Sheila Lapinsky (nee Barsel) was born in 1944* in Johannesburg, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng) to a middle-class Orthodox Jewish family. Her aunt and uncle were both actively involved in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and as a result, her parents did not allow her to get too close to them out of fear of the consequences that would come from their political activities. However, growing up in a traditional home where men and women had strictly defined roles, coupled with her experiences of being abused as a child, planted the first seeds of an awareness of injustice in young Lapinsky. This would later propel her into taking an active stance against the injustices that were happening in the country. 

After matriculating from Parktown Girls’ High in 1961, Lapinsky enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand where she completed her first year BSc before changing to a BA degree. She graduated in 1966, majoring in Psychology, Sociology, and Afrikaans.

While growing up, she had had very little to no interaction with Black people, therefore, her opinions on Black people were largely based on what she had been taught. It was at the liberal Wits University that she became fully aware of the true extent of the racism in the country as she got to know some Black students and started to move away from her old perceptions. She became politically active on campus, getting involved in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) as the chairperson of the local committee and later as the Regional Secretary in Transvaal (now Gauteng). She was news editor of the student newspaper, Wits Student, and she played a role in setting up WITSCO – a student community organisation focused on health and welfare – of which she was part of the executive committee.

Lapinsky taught at the African Night School in Johannesburg until it was closed down by the government. She then moved to Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape) where she spent six and a half years working as the Secretary-General of NUSAS until she was banned in 1973 (along with seven other NUSAS leaders). The banning was the result of the Schlebusch Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to investigate four organisations flagged by the apartheid government. These included NUSAS, the University Christian Movement (UCM), the Christian Institute of Southern Africa (CI), and the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR).

During her tenure, tensions between Black and White students in NUSAS escalated and culminated in Steve Biko breaking away from the organisation to form the South African Students Organisation (SASO). Nonetheless, Lapinsky was involved in many projects which aided those in need – she helped prisoners study and supported their families, she ran bursary and scholarship schemes for impoverished Black people and was involved in a loan fund which was set up to assist any student in need of a loan.

Her banning order barred her from working in any area involving student affairs – schools, universities or any other educational institutions – which meant she was forced to leave NUSAS. Furthermore, she was not allowed into factories or printing presses, or to take part in social gatherings. She started reading books about feminism and slowly became conscientised to the sexism that had prevailed at NUSAS’s offices which she had been subjected to. She began attending women’s workshops and joined the feminist organisation, Rape Crisis, for two years.

About eighteen months prior to her banning, her husband died. This deepened her feelings of isolation during her five years of being banned and subsequently pushed her into therapy. Out of the eight banned leaders, Lapinsky was the only one to see her banning order through to the end.

When her banning order expired in 1978, Lapinsky shifted her focus towards the fledgeling gay and lesbian rights movement that was taking shape in the country. Along with her partner, Julia Nicol, she joined a small group of activists who were influential in persuading the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1990s to include gay rights in their agenda so that they could be constitutionally recognised. In 1983, Lapinsky served as the chairperson of the Cape Town branch of the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) and subsequently became a founding member of the Cape Town organisation, Lesbians and Gays Against Oppression (LAGO), which became the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Activists (OLGA). In addition, she was involved in organising a festival called Towards the People, where a performance highlighting the realities of the oppression felt by the gay and lesbian community was going to be presented. However, the government banned the festival before its launch.

Lapinsky was also active in the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) from 1987 to 1988. In 1994, she served on the executive of the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality until 1997. Following this, she went on to occupy official positions in the provincial structures of both the ANC and the SACP.

*Or 1945


Collections in the Archives