Joseph, Helen (1905–1992)

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Joseph, Helen (1905–1992)

Anti-apartheid campaigner, officer of the Federation of South African Women and of the Congress of Democrats, who survived many years of banning and house arrest. Born Helen Beatrice May Fennell in Sussex, England, in 1905; died in Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 25, 1992; attended Roman Catholic convent schools; King's College of the University of London, majoring in English, Bachelor of Arts, 1928; University of London, Diploma of Theology, 1975; married Billie Joseph in Durban, South Africa, in 1931 (divorced 1948); no children.

Moved to India and remained to teach at Mahbubia School for Indian girls in Hyderabad (1928–30); moved to South Africa (1931); joined the South African Air Force as a welfare and information officer (1939–45); supervised National War Memorial Fund community centers for "Coloureds" in the Western Cape (late 1940s); became secretary of the Medical Aid Fund of the Garment Workers' Union in Johannesburg (1951); elected honorary secretary of Transvaal branch of the Federation of South African Women (early 1950s); elected to national executive committee of Congress of Democrats (1953); participated in Congress of the People (1955); was a leader of women's march on Union Buildings, Pretoria (August 9, 1956); charged with high treason (December 1956); banned for five years (April 1957); put under house arrest for five years (1962); put under house arrest for another five years (1967); made national tour of English-speaking white universities of South Africa as honorary national vice-president of National Union of South African Students (NUSAS, 1972); renounced British nationality (1973); jailed for four months for refusing to answer questions which might implicate Winnie Mandela (1977); banned for two years (June 1980).


If This Be Treason (Andre Deutsch, 1963); Tomorrow's Sin (1966); Side by Side (Zed Books, 1986).

On August 9, 1956, 20,000 South African women of all races, from every region in South Africa, traveled to Pretoria to protest apartheid and the issuing of passes to black women. For a full 30 minutes, they stood in silence in the amphitheater of the government Union Buildings with their fists raised in defiance. Then at 3:30 pm, they sang a new anthem, directed at the prime minister, Johannes Strijdom. "You have struck a rock," they sang, "you have tampered with the women, you shall be destroyed!" The date of August 9, now celebrated annually in South Africa as National Women's Day, is seen as a high point in women's collective participation in the struggle against apartheid. Helen Joseph was 51 when she helped lead the march on the Union Buildings; for the next 30-odd years, she continued her commitment to the eradication of racism and injustice in South Africa.

Helen Beatrice May Fennell was born in Sussex, England, of middle-class parents, in 1905. She learned of faraway places when her father, who was serving in World War I, sent pressed flowers to her and her brother, Frank, while he was stationed in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Helen felt drawn to the Roman Catholicism of the private convent schools she attended, but her mother insisted that she be confirmed in the Anglican Church. Though Joseph had lost interest in religion by the time she left school, she would begin to attend church regularly during her second term of house arrest in the 1960s.

Helen's father could only afford to send one of his children to university. Since Frank decided to go into business, Helen was able to attend King's College of the University of London, where she obtained a second-class honors degree. Unlike many of her peers, she does not seem to have seen marriage as the immediate goal. Instead, she determined to become a teacher and, because she had no degree, made plans to teach overseas, where she could work without professional qualifications.

In 1928, Joseph arrived in Hyderabad, one of the largest princely states in India, to teach at the Mahbubia School for Indian girls. In retrospect, Helen Joseph came to feel that the princes "ruled tyrannically" in Hyderabad, but at the time, she says, she "absorbed very little of Indian politics" despite the widespread passive resistance movement then being undertaken by Mohandas Gandhi's Indian National Congress. Joseph recalled that in Hyderabad "we were encapsulated in our pleasant social life, but had I wanted to I could then have learnt so much about the Indian fight for freedom and justice, so similar to the struggle which was to absorb me in South Africa later." While in India, she made friends with Indians, however, and this experience possibly helped to raise her consciousness about racial oppression once she arrived in South Africa.

