Elizabeth Davenport: A teacher and member of the Black Sash by Cole Morgan


Elizabeth Davenport has been an integral part of the Black Sash movement from the 1950s to today, when she continues to promote equality in South Africa. She does this through both as a teacher and a member of the Black Sash. Her work with the Black Sash included public activities such as protests and demonstrations and more private efforts such as offering a safe house to activists.

Key Words

Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Davenport, Black Sash Movement, Apartheid, Safe Houses

The Life of Elizabeth Davenport

In 1955 a group of six White women living in Cape Town, South Africa gathered together for tea one afternoon to discuss their opinions about actions being taken by the apartheid government. They discussed the decision by the apartheid government to artificially enlarge the Senate. This decision enabled clauses of the 1910 Constitution to be amended and were designed to increase the number of National Party representatives in the Senate in order to pass the Separate Representation of Voters Bill. As a part of the legislation during the apartheid era, the National Party created the Separate Representation of Voters Bill to enforce segregation. It was part of an intentional process to strike all non-white people from the voters' roll. Outraged by the corruption of the South African government, the women decided in the following months to form the ‘Women’s Defense of the Constitution League’ that later became known as the Black Sash movement (Orford).

Soon after its conception, women from all around the Cape joined to help the cause and to help end apartheid in South Africa. In its inaugural year, a young and newly married woman named Elizabeth Davenport joined the Black Sash, and over the next 50 years Davenport played an integral part in the efforts of the movement. She participated in silent protests such as ‘stands’ and ‘hauntings’ of cabinet ministers. From 1965, she worked with the Black Sash’s Eastern Cape branch to monitor and publicize the many forced removals of Blacks to remote, poverty-stricken areas of the Ciskei and to monitor detentions and provide support to detainees’ families. She and her husband Rodney Davenport, a historian of South Africa, provided a ‘safe house’ for a number of anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s (User, S). Through her work as a teacher and as a member of the Black Sash, Betty Davenport played a large role in fighting the injustice faced by the Blacks of South Africa during and after the apartheid era.

Figure 1 APN282301 SOUTH AFRICA, JOHANNESBURG: Women of the Black Sash, led by Mrs. Jean Sinclair (on extreme left), stand in against Jan Smuts, they are protesting about erosion of Civil Liberties Image source

When Davenport first joined the movement in Cape Town, her efforts were limited to public protests. While living in Cape Town from 1955 to 1965, her major focus was raising her children and tending to her children’s needs so she did not have a lot of time to devote to the cause. The public face of the Black Sash movement was one of peaceful protest. She participated in open protests both with and without signs and was active in the stand-ins where they would stand outside of the offices of apartheid cabinet members in silent protest. They were specifically known for ‘Haunting’ where they would follow a cabinet member for hours at their building, in complete silence, until the man was so terrified that he would find a back way out of the building. For example, during her time at Cape Town there was a cabinet member named Eric Lowe who was a cabinet member of the apartheid government. Davenport and a group of other members of the Black Sash haunted him for an extended period of time until he ran and rushed out the back door of a building in order to hide from these peaceful and silent protesters (Govinder).

After moving from the Cape Town into Grahamstown in 1965, Davenport’s efforts in the anti-apartheid movement grew exponentially. The area surrounding Grahamstown had populations of Black South Africans designated by the Urban Areas Act of 1961 for the relocation of the Black population. The police were removing the people from their homes and forcing them to move into resettlement areas such as Queenstown. Instead of being in the fully White Cape Town, Davenport was now on the frontlines seeing the blood and gore caused by the apartheid government. Davenport decided that it was time for her to become more involved in the movement after moving to Grahamstown. Of the many public actions that Davenport was involved in during her involvement while living in the Eastern Cape, one of the most common things she did was attend the funerals of Black South Africans. These men and women were either victims of the violent officers of apartheid government or people who died of disease or malnourishment due to the conditions in the concentration areas. She remembers that, ‘the funerals were so overwhelmingly monitored by the police and the army”¦all the time. It sort of became a weekly thing. You would go to a funeral one week because someone was shot and then the next week someone else was shot and you would go to that one. It was a ghastly time for the Blacks of South Africa’ (Govinder). Multiple members of the Black Sash movement were detained at these kinds of rallies and would be placed in solitary confinement for weeks and even sometimes months. This became a weekly occurrence with Davenport and the Black Sash members of the area.

Another very important public effort by that Mrs. Davenport was her efforts to reveal the atrocities of the apartheid government to children as a teacher. She taught geography and history at a local White school and spent every day with these students from both families of both the anti-apartheid movement and the conservative apartheid political views. Though the current and historical human rights issues had nothing to do with geography, she would bring up and question the morality of the human rights issues faced by people historically and the current situation in South Africa as well as legislation that was being debated in their government at the time (Govinder). She believed that through teaching the students at a younger level, creating a future population of more tolerant people could only help to rid her beloved country of the apartheid ideals and mentality. She was called into the headmaster’s study multiple times throughout her career teaching at the school. Parents would call and complain about what Davenport was trying to teach their children. Regardless of the scolding and the opposition by the parents of her students, she continued on and spread the word of the Black Sash movement one small comment at a time.

