The Black Sash was founded in 1955 during the constitutional crisis as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League, “an organization of white women to promote respect for the constitution and protest the loss of voting rights for Coloureds” (Michigan State University 2005). Jean Sinclair, Ruth Foley, Elizabeth McLaren, Tertia Pybus, Jean Bosazza, and Helen Newton-Thompson were among the League’s liberal founders. The League employed marches, convoys, protests, and vigils to oppose government policy (South African History Online 2011).
At the League’s protests against what it considered unconstitutional government action, the women wore black sashes fastened to white cards reading “Eerbiedig ons Grondwet,” Afrikaans for “Respect our Constitution.” The protesters became associated with these black sashes. They gave rise to the name (Black Sash 1956, 2), which was formally adopted at the organization’s April 1956 National Conference (Black Sash 2017).
Their role expanded after the unsatisfactory resolution of the constitutional crisis. Wentzel argues that after the dissolution of the Liberal Party in 1968 the Black Sash was the most effective human rights organization in South Africa, working directly in communities that were threatened with forced removals and trying to ensure the injustices were exposed (Wentzel 1995, 10).
In the 1970s, increasing numbers of Marxists joined the Black Sash, leading to the sidelining of liberals; Wentzel writes that Marxists were “in many ways the traditional foe of liberals” (Wentzel 1995, 12). Today, the Black Sash makes submissions and advises government on legislation and welfare (South African History Online 2011).