Helen left India in 1931, after a serious horseback riding accident cut short her teaching activities. She headed for Durban, on the lush east coast of South Africa, where she knew an old university friend. Within months, 26-year-old Helen married Billie Joseph, a dentist who was 17 years her senior. For the next eight years, Helen did not work—her husband thought it inappropriate—and spent her days as befitting the white upper-middle class, coming in contact with black South Africans only in their positions as domestic workers and gardeners. According to the Weekly Mail, Joseph "was known as beautiful and flighty, leading a life of wining and dining and bridge parties." Later, Helen would acknowledge that both she and Billie had a number of love affairs; by the time World War II broke out in 1939, they were leading separate lives.

I have followed the road "less travelled by," the road of involvement in the liberation struggle. But that road has drawn no sigh from me, as it did from the poet. It draws from me only deep gratitude to know that there was room for me, a white, to walk along that road.

—Helen Joseph

Billie soon joined the South African Dental Corps. Somewhat later, Helen applied to become a lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and moved from Durban to Pretoria, the executive capital of the Union. She joined the ranks of the Information Service whose duty was to "inculcate a liberal, tolerant attitude of mind in the women serving in the forces." This was "truly an astounding mission," recalled Joseph, since the "white women of the WAAF" were "born and bred in a society which denied human rights to others on the grounds of colour and race."

This served as the beginning of Joseph's political education. "That's where I learnt," she said, "because we had to lecture on current affairs and on politics; and in order to be able to lecture I had to learn first. Then I began to see the facts—you know, the facts about bantu education; the facts of the discrimination; the facts of housing—and that began to worry me. I always had a bit of a social worker's conscience … that's where I started." She came to see "how black children struggled for education and opportunity" and how black people—the vast majority of the population—had been forced off their land by whites.

At war's end, Helen and Billie Joseph separated, though neither wanted a divorce, and she took a number of jobs directing community health centers, first in Johannesburg and then in Cape Town. While managing the National War Memorial Health Foundation's community centers for the coloured people of Cape Town, Joseph came to feel that "all our social services were only alleviating the existing evils, not eradicating them. … Our little islands of concern were not affecting the total situation." When the job of secretary-director of the Medical Aid Fund of the Garment Workers' Union in the Transvaal province became available, she saw it as an opportunity to be more effective and jumped at the chance, starting work in Johannesburg in March 1951. It was in this job, through her professional, then personal, association with Solly Sachs, general secretary of the predominantly female and non-racial Garment Workers' Union, that Helen was introduced into left-wing politics. She campaigned on behalf of Sachs and others when they represented the Labour Party in municipal elections and gradually became more deeply involved in political activity.

In May 1952, the government forced Sachs to step down as head of the union because he was a communist; on May 24, Joseph participated in her first major political demonstration, joining thousands of workers in a march through Johannesburg to protest the government's action. Solly Sachs moved to London, and Joseph went with him, but decided after a while to return to South Africa to be more involved in the fight against apartheid.

When a new radical white organization was launched in October 1953 as the South African Congress of Democrats, Joseph willingly accepted an invitation to serve on the provisional committee. Other outstanding members included Ruth First and the Reverend Trevor Huddleston of the Anglican Church. The Congress of Democrats became the white branch of the ANC-led anti-apartheid organization called the Congress Alliance, which united the African National Congress, the Indian National Congress, and the South African Coloured People's Organization, and Joseph was soon elected to the National Executive Committee. Her political activism was started in earnest, as the congress participated in most of the big political campaigns of the 1950s, including the Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People. Joseph told Beata Lipman :

I firmly believe that the Liberal Party would never have got as far as it did, if it hadn't been for us. We were always one step ahead of the Liberal Party. When it came to the Congress of the People they didn't want to come in because they hadn't been consulted at the beginning; we were in—we pushed them into adopting the universal franchise: they couldn't rule it out, because we were there. I think as a ginger group we were very effective … and we did have a symbolic value too. Here was one group of whites standing foursquare with the African National Congress, the Indian Congress and the coloureds. The congress alliance itself was tremendously important; and weren't we privileged to be a part of it? I think so.

