This article was written by Jarvis Pruitt and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project
In order to stand up straight, we as humans require a backbone. Without a backbone we would have no structure; we would be limp and fall over. Ruth Robb, along with others, was an honorable woman who was literally the backbone for human rights, amongst blacks, in South Africa. Ruth Robb went by her middle name, Noel, and died at the late age of 95. Ninety five years well spent. Ninety five years that will never be forgotten to the South African people. Robb spent her life as a schoolteacher and Honorary Life President of the Black Sash. The Black Sash organization was an organization that became a gateway for liberal women to oppose government policies, against the Black South African people of South Africa, and take a stand by forming marches, protests, and convoys. Ruth Robb was known for her outstanding work leading and being a huge part of the Black Sash organization. Her big role in this organization and the amount of determination she demonstrated to make a change in the country of South Africa, by joining all of the marches and other big events that the Black Sash organization was a part of, goes to show just how extraordinary of a life Ruth Robb lived for the long ninety five years she was a part of our world.
Ruth was born on December 25, 1913 in Plymouth, England to her parents Benjamin Wingate Barrow and Charlotte Constance Barrow and was a child of three. (SAHO) Her father was a naval officer, and during World War I, he was held a prisoner of war because of his demand for a destroyer. When Ruth was just a young girl, her family decided to move back to Cape Town, where her mother was originally born, to live with Ruth’s grandfather. After completing grade school in England, Ruth attended college at Bedford College in London. She graduated from there in 1935 and was offered a teaching position at St Cyprians School, in Cape Town, by one of her previous teachers, who was now the current principle at this school. Ruth gladly accepted this teaching position and taught at St Cyprians for four years. St. Cyprians was an all-girls school and all of the staff, including Robb, lived on the premises.
After working several years at St Cyprians School in Cape Town, Ruth met Francis Charles Robb. After seeing each other for a while, they decided to marry on December 28, 1939. Francis did not allow his wife to work so she began bearing children. Together, Francis and Ruth had five children. Being a mother did not stop Ruth from engaging in philanthropic duties. About 8 years later, Ruth was selected to be on the committee for the school at which she previously worked for. She served on this committee for thirty years, as well as on the Committee of the Marion Institute, of which runs two different nursery schools. Ruth believed that the Marion Institute was an amazing social center for under-privileged colored girls in district six and took great pride in being a part of it. It has been said that Robb did not stand for politics but stood for the rights and well-being of others. She was once quoted saying that she was in fact, ‘completely uninterested in politics.’ However, due to unjust laws in South Africa, Robb quickly changed the nature of her purpose and organizational work.
South Africa had a system, called Pass Laws, which purpose was to segregate the population of South Africa, put a constraint on the movement of Blacks, manage the urbanization, and distribute harsh working conditions. Because of these laws, Black civilians had to carry a type of pass book when they were traveling outside of designated areas. Any White person could ask to see the pass book of any member of the black population, and if they did not have their pass book, they were at risk of being arrested. In the early years, these laws applied mainly to men, and when the government tried to apply it to women, protests began to form and the Federation of South African Women marched in Pretoria. This made women such as Robb more aware.
Ruth Robb became one of the founding members of the Black Sash, established in Cape Town, in August of 1955. At the beginning, the Black Sash movement was first called The Woman’s Defense of the Constitution League and was started in Johannesburg. Back then, the government tried to get together to double the size of the senate in order to get a majority vote to remove Coloured people from the role of people who could vote. The Black Sash was an all-White women group, because men were liable to lose their jobs and become unable to support their families if they took this kind of stand. The group was made up of only Whites because they had the right to vote and make an impact. The first year was spent by Jean Sinclair and Ruth Foley, two members of the Black Sash, trying to oppose this senate bill. This organization became known for the black sashes, worn by the members, who fought to restore rights among the black population. The main activities of the Black Sash were protesting against the government. Although, initially, the Black Sash organization focused on the constitutional problems of the country, it rose to associate the other issues that were based around racial discrimination. In 1956, Ruth Robb helped lead the Black Sash to hold a mass march to Cape Town, and the leaders held a model of the Constitution that was draped in a black sash. The same year, South Africa began arresting African women for debating pass laws, and Ruth Robb and the Black Sash organization set up a fund to help the women who had been taken to prison. The United Party asked the Black Sash to close, in 1958, for at least six months to clear any troubles that were at hand. Although some members of the organization though that this was a smart move, Ruth Robb, along with members such as Eulalie Stott, Moly Peterson, and Jessie Power, disagreed.
After the United Party asked the Black Sash to close in 1958, they opened an Advice Office that aided Black women in dealing with the laws that had been passed along with other issues that were at hand. Ruth Robb felt compelled to join the Advice Office because she could not believe the way Black people were being treated. She found it to be detrimentally unfair that the government was trying to fix up the senate, in order to have more votes, to block Coloured people from their freedom of speech in the reign of voting. The group was given an office in Athlone and Lettie Malindi, who was a member of the African National Congress Women’s League, became their interpreter.
Robb’s activism was also impacted by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. The police killed 69 protesters and injured many more. After this massacre occurred, Ruth Robb and several others, including Moira Henderson, took food and other supplies to the civilians of the area to help out as much as they possibly could. They also provided transportation to the families of inmates, so they were able to see their loved ones that had been previously imprisoned. This demonstrated her kind hearted and determined ways.
