Ellen Hellmann was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 25, 1908. She was the daughter of Bernard Kaumheimer, who emigrated to South Africa from Bavaria, Germany in 1894, and Chlothilde Theilheimer. Hellman was educated at Barnato Park and at the classical section of the Commercial High School. She then attended the University of the Witwatersrand where, as a student of social anthropology, she came into contact with Agnes Winifred Hoernlé, who encouraged Ellen to do research among urban Africans.
She was a distinguished social anthropologist and a dedicated worker for education, welfare and race relations. Hellman studied at the University of Witwatersrand in the Department of Social Anthropology and African Administration under its first head of department, Agnes Winifred Hoernlé, who was one of South Africa's major ethnographers and a pioneering student of what was called “race relations”. Hellman’s fellow students included some of the most famous South African anthropologists, notably Max Gluckman, Hilda Kuper, and Eileen and Jack Krige.
In 1940 Ellen Hellmann became the first woman to obtain a D.Phil. degree at the University of Witwatersrand. Her dissertation, Early school leaving among African school children and the occupational opportunities open to the African juveniles, was published as Problems of Urban Bantu Youth (1940).
Hellman is credited with introducing Wulf Sachs, a doctor and psychoanalyst and the author of Black Hamlet, to his informant, John Chavafambira, at the end of 1933. The subtitle explains it as an account of The Mind of An African Negro Revealed by Psychoanalysis. The book was first published in 1937 and republished in 1947 as Black Anger.
Ellen Hellman, then a young anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, was in the process of researching an MA thesis on the slum area Rooiyard in New Doornfontein. John Chavafambira was an important informant, performing a vital mediating role between Hellmann and the Rooiyard community. In 1948, at the instigation of Max Gluckman, director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, Hellman's work was finally published as Rooiyard: A Sociological Survey of an Urban Native Slum Yard (reprinted 1969). This pioneering study of the process of proletarianisation and the inter-war conditions of urban African life, bears the strong imprint of “culture contact” theory, an approach which came to exert a dominant influence on South African social anthropology from the mid-1930s onwards.
In March 1932 she married Joseph Michael Hellmann, an attorney, and they had one daughter. After Joseph Michael Hellmann died in 1941, she married Dr. Bodo Koch in 1948. Her research, into the appalling conditions under which urban black Africans lived, imbued Hellmann with the desire to play a part in alleviating those conditions. She joined the multiracial Joint Council of Europeans and Bantu, serving first as secretary and later as chairperson; but she was to make her greatest contribution as a prominent figure in the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). As a leading executive member of that organization she brought her highly respected academic skills to the compilation and submission of evidence to various important government commissions. Among these were the Commission for Socio-economic Development of the Native Areas of South Africa (1955), known as the Tomlinson Commission, and the Commission of Inquiry into the Riots at Soweto and Elsewhere, which operated from June 16, 1976 to February 28, 1977, known as the Cillie Commission.
Apart from her work at the SAIRR, Hellmann chaired the Isaacson Bursary Fund for Africans that was linked to the SAIRR, and lectured at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, training Africans students to become social workers. She was also honorary treasurer of the African Welfare centre in Alexandra, a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Her opposition to the apartheid regime led her into active politics and she was a founding member of the liberal Progressive Party, serving on its executive from 1959 to 1971. She also held office in the Witwatersrand branch of the South African Institute for International Affairs and was involved in many Jewish organizations, including the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the representative body of South African Jewry, of which she was an executive member from 1940 to 1950.
Ellen Hellmann was of the firm opinion that South African Jews could not separate the problems that concerned the Jewish community from those concerning all South Africans, regardless of colour or creed. No group could view its own future without an awareness of the tensions and disunity prevailing in South African society at large and Jewish South Africans, she felt, needed to be more aware of the necessity for engagement with the actual conditions prevailing in South Africa.
In 1970 Sir Arthur Snelling, British Ambassador to South Africa, presented Ellen Hellmann with the Royal African Society’s medal for “dedicated service to Africa”. The presentation ceremony took place in the Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). The venue was most appropriate as Ellen Hellmann had been identified with the work of the SAIRR since its inception on May 9, 1929 and had played a crucial role in realising the Institute’s objective of a just and multi-racial society in South Africa. She headed many of the various committees of the SAIRR and was its president from 1954 to 1965. As chairperson of the important Research Committee, she set high standards for precise research and contributed enormously to the excellent reputation enjoyed by the SAIRR publications and its annual Race Relations Survey, which she edited.
Ellen was also a member of the Progressive Party from 1959 to 1971. The University of the Witwatersrand awarded Ellen Hellmann an Honorary Doctorate in Law in 1968.
These were fitting tributes to a compassionate and vigorous fighter who was committed to the peaceful struggle for a broad-based society of justice and equal opportunity.
Ellen Hellmann died in Johannesburg in November 1982 at the age of seventy-four.
Selected Works by Ellen Hellman
- Problems of Urban Bantu Youth. Johannesburg: 1940
- Rooiyard: A Sociological Survey of an Urban African Slum. Johannesburg: 1948.
- Reprinted 1969; editor. Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa. Johannesburg:
- 1949. Reprinted 1969; Sellgoods: A Sociological Survey of an African Commercial Labour Force. Johannesburg: 1953; Soweto: Johannesburg’s African City. Johannesburg: 1969.
• Unknown. (Unknown). School of Social Anthropology [Online]. Available at: web.wits.ac.za/ [Accessed 23 February 2010]
• Dubow, S. (1993, October 1). Wulf Sachs's 'Black Hamlet': a case of 'psychic vivisection'? [Online]. Available at: accessmylibrary.com/ [Accessed 23 February 2010]
• Milton, S. & Pimstone, M . (2005). ELLEN PHYLLIS HELLMANN [Online]. Available at:https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hellmann-ellen-phyllis [Accessed 23 February 2010]
Donate and Make African History Matter
South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.
Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.