On April 17, 1954, the multiracial Federation of South African Women (FSAW) was founded as an umbrella organization for affiliated organizations such as the ANC Women's League and trade unions. Joseph helped Hilda Bernstein and Ray Alexander, now legendary activists in the struggle against apartheid, to organize the inaugural conference, and she recalled that the gathering "drew over 150 women from all over the country, some wearing brilliantly coloured national dress, all eager to participate in the proceedings. Interpreters were sometimes hard put to accommodate the variety of languages—English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans." Joseph was elected honorary secretary of the Transvaal branch and in 1956 became secretary of the Federation.

Through her leadership roles in the Federation and in the Congress of Democrats, Joseph's life became intertwined with most of the significant political figures and key events in the antiapartheid struggle within South Africa. She helped organize the Congress of the People held in 1955 at Klipfontein, where the now famous Freedom Charter was read to call "the people of South Africa, black and white, to come together to adopt a people's Freedom Charter." Joseph worked closely with ANC leaders and met Chief Albert Luthuli, who was head of the ANC, and also got to know Nelson Mandela.

In 1955, Joseph traveled to Geneva to attend an organizers' meeting for the World Congress of Mothers, which was to be held later that year in Lausanne. It was at the Geneva gathering that Joseph seems to have come into her own as a public speaker. After discussing apartheid and the South African government's proposed scheme to demolish Sophiatown, a black suburb of Johannesburg and a major cultural center, she ended by declaring to the delegates, "Where you stand today, we shall stand tomorrow!" She said of that moment, "That gathering of women rose to their feet in a standing ovation, not to me as a speaker, but to the women of South Africa whose message I had brought."

The 1950s were a time of dramatic political activity in South Africa, mostly because of the new vibrancy of the ANC and the attempts by the Nationalist government to institute its policies of "grand apartheid." The government targeted members of the Congress Alliance as traitors, and in 1956 Joseph joined Nelson Mandela, Ruth First, and 153 other activists as defendants in what came to be known as the Treason Trial, which dragged on until 1961. The trial inspired Joseph to write her first book, If This Be Treason, in which she recounted the events of that period; it was banned in South Africa but published in England in 1963.

While out on bail, Joseph continued in her role as secretary of the Transvaal branch of the FSAW and organized more women's conferences across the Transvaal. The government did not

take kindly to this activity and on April 23, 1957, Joseph was banned for five years: she could not leave Johannesburg and could not attend any political meetings of any kind. While still on trial in 1960 and still banned, she was detained along with thousands of others in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, when police killed more than 60 peaceful demonstrators who were protesting the pass system. Joseph remained in prison for five months, but the government's intimidation tactics proved useless: on March 29, 1961, the court found the defendants in the Treason Trial not guilty, and all were set free.

Meanwhile, the government had banned the ANC in 1960, leading Mandela and others to believe that they had no option but to go underground and launch an armed struggle against the apartheid government. Though Joseph had always believed fervently in non-violence, she now came to believe that the example set by Gandhi was increasingly of little value in South Africa, where the state was prepared to use "brutal methods, … armed force and nationwide intimidation." This view soon proved correct: in 1962, the government banned the Congress of Democrats, passed the General Laws Amendment Act which defined sabotage so broadly that any opposition to the government outside parliamentary circles became illegal, and arrested Nelson Mandela. On October 13, Joseph became the first person to be put under house arrest. Now she had to report to a police station every day and stay at home each night after 6:30 and on weekends. She could not "leave the magisterial area of Johannesburg," she recalled, "or be in any black area, or factory, or communicate with any banned or listed person. Nor could any of my friends visit me in my home, or even walk down my garden path, nor could I attend any gatherings, social or political."