Following the state of emergency in 1960, Ruth Robb and Moira Henderson joined the Executive Defense and Aid Fund, which was set in Cape Town. Many families were sent to prison for political reasons and offenses. One of the most profound events of this time was the creation of the bail fund. Because of the bail fund, money from Canon Collins in London helped defend those that were faced with these charges and assisted in aiding help to their families. This was detrimental to these families, some of which were left with nothing after the man of the family was taken to prison. Eventually, the Defense and Aid was banned and police raided Robb’s home, so they could confiscate her important files and documents.
After the banning of Defense and Aid, the legal defense work continued as these women were determined to make things ethically correct. The banning of the Defense and Aid led to the establishment of more organizations of the same manner. Dependents Conference was another branch of Defense Aid that was established in 1963. Moira Henderson was the chairperson of Dependents Conference, while Robb ran an Advice Office in Crossroads, Cape Town. Ruth Robb’s office was eventually moved to Mowbray in order to obtain more space to accommodate the active staff and citizens obtaining assistance, but her heart was still in Cape Town, which was slowly becoming more and more segregated.
Later in the year 1963, the Black Sash organization made a huge change. As it was previously only opened for White women to be members, they decided to allow others to get involved. The Black Sash opened up their doors to colored African women. However, the organization remained predominately White. Ruth believed others wanted to help but could not travel the distance or had to work in order to maintain a living.
As the segregation in Cape Town progressed, a town call Khayelitsha was formed in an attempt to control the Black population in the early 1980s. The government’s plan was to solve the problem by creating individual black areas. Many black families were forced to move to these areas, most of which were completely against their own will. After Khayelitsha was established, Robb began visiting and became an extremely popular part of this community. Most of the people living in this town thoroughly enjoyed her company, referring to her as “Mama Robb, Black Sash”. Robb divided her time between the Advice Office, where she was still providing assistance to people in need, and working in Khayelitsha. She gave the people of Khayelitsha hope that there would one day be equal rights amongst White and Black people.
Ruth Robb continued her duties throughout the years as well as making time to spend with her family. She traveled and always offered a helping hand. Robb was nothing short of remarkable and stayed true to her beliefs, maintained hope, and pushed others to stand up for their rights. In 1989 Ruth was expecting new government and made it aware that if the government did things for pragmatic reasons that the Black Sash would oppose them. After years of hard work and dedication, the Black Sash elected her as honorary life Vice President, in March of 1989. It was because of her firm leadership and extensive history with the organization that Robb was handed such a title.
During 1995, the Black Sash altered its structure. Black Sash eliminated volunteer work and instead continued its main work by paid professionals whom were employed by the Black Sash Trust. Ruth remained involved and continued to monitor the new parliament as they had once done the old. After years and years of service, she kept her determination to stand on and adapted when needed. One person remembered ‘I noticed though that she was able to accept intelligent contradiction from much younger members elected to the committee as the years went by.’ (D Cleminshaw) Even on into her later years, Noel Robb continued to support the black sash.
After decades of hard work, patience, determination, and love, Ruth Robb passed away in January of 2009. She had four daughters, one son, thirteen grandchildren, and thirteen great grandchildren. Ruth Robb will forever be remembered by her family but especially by the South African people. ‘You will be remembered as a true champion - always vigilant against injustice, always caring and always willing to induct and encourage those around you and those younger than yourself to take a stand! Farewell with love.’ (Black Sash) The name Ruth Robb and what she stood for will never go unnoticed. She spent decades working on what she believed in. Sash member Mary Burton summed up: ‘Her life spanned decades of great significance in South Africa, and she witnessed enormous change, and contributed in no small measure to some of those changes.’ (Burton, Mary) After her passing, many South African people paid tribute to Robb and acknowledged her invaluable work. Her obituary proclaimed her‘A great champion of Justice for All. She will be sadly missed by her colleagues in Legiwatch.’(Cape Times, 2008)
Noel Ruth Robb impacted many lives and seized every moment. A woman who was of significance in South Africa, simply from standing up for what she believed was wrong and right. She held a heart as big as gold and a mind that changed for no one. Ninety-five years of life used to pay it forward. Ninety-five years fighting for justice. Ninety-five years that will never be forgotten.
• BurtonM, ‘Friends of the Sash' pay tribute Noel Robb, from Blacksah, [online] Available at www.blacksash.org.za [Accessed October 28, 2014]
• Cleminshaw D, ‘Friends of the Sash' pay tribute Noel RobbBlacksah,[online]Available at www.blacksash.org.za [Accessed October 28, 2014]
• Forgey, Herma, et al. South African Survey 1999/2000. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 2000.
• Hutmacher MacLean B , (2004), Strike a woman, strike a rock: fighting for freedom in South Africa, (East London) pp. 87-96
• Interview Segment. Dir. Ruendree Govinder. Perf. Ruth Noel Robb, Barbara Versfeld, and Lettie Malindi. South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
• "Pass Laws." South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
• Southern Africa Freedom Struggles, 1950-1994. Digital Innovation South Africa (DISA).