Back to top

Jean Sinclair (1908 - 1996)

The Order of the Baobab in

Jean Sinclair (1908 - 1996) Awarded for:
Her distinguished contribution to the struggle against apartheid and the establishment of a free and democratic South Africa.

Profile of Jean Sinclair

Jean Sinclair was born in 1908 into a comfortable and conventional middle-class suburban family.

Her initial introduction to politics was through the Springbok Legion, which in the 1940s fought against the rise of facism and for democratic rights for all in South Africa. Having resigned on a matter of principle as a serving member of the United Party from the Johannesburg City Council, her vision and her loathing of all forms of injustice led her to believe that a movement was required to combat the plethora of segregationist and discriminatory legislation that was being tabled in Parliament by the National Party when it came to power in 1948, such as the Group Areas Act and the disenfranchisement of the Coloured people. Accordingly, Sinclair was instrumental in the establishment of the Women's Defence of the Constitution League in 1955, of which she became the first President.

The Black Sash organised a march of women to the City Hall in Johannesburg to attend a public meeting called by the Mayor. Their efforts brought thousands of women to the streets in a memorable show of opposition. Two petitions were launched and a vigil was held outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Then, travelling in convoy, the women took the petitions to Cape Town to deliver them to Parliament.

The countrywide demonstrations and the efforts of the Black Sash Ð a name derived from the sashes worn by the women in all their protests to symbolise the "death" of the Constitution failed to prevent the passing of the Senate Bill, which finally opened the way for the removal of Coloured people from the voters' roll.

Over the next 50 years, Sinclair's passion that brought the Black Sash to life kept it going even after the battle against the Senate Act was lost.

During the bleakest years of Apartheid, when the chances of defeating the system by peaceful means seemed futile, and not even the press could be persuaded to take an interest in the organisation's campaigns, Sinclair's inspired leadership, personal courage and principled opposition to Apartheid and injustice encouraged thousands of women to keep faith in the movement, which she led until 1975.

The Black Sash impacted on the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans caught in the web of Apartheid's race and security legislation, through its advocacy campaigns and defence of victims.

Sinclair devoted her life to fighting Apartheid. Her strong liberal ideals and common decency inspired many ordinary people to do extraordinary things in the pursuit of justice and human rights. She was a truly remarkable South African.