While under her first house arrest, Joseph wrote her second book, Tomorrow's Sun, about the hundreds of black activists who had been banished to remote parts of the country because of their political activity. After the book's publication in 1966 in London, the South African government immediately issued banning orders to prevent her from writing another. They also made it illegal for her to enter "any building which housed the offices of a trade union or any organisation which produced a publication," wrote Joseph. "I realised with a sort of sick horror that my office at the Medical Aid Society was in the building which housed the Garment Workers' Union and I could not enter it again."

Joseph found a job in a bookshop: she could be around books as long as she did not write them. In 1967, four days before her house arrest was due to end, the government served an order extending her house arrest for another five years. By 1971, she had served nine years of house arrest, had been the victim of death threats, had had a bomb delivered to her garden gate, and was undergoing treatment for cancer. Under pressure from Helen Suzman , the single liberal opposition figure in Parliament, and from growing international outrage, the Justice Department finally suspended Joseph's house arrest indefinitely.

In her freedom, Joseph returned to a new political landscape. The FSAW had collapsed under the weight of bannings and imprisonments; the ANC and other organizations had been banned for just over a decade. But the 1970s witnessed a resurgence of anti-apartheid activity within the country, initiated by black students in the Soweto township who led the famous 1976 revolt against inferior education. Joseph found a role as veteran political speaker to a new generation of students. In 1971, she was elected honorary national vice-president of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and, despite being a listed person, she began to speak at student gatherings at the English-speaking white universities across the country. Said Joseph, "It seems to be something that's appealed to everyone—the sight of an old woman saying, 'Bugger the government.'" She again came up against the state, however, when she visited Winnie Mandela (Winnie Madikizela) in Brandfort, the rural town to which the black activist had been banished. In 1978, Joseph was ordered to appear before a magistrate in Bloemfontein to answer questions about her visit; on refusing to do so, she was jailed for four months.

In 1980, Joseph embarked on another tour to NUSAS campuses, addressing students about the new education boycott which black and coloured students were undertaking across the country. In June of that year, the government retaliated yet again by banning her for two years from any association with young people or any type of political meeting. "I admit I earned it," said Joseph at the time. "[I] treat it as an accolade anyway, an award of merit. … I think they were scared to do it before because they always hoped I wouldn't live that long. And I'm sure that's why it's only two years." But 1980 also witnessed the regeneration of the Federation of South African Women, and on August 9 women activists began anew to formally celebrate National Women's Day. After Joseph's banning order expired, she became part of yet another political era: that of the multiracial United Democratic Front, launched just outside Cape Town in 1983. Joseph was introduced as "mother of the struggle" and was elected an Honorary Patron of the Front, which during the 1980s essentially served as the legal internal wing of the still-banned ANC.

In the last years of her life, Joseph continued to attend significant political events, often in a wheelchair towards the end. Although a foreigner, her commitment to eradicating injustice in that country put most white South Africans to shame. As Nelson Mandela wrote to her on the occasion of her first house arrest: "Courage never failed you in the past. It will not fail you now when all signs point unmistakably to the early defeat of all regimes based on force and violence. You and I and indeed the millions of freedom fighters in this country cannot afford to take this challenge lying down." Helen Joseph's life clearly demonstrated that she was up to the challenge. In 1990, she lived to see the day that the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela walked out of prison a free man. She died in Johannesburg on Christmas Day, December 25, 1992, at age 87, two years before South Africa's general election of Nelson Mandela as its first black president.


Joseph, Helen. Side by Side. London: Zed Books, 1986.

Lipman, Beata. We Make Freedom: Women in South Africa. Pandora, 1984.

Lodge, Tom. Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

Bernstein, Hilda. For Their Triumphs and Their Tears: Women in Apartheid South Africa. London: International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1985.

Lazerson, Joshua. Against the Tide: Organized White Resistance to Apartheid, 1940–1964. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Walker, Cherryl. Women and Resistance in South Africa. London: Onyx Press, 1982.

Pamela Scully , Assistant Professor of History, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio