Dorothy Cleminshaw (nee Mullany) was born in Cape Town on the 15th of September 1922. She went to Ellersie College in Sea Point and matriculated with a full distinction. Her tertiary career was done through the University of South Africa (UNISA), where she graduated cum laude in a Bachelor of Arts degree. While she was studying she worked as a secretary. She worked as a secretary for the Department of Defence in Pretoria during the World War II. In the 1950’s she married Harry Cleminshaw, and together with Harry served in the Torch Commando. She served as the secretary of the Torch Commando while he served as treasurer of the Green Point and Sea Point branches.
Cleminshaw was a strong advocate of human rights this was illustrated in her achievements in compelling the National Party (NP) government to change the law regarding abortion. She also campaigned vigorously against the removal of coloured people from the voters roll. Later she became a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa(LPSA). The Liberal Party opposed apartheid and advocated for “one man, one vote”. She joined the Civil Rights League and used it as a medium through which to challenge human rights abuses. The Civil Rights League, through public discussions and publications contributed to the advancement of civil rights. One significant event was the conference on Conscientious Objection to military service; this was because young men based on their political and religious beliefs refused conscription. The evidence presented at the conference, and the resolution passed by the conference, became a premise for churches.
As a representative of the LPSA she joined the Defence and Aid Fund which supported many families of political prisoners, until it was banned. When the Dependants Conference took over the work of the Defence Aid Fund, she worked for it as well. Later, Cleminshaw worked for the South African Council of Higher Education (SACHED)after being approached by Dr.‘Bill’ Hoffenberg. The Council looked into ways to find opportunities for those who could only afford the government afforded Bantu Education. She also worked for the Institute of Race Relations and the Zonnebloem College. However, she remained active in protests and often got arrested for her activism in protests. In 1963 she joined the Black Sash and was active in many human rights campaigns.
When Helen Joseph untook a process of gathering information from individuals who were banished under the banishment orders, it was in Dorothy’s house that her account was recorded. Furthermore, when Albie Sachs was arrested it was Dorothy who kept in touch with him. She became an important pillar of support for many who were arrested; she attended trials in courts and supported families of friends. She wrote letters and articles for the media. She even organised for prominent people to take action against injustice.
During the 1970’s she worked with Revered David Russell (now a retired Bishop of Grahams town), who at that time was working among the migrant labourers of Cape Town. There were rumours circulating that she was not a true liberal and that she was a communist, and that any form of association with her would have negative effects for any organisation that associates with her. These rumours heavily impacted on her reputation as a result she had to resign from numerous organisations, but continued to assist where she could. She was kept under surveillance by the security police and her house was raided. She was later convicted for the illegal possession of banned documents.
Cleminshaw was summoned to appear before the Schlebusch Commission which was tasked with investigating National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) the University Christian Movement, the South African Institute of Race Relations and the Christian Institute.Subsequently, she was arrested, charged and convicted with people such as Beyers Naude. This resulted in the confiscation of her passport. In the 1970s she worked with Reverend David Russell who had been appointed to work among the migrant workers of Cape Town. As a result of her input in the report entitled “The Role of the Riot Police in the Killings and Burnings, Nyanga, December 1976”, she was arrested, tried and convicted alongside Reverend Russell, Reverend Moses Moletsane, Bishop Patrick Matolengwe and Father Dick O’Riordan for the distribution of the report.
Harassment by the security police continued as in 1981, Cleminshaw was tried and convicted for possessing a copy of Aelred Stubbs’ edited collection of essays by Steve Biko, entitled “I Write What I Like”. Rather than pay a fine, she served a short sentence in Pollsmoor Prison. Subsequently, her conviction was overturned in a successful appeal to the Supreme Court.
After 1982, Cleminshaw underwent a major back surgery. As result she was forced to give up full-time involvement in a lot of the work that she had been doing. Before she passed away she was advocating for the government to pay reparations to people identified as victims of gross human rights violations. This was a process that she carefully monitored.
In September 2010, President Jacob Zuma presented her with The Order of Luthuli in Silver, for her outstanding contribution for the struggle for an equal, just and democratic society. She was also awarded a Master of Social Science Degree (Honorary Degree), by the University of Cape Town for her outstanding contribution in human rights.
Dorothy Cleminshaw passed away on 18 December 2011 at the age of 89 after a long illness.
• Dorothy “Dot” Cleminshaw -The Order of Luthuli in Silver, from The Presidency, [online], Available at www.thepresidency.gov.za [Accessed on 25 October 2012]
• Schlebusch Commission, from Aluka, [Online] available at www.aluka.org [accessed on 25 October 2012]
• Veteran activist Cleminshaw dies at 89, from the Cape Times, [Online] available at www.iol.co.za [accessed 25 October 2012]