.

Jane Voss would rally the volunteers and members would also raise funds through cake sales outside the cathedral on Saturdays. Friends would bake and donate cakes for sale, and organise jumble sales.

Juliet Armstrong, a former volunteer, had to collect clothes for the poor. She recalls seeing beautiful Aran wool jerseys lying unclaimed. “I really didn’t understand why these lovely jerseys weren’t chosen. But one black woman explained that they didn’t have access to water to soak and wash those fancy jerseys.”

Their interpreter, Busi Nyide, was a godsend and she patiently translated each client’s problems, often having heard the same story many times before. Before she died she told Kleinenberg, who was interviewing her for a project run by the Alan Paton Centre on the Black Sash: “I would say to myself, I know the people who are here are not visiting us, they are here because they have problems. They need help and they need somebody to respect them and talk to them politely, someone to treat them with dignity.”

Kleinenberg added: “These people would wait hours to see us and we really felt that they had nowhere else to turn. We knew the laws inside out and we knew how to find loopholes and how to find friends who would help them.”

Armstrong remembers one day when a woman came into the office dressed in black. “She came in and behind her stood her five children. I learnt that her husband had been killed the day before in a tractor accident and the farmer had told her to bury him and get off the farm.

“I felt so sorry for her. Here she was in shock and grieving, and her home and all her belongings were taken away. I felt a combination of rage and deep compassion. Today that kind of thing would not be allowed. It would be an infringement of human rights.”

Kleinenberg also remembers a client who came in to the advice centre beaten black and blue. In this case the woman’s husband had died and in customary law his brother now “owned” her. This brother-in-law was abusing her and he had dispossessed her of all her possessions.

One of the key issues they tackled was to monitor the pension pay points and to educate pensioners about their money. The advisers discovered that pensioners were getting paid less than what they were due and corrupt officials were skimming money off their pensions.

While the advice office tackles issues on the ground, the Black Sash political group plotted activities that would alert ordinary citizens to unfair legislation. They held protests and drew banners proclaiming their outrage. They were subjected to intimidation by police who knew their addresses and would raid their homes for illegal literature.

Sash member Alleyn Diesl recalls: “They would park outside our homes and watch us. I was scared at times. But those were the risks we were prepared to take.”

While a small minority in the organisation did not agree with the function of the advice office, saying it was helping the National Party government do its job as a welfare agency, there were many more who felt that its contribution was crucial.

“We were at the coalface of what was happening in the townships,” said Kleinenberg. “We heard their stories and we listened. We acted to correct those injustices wherever we could. In many ways we could collect vital information without being a threat.”

While many positive developments have occurred since 1994, both women feel that there is still a lot more to be done. In 1995, the organisation became a trust, received formal donation funding and transformed to meet the challenges of the new society.

Their legacy of fighting injustices has been useful and their advice has been sought in the redrafting of laws. But financially, Black Sash has suffered like many other NGOs. Kleinenberg explained: “Two other regional offices, Knysna and Grahamstown, have had to close and we are restructuring and trying to meet the needs. Our outreach workshops teaching people about their rights has been useful but we need to refocus. Also our helpline and e-mail counselling is very effective.”

As boxes are being packed and cases finalised, there is one pressing concern for the Black Sash volunteers — the plight of their office cleaner, Bongi Hlongwane, who relies on the job to provide for her family. In typical caring fashion they are trying to find a job for her before the office closes.




• For help with problems call the Black Sash National Helpline on 072-66 33 739 or e-mail

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