Dorothy “Dot” Cleminshaw
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of Dorothy “Dot” Cleminshaw
Dorothy “Dot” Cleminshaw was an active member of the Liberal Party and deeply involved in the struggle for a just South Africa. Disillusioned with events in South Africa after the Second World War, she became part of the Torch Commando and joined the Liberal Party, which stood for civil rights and liberties for all South Africans.
Cleminshaw found ways to be active, while making certain that her children, husband and mother were not put at risk. She joined the Defence and Aid Fund, until it was banned, supporting political prisoners and their families. She joined the Civil Rights League and through it, was able to challenge many of the infringements of rights that followed. She worked for the South African Council of Higher Education, an organisation which sought to provide alternative educational opportunities to those for whom Bantu Education was the only option afforded by the State.
She worked for the Institute of Race Relations and for Zonnebloem College, while she also maintained a steady volunteer involvement in upholding the rights of those who were increasingly being pursued by the State. Cleminshaw monitored trials and kept a list of people being held in detention without trial. She also participated in demonstrations and got arrested.
When another comrade, Helen Joseph, undertook a trip around the country under banishment orders, it was at Cleminshaw’s house that her account was recorded on tape. When friends were on trial, she attended courts and supported their families. When former Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs was detained, she managed to maintain contact with him. She also wrote letters to and articles for the press. She persuaded others in an impressive list of well-known names to take action, organise meetings and oppose apartheid injustice.
She resigned from several organisations, but maintained a personal commitment to continue working for what she believed was right. She was being watched, her house was searched on numerous occasions, and she was charged and convicted for possession of banned documents. While she and her husband were away, the police raided their house regardless of the anxiety caused to her mother staying there alone.
Later in her career, she was summonsed to appear before the Schlebusch Commission. She was charged, tried and convicted with Dr Beyers Naude and others and her passport was taken away from her.
December 1976 was a time of particularly violent conflict in South Africa. A report was published based on the affidavits taken from local people, entitled The Role of the Riot Police in the Killings and Burnings, Nyanga, December 1976. Another report was published, called The Riot Police and the Suppression of Truth, which was also immediately banned, providing further grounds for searches and seizure of these documents. Together with Rev David Russell, Rev M. Moletsane, Bishop Patrick Matolengwe and Father Dick O’ Riordan, she was tried and convicted for the distribution of these documents.
In 1977, she and her husband went on holiday to the United States of America and Britain. The death in detention of Steve Biko on 12 September 1977 catapulted her into addressing a number of significant audiences in both countries. Her extensive knowledge of the experiences of people in detention and her awareness of the numbers of people who had died in detention, stood her in good stead.
Dorothy Cleminshaw’s life has touched, and has been touched by, many people who have served the cause of freedom, justice and peace. Many of these people have paid a very heavy price for their dedication. She has lived and worked through a period which tested the capacity and endurance of South Africans and she has found ways in which she, as an individual, has been able to make a real contribution to the causes in which she believes. She has demonstrated that it is indeed possible, with a clear focus and much dedication, to increase awareness and to influence decisions.
Dorothy Cleminshaw was awarded an Honourary Degree of Master of Social Science by the University of Cape Town for her sterling contribution to the field of human rights. She is well known among workers for justice and civil rights, although she has always shunned the limelight and worked in quiet but persistent ways to effect change.
Most recently she has been concerned with government’s responsibility to pay reparations to people identified as victims of gross human rights violations. She has written letters and articles for the media and has been active in non-governmental organisation committees monitoring this issue.