Though Davenport had an extensive career in teaching and public protests, she had more of a personal role in the anti-apartheid movement that focused on helping those in need. After Mrs. Davenport moved to the Eastern Cape in 1965 and saw the true horrors that the Black peoples of South Africa were going through, she made it her duty to respond in every manner that she could. During these times even though the laws of the apartheid government took away the majority of the liberties of the Black population, all the members of the Black population were legally entitled to social security and pensions while working. Much of the Black population did not know this or did not have the voice to fight against the companies they were working for, or against the government, when these rights were being looked over by their employers and government officials. So in 1973 Davenport opened up a voluntary advice office in charge of helping the poor peoples of the Eastern Cape with various different issues they faced such as pass laws, social security, and pensions (Walt). Though their pensions were extremely small during this time, according to Davenport around 27 rands a month, the people of South Africa desperately needed this money in order to live. Through the efforts of advice offices around the Cape, oppressed peoples of South Africa were able to get advice and utilize the few pieces of legislation that apartheid had passed that helped them (Cooke, B).

There were various small contributions by Davenport to the anti-apartheid movement that seem small but made large impacts on the lives of Black South Africans. During the mid 1970s, the government was forced to build multiple massive detention centers in the Eastern Cape in order to keep up with the amounts of detainees that they took in on a regular basis. Though the Black Sash movement could not do anything about the detaining of the individuals, they did everything they could to help the families of the people detained. Many of the people who had detained family members did not even know where to find their family members, not to mention that they could not afford transportation to go and see them while in the detention facilities. Davenport and her fellow Black Sash members spent their weekends driving people out to go see their family members so that they could see them for short periods of time (Brodie). Many of the detainees were the men of the families, the breadwinners that brought home the only income that the family would have to eat on and live on. They were the only sources of income and while they were detained, their families had very little to live on and would eventually begin to starve. Again, Davenport and her fellow members of the Black Sash movement did what they could and took as many food parcels as they could to try to feed these starving families because they had nowhere else to turn. Additionally, when people were taken by the police and detained, there were no records or prison phone calls to their families. So in order to help the families as best as they could, Davenport and the other members of the Black Sash movement would keep records of arrests and the facilities that they were taken to so that families could find their lost members and get to them in their detention facilities. In addition to the lists of peoples in detention and where they were being held, Davenport and the other members kept records of these arrests and the police’s reasoning as well as record of the indecency shown to the peoples of South Africa so that those not on the front lines could get the news and the world would know the ugly truth (Brodie). This was also very helpful in the future effort of the Black Sash when trying to help re-create the history of the oppression of the government by using real statistics instead of the falsified government documents that the apartheid government would release to the world press.

One of the most impressive and dangerous contributions by Davenport and many of the Black Sash movement was the housing of South African men and women on the run from the apartheid government. This was a very risky contribution to the cause. Hiding a criminal of the state was met with strict jail time in the horrible South African prisons and detention camps. During her time in the Eastern Cape, Davenport housed many Black South Africans on the run from the government. They would stay for a couple of days in her attic and then move on to the next place. The men and women who used her house as a hideout called it a ‘safe house,’ to them it was a shelter from the horrors of the outside world and from the aggression and oppression of the apartheid government (Spink). For much of the 1980s during the revolutionary period in the anti-apartheid movement, Davenport housed these people for a few days at a time, rarely having an empty house or just her family to feed.

In the post-apartheid era, Davenport and her fellow Sash members continue to fight for justice. These women led a very successful protest against the withholding and lack of reparations paid to victims of gross human rights abuses. Before the budget was cast before the government, Davenport and a group of Black Sash members congregated outside of the Saint Mary’s Cathedral out side of the parliament building in Cape Town in 2001. Davenport issued a public statement on behalf of the Black Sash movement saying, ‘The people concerned have been waiting now for many years for practical assistance to help them heal from the ravages of apartheid... further delay is simply not justifiable.’ An hour after the beginning of their protest, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel announced that ‘Allocations to the President's Fund on the justice and constitutional development vote for 2001/02 and 2002/03 will bring the amount available for final reparations to about R800-million,’ up from the previous R300-million. Though her actions may not have directly resulted in the increase of the reparations given to the people who faced these horrible atrocities during the reign of the apartheid government, it shows her continuous fight for justice almost 50 years after the creation of the Black Sash movement (Iol.co.za).

Through her many contributions, Betty Davenport made a substantial contribution to the Black Sash movement from the time of her joining even to today. She publicly protested in front of government buildings in Cape Town in times of crisis. She haunted members of the apartheid government in order to force them to recognize the protests of the Black Sash movement. She attended countless funerals of the victims of apartheid tyranny, even though members of the movement were arrested for doing the same. She taught her students human rights and made them question the legitimacy of the apartheid government even when she was only a geography teacher. She helped form advice offices for the Black South Africans in order to help them to receive the benefits owed to them by the government. She spent her free time driving men and women to the detention camps to see their family members and took food to those in need. She housed enemies of the state and fed them while they were hiding from the government during the 80’s and even housed men and women who would become some of the mot influential members of the government later on. Elizabeth Davenport dedicated her life to helping the oppressed peoples in South Africa. She has been an integral part in the Black Sash’s fight against the apartheid government in both the public light and on the front lines of the battle since 1955.

This article was written by Cole Morgan and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

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