Women, protest, and the colour black: South Africa and Israel/Palestine

In the next instalment of the Colour Series, Rebecca Swartz, Ana Stevenson and Sarah-Jane Walton engage with the representation of the colour black in protest movements to challenge the apartheid state and end gender-based violence.

In September 2019, following the brutal rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, protestors of all races took to the streets across South African cities to call for a stop to gender-based violence and sexual abuse. South Africa is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live as a womxn.* In 2019 alone, there were over 42 000 reported incidences of rape out of a population of approximately 58 million, yet rape remains a hugely underreported crime.

Logo of the BlackDoek Movement SA. Image reproduced in accordance with Copyright Act 1968, Section 41: Fair dealing for purposes of criticism or review.

These protestors wore black clothing to signify their solidarity with other protestors and their mourning for the countless people affected by gender-based violence. Protestors expressed a mixture of fear and rage, chanting ‘Enough is Enough’ while waiting to be addressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. Ramaphosa referred to this as a ‘very dark’ period in South Africa, with the abuse of women a ‘stain on our national conscience’.

On social media, protestors used the hashtag #AmINext to indicate that Uyinene’s story was not unique. It was shortly after this protest that Ramaphosa declared femicide a national crisis. Across the country, students and employees at local businesses were encouraged to wear black clothing to signify their support for the protests.

This sparked the creation of a further activist group, the Black Doek movement. This movement encourages protesters to wear a black headscarf to signify their association with the organisation and its activism to end gender-based violence and femicide. Historically, wearing a doek has been seen as a sign of respect. According to the movement, the doek is ‘a sign of peace, love, inclusivity, prayer, mourning and heartbreak. A doek carries many emotions and many meanings. It is a tribute to the many who lost their lives. More so, it is a loud voice saying “NO MORE.”’

The Black Sash of South Africa

This was not the first time that the colour black had been used symbolically in South African social movements. From 1948, South Africa was governed by a white minority government led by the National Party. This government enacted a series of increasingly discriminatory laws against black citizens, known as apartheid.

The organisation that would become the Black Sash of South Africa emerged as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. Six white women came together in response to the government’s proposed Senate Bill. A bill which aimed to remove the small number of existing coloured male voters from the Cape Province voters’ roll.

The League mobilised a record number of white women against this government plan and apartheid policies more broadly. Tactics included a phone campaign and petitions, followed by street marches, overnight vigils in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria (the seat of the South African government), and a car convoy between Johannesburg and Cape Town. The League also “haunted” cabinet ministers. This involved silently following prominent politicians in public to induce discomfort, serving as a visual reminder of members’ objections to apartheid policies. From 1956, members also draped a black sash over South Africa’s constitution in their public demonstrations.

‘New Constitution’ cartoon. Image courtesy of University of Cape Town Libraries Digital Collections, with permission from Tony Grogan.

In 1956, the League reinvented itself as the Black Sash, quickly becoming a more dynamic and liberal organisation. This resulted in some of the more conservative members leaving the membership. Between 1955 and 1963, the Black Sash also limited its membership to white women, based on the rationale that, since 1930, only white South African women had voting rights. As Nomboniso Gasa observes, the Black Sash’s membership would be dominated by – but not limited to – white women from the 1960s onwards. Those remaining continued performative street protests wearing black sashes.

The Black Sash would gradually become a multifaceted anti-apartheid resistance and human rights organisation. As historian Cheryll Walker writes in Women and Resistance in South Africa (1991):

The sight of white, middle class women – well-dressed, well-spoken, well-behaved – demonstrating against the government outraged many of its supporters. Frequently the women were exposed to verbal abuse and threats of violence. Not only were they defying the government, they were also defying a set of unwritten rules about what was seemly and proper conduct for women.

Urban environments consistently provided a backdrop to these silent protests.

The Black Sash opposed racial discrimination, segregation, land removals, political detention, and conscription, and advocated women’s rights and human rights. Volunteers provided legal advice and other services to the African communities targeted by the apartheid regime, while also publishing The Black Sash/Die Swart Serp (later Sash magazine) from 1956 to 1995.

The Black Sash resistance organisation (ca. 1955). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Key to the Black Sash’s public resistance was the act of standing on street corners with protest placards. While early tactics such as silent “haunting” were soon abandoned, silent public protests persisted. According to Mary Burton, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner and President of the Black Sash between 1986 and 1990, the black sashes represented “a symbol of mourning for the threatened loss of constitutional rights.” This persisted across four decades and new generations despite the transformation of the anti-apartheid movement.

The Black Sash also gained notoriety. Political scientist Julian Brown emphasises the liminality of Sash members position. Members of the dominant class as white society, but nonetheless marginal in terms of gender and political outlook.

The Black Sash’s consistent public actions as a moral conscience against apartheid generated significant media coverage, from journalism to political cartoons. In 1990, upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela described the Black Sash as “the conscience of white South Africans.” Through the politics of respectability, the Black Sash maintained its emotional influence.

Women in Black

The performance of silent vigils as protests in public urban space was similarly adopted by the Women in Black movement, formed in 1988 in Israel in protest against the occupation of Palestine. The State of Israel was formed in 1948, bordered by the Palestine Territories and the West Bank. Largely educated, secular, European women came together to protest Israel’s patriarchal, militaristic state and the violent occupation of Palestine in 1948. Its first demonstration took place in Jerusalem, a month after the December 1987 First Intifadah. This was a major Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. As a result, weekly protests were held on Fridays at lunchtime, when women were traditionally expected to be preparing for the Sabbath.

Women in Black protest against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the impending Iraq war, demonstrating an intersection with the urban environment, 14 February 2003. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As the movement spread across Israel’s cities and further afield, particular public spaces with high traffic and visibility were chosen. A square near the entrance to the old city in Jerusalem, or a busy roundabout near the Bahai Gardens, the city of Haifa’s most popular tourist attraction. The visibility of respectable women in such public spaces attempted to subvert dominant national narratives about Israel’s safety and its rightful occupation of Palestine.

Adorning themselves in the colour black was the only requirement for women wanting to join the vigils. Wearing black was linked to the traditional symbol of (feminine) mourning, and was designed to speak to the tragic loss of life – both Israeli and Palestinian – as a result of the continued violent conflict. However, there were multiple, shifting and complex meanings behind the colour, as one protestor explained to the sociologist, Tova Benski:

…once the colour was chosen, we started to think retrospectively about the various meanings of the colour. According to most of the women it was the most salient, dominant color they could think of. We further found that in literature and folklore, the black color symbolized power and we identified with that part too. We were also very happy for the interpretation of the color as signifying dark forces. Witches. We are witches. Historically, who were the witches? They were very strong women. So we were pleased to adopt all these connotations. We used black to symbolize bereavement but also power, and certainly also because the color is very dominant.

Different sections of the Israeli urban public projected their own interpretations of the colour black. Many men expressed anger at these women, verbally harassing them for questioning the status quo and behaving obtrusively in public. Moreover, some members of the public used the colour’s association with mourning against the protestors, saying that ‘I hope you wear black all your life’ – wishing their loved ones dead.

Women in Black soon expanded across the globe. In 2002, Stephanie Damoff wrote in San Francisco’s Objector, a journal published by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in the United States:

​​The message of [Women in Black] is simple enough to appeal to women all over the world. Standing in silence in a public space is a performance that connects women over time and distance: connecting us in a city where everyone usually wears black anyway to the women in Belgrade, where black is traditionally for widows, to the Asociación Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina [who wore white scarves], standing with photos of their disappeared children and grandchildren, to the white women of the Black Sash in South Africa who began protesting apartheid in 1955. Standing still in the flow of rush hour traffic, we are connected spiritually with the men and women standing in towns all over Israel, with women standing all over the US and Canada, with women struggling for their lives in Colombia and Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine, with women of conscience all over Europe.


The Black Sash of South Africa’s aesthetics and emotional registers found an afterlife with Women in Black. In 1996, New York’s Fellowship magazine described these connections, noting that Black Sash members “wore black sashes to represent their mourning for the murdered constitution.”

In South Africa and Israel, the colour black has been used in women’s social movements to denote the power of anger and judgment; the emotional pain of mourning and pain; the presence of conscience and solidarity. Membership of the Black Sash and Women in Black was dominated by, but not limited to, white women. In contemporary South Africa, however, the colour has been adopted by a more diverse group of protesters. While black has maintained similar meanings across time and space, the protest tactics have shifted from vigils and silent protests to vocal marches and social media actions.


* The term womxn is an inclusive label, and includes trans people who identify as women. The term has been widely used in South Africa to signify an identity as separate from a relationship to men.

Rebecca Swartz is a senior lecturer in History at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Her research has focused on histories of childhood and education in settler colonial contexts, and includes the monograph Empire and Education: Children, Race and Humanitarianism in the British Settler Colonies, 1833-1880 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). She is currently working on a project connecting histories of emancipation with histories of childhood in the Cape colony and British Empire more broadly.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @histosaurusbex

Ana Stevenson is a lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, and a Research Associate of the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Her first book, The Woman as Slave in Nineteenth-Century American Social Movements (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), explores the racial politics of women’s rights. Her research about transnational social movements appears in journals such as the Women’s History Review, Pacific Historical Review, and Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies.

Follow Ana on Twitter @DrAnaStevenson

Sarah-Jane Walton is a lecturer in Urban and Global History at the University of Leicester. Her research has centred on the effects of the First World War on Cape Town, and has broadened to encompass other colonial port cities, gender, travel and recipes books from the period.

Follow Sarah-Jane on Twitter @SarahDuanie.


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