Margaret Nash (1929-2011)

By Sarah Emily Duff

I have very mixed feelings about Women’s Day. Although I believe very strongly that the Women’s March to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 must be commemorated, I’m not sure that devoting a day to women serves any purpose – particularly given the fact that rates of gender-based violence in South Africa remain so high.

I think I was particularly annoyed by it this year, as I heard about various women being ‘treated’ to champagne and other goodies (for being…female?) while all seemed to ignore the fact that South Africa lost one its most distinguished activists last week. Margaret Nash, freedom fighter, feminist, and scholar died on 2 August at the age of 82, having led a full, productive, and extraordinarily selfless life. Hers is one worth celebrating and commemorating.

Margaret was born in England on 1 March 1929. Her family moved to South Africa two years later and she was raised in Durban. In 1945, aged just sixteen, she enrolled at Rhodes University and later worked as a teacher. She eventually went on to complete a PhD in theology at the University of Cape Town in 1975. In 1960, Margaret joined the Liberal Party. She was an active member of a range of anti-apartheid organisations, most notably the Black Sash, on whose National Executive committee she sat, and the Christian Institute. She also worked for the Anglican Board of Social Responsibility and the South African Council of Churches.

Margaret’s activism was driven by a combination of her formidable intellect and her Christianity. Hers was not an exclusive Christianity, but, rather, one that sought to improve the world so that all could live in it freely and equally. In fact, she was critical of South Africa’s churches for not taking a more active role in the anti-apartheid struggle. In time, her life would be devoted to campaigning for human rights, non-racialism, and non-violence.

Most of Margaret’s energies were channelled into writing reports on the conditions under which people lived in apartheid South Africa. She visited townships, spoke to residents, organised meetings, and participated in protests. One of my favourite photographs of Margaret depicts her holding a poster and standing in the way of a bulldozer sent to demolish a squatter camp.

                The best known of her reports was published in 1980, and concerned the government’s policy of forced removals, particularly in and around Cape Town. She argued that between two and three million people had been forcibly moved by the state since the 1950s – and that the National Party government seemed to have no intention of ceasing this inhumane, socially destructive policy.  In 1984, her report was presented to the United Nations by a church delegation, causing international outrage and embarrassing the South African government. It contributed to the ending of forced removals soon after.

With the ending of apartheid in 1994, she continued to work for social justice, and was particularly involved in the founding of Gun Free South Africa. My mother, who was an activist for the Black Sash during the 1980s and early 1990s, came to know Margaret well, and I met her on several occasions. I was impressed by the simplicity in which she lived in Claremont, but also by the strength of her convictions. I may not always have agreed with her, and particularly as regards her enthusiasm for the Moral Regeneration Movement, but her opinions, forcefully and intelligently expressed, demanded to be considered.

With the passing of this opinionated, selfless, extraordinarily hardworking, and, yes, occasionally difficult, woman, we have lost not only another link with a generation of anti-apartheid activists who shaped democratic South Africa, but someone who had a faultless moral compass.

Every Christmas, Margaret sent a letter to her friends and relatives, suitably annotated for each recipient. In these letters, she described the year’s activities, and added her thoughts and concerns about South Africa. This year’s Christmas will feel emptier without one.



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