Sheena Duncan (1932 - )
The Order of the Baobab in
Profile of Sheena Duncan
Sheena Duncan 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.
After qualifying as a Domestic Science teacher she moved to the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). 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 is the daughter of the late Jean Sinclair (Order of the Baobab, posthumously), a founder member of the Black Sash. The latter is 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 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 some change.
They also worked at publicising the infringements of human rights through their famous non-violent protests by way of candle-light night vigils held outside Parliament and at other public venues. With her mother being the leader of the Black Sash, Sheena 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 within the organisation, including regional chairperson and editor of the Sash magazine. She rose through the organisation's ranks, becoming its national president in 1975, the same year in which her mother retired from this position. 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' (SACC) 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 is the honorary life president of the SACC, chair and patron of Gun- Free South Africa and patron of the Black Sash.
Duncan has had an outstanding career as a public figure deeply involved in the struggle to promote social justice and basic human rights. She could easily have opted for a comfortable life without regard to the plight of the millions around her. Yet, she chose to pursue a path of commitment and practical action to bring about change.
She was and remains an unrelenting activist for justice and the pursuit of human rights for all. Her life exemplifies devotion to the highest ideals of justice and freedom.