From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph

The 1950s had been a decade of protest, from the Defiance Campaign at the beginning to the Treason Trial victory and the resistance of women to passes at its end. There had been tough battles with the Nationalist government, there had been oppression, but the underlying feeling had been a sense of achievement, even of triumph, despite the setbacks along the road.

Now we came into a new decade ”” the decade of the worst legal oppression yet known. As the years dragged by, each new security law brought further inroads into personal liberty, into accepted norms of justice.

The 1960s became the years of political trials, of detention without trial, of torture and death under interrogation. The maximum-security gaols filled up with hundreds of political prisoners, men who had committed no crime against society but had pitted themselves and their cause against the armageddon of the Nationalist state.

The first half of 1962 brought the General Laws Amendment Act, which had spawned house arrest and other intensified restrictions of personal liberty. December 1962 brought a sinister rider to this Act in Government Notice No. 2130. Its provisions had a devastating effect on the lives of many banned and listed people ”” the four hundred and thirty seven persons whose names had been published as having been members or supporters of the banned Communist Party. It affected even people who were neither banned nor listed but had once been members or even supporters of an illegal organisation and this covered members of the now illegal Congress of Democrats.

The effect of the notice was far-reaching, drastic, as it forbade banned and listed people from belonging to any of thirty-six different legal organisations, some of which no longer existed, some of which I had never heard. What they all had in common was their opposition to the Nationalist regime. The Federation of South African Women was included and also the Indian and Coloured Congresses. The ANC. the PAC and the COD were, of course, already banned.

The notice then went much further. It contained a prohibition on being a member, officer or office-bearer of any organisation, which propagates, attacks, defends, criticises or discusses any form of state or any principle or policy of the government of a state. It was so broad in its implications that it was breathtaking ”” once you understood it ”” for it was worded in such a cumbersome way that