Most people go home in the evening and try to forget their work. The women who work at the Black Sash Advice Office would like to forget their work too, but they can’t. They cannot forget the stories of suffering they have heard during the day.
People come to the Black Sash looking for help and advice. Some have lost their jobs. Others have been injured at work and have got no compensation. Some cannot get identity documents. Others are hungry. The women of the Black Sash try to help these victims of apartheid. Sometimes they can help, but they can never forget.
“When you get home, your mind goes round and round,” says Beulah Rollnick. Beulah is 62 now. She has worked for the Black Sash in Johannesburg for ten years. Beulah told Learn and Teach her story. The story of how she discovered the Black Sash, and of how she discovered herself.
NEVER TOO LATE!
For most of her early adult life, Beulah Rollnick says she was like most other housewives in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
“I wasn’t an aware person – I did not think of women’s rights, or about what women can do. I did some work for the Progressive Federal Party, but it was only really a side interest. I spent most of my time looking after my family, especially my daughter who suffered from polio.”
In 1976, Beulah’s husband wanted to leave South Africa. Beulah agreed. They went to live in London. For Beulah it was a difficult time. She found work as a dentist’s receptionist. It was her first real job, and she thought she was a bad receptionist. Every day she thought she was going to get fired.
Then she met other women in London. These women told her she was wrong. “You’re not a bad receptionist,” they said. “You only think you’re a bad worker because you’re a woman.”
Beulah began to read books and magazines in London. These books and magazines told her the same things: she was only afraid because she was a woman. “It was like being born again,” says Beulah. “At the age of fifty.”
The women Beulah met in London were feminists – women who fight for women’s rights. When Beulah came back to South Africa in 1978, she wanted to change her life. She wanted to be responsible for her own life. When Beulah found the Black Sash, she knew that she had found herself.
A HUGE BOMB
The Black Sash is a women’s organisation. But the women of the Black Sash do not fight only for women’s rights: they fight for all the victims of apartheid.
The organisation was started by a group of six women in 1955. They came together to protest the government’s plans to take the vote away from “coloured” people. The women called themselves “The Women’s Defence of the Constitution League”.
When the women protested, they always wore a black sash. The newspapers wrote stories about the “black sash” women. The name stuck – and the women soon changed the name of their organisation to the Black Sash.
Today the Black Sash has over two thousand members and eight branches around the country. Nearly all the members are voluntary workers.
At the Black Sash, nobody is turned away. We saw this when we spent the afternoon with Beulah. There were always six or seven people waiting to speak to her.
“This is nothing,” said Beulah. “Since the bomb, many people do not know where we are.”
On the 31 st August of last year, a huge bomb destroyed Khotso House, where the Black Sash and other organisations, like the South African Council of Churches, had their offices. After the bomb, many people who came to Khotso House for help found an empty, broken building.
ONE WORKER’S STORY
The first person to speak to Beulah was Mokgade Elizabeth Rapetsoa. She is 34 years old, and seven months pregnant.
She looks very ill, and very tired. She was a domestic worker for five years. Her boss gave her R95 a month at first, and after five years R150 a month. Her boss also gave her food: three slices of bread a day, and a small piece of meat in the evening. No vegetables.
Mokgade went to a doctor. The doctor said she was very ill. He gave her a certificate: she was suffering from malnutrition – she was not getting enough healthy food. The doctor said she had to stop work.
When Mokgade went to her boss and told her she had to stop work, her boss gave her R150 – her last month’s wages – and told her to leave.
The laws of apartheid do not protect people like Mokgade. Beulah cannot help her. She tells Mokgade to join SADWU – the South African Domestic Workers Union. She makes sure that Mokgade has relatives who can help her, and tells her which hospital to go to.
Mokgade walks slowly to the door. She knows now that there are no miracles at the Black Sash – just people who do their best to help.
A LONG DAY
Other people come to Beulah’s desk with their problems. Beulah writes letters to bosses, saying that they will take them to court if they do not give workers their rights. She sends^some people to unions, where they can get help for themselves and for their fellow workers. She sends other people to legal aid centres, where lawyers will help them with their problems. She tells them to come back to the Black Sash if they need more help.
At the end of a long day, Beulah is very tired. She locks up the office and waits for the lift. Learn and Teach asked her why there was so little security in the building.
“At Khotso House we talked about the need for security,” said Beulah. “But we decided that we wanted a place where people can come and go in freedom. And so we paid the price. Khotso House was destroyed.”
Now the Black Sash has moved to a new office in Braamfontein: the Queensbridge Building, corner Juta and Bertha. Beulah looks at the people waiting: twenty, thirty people, each with a different problem. Just like the old times in Khotso House, she thinks. The enemies of the Black Sash have not got what they wanted.
The people are coming back – and for the caring and hardworking women of the Black Sash, the work goes on! As they say, you can’t keep a good organisation down!
NEW WORDS your mind goes round and round – when you can’t stop thinking about something an aware person – somebody who thinks about what is happening around them voluntary workers – people who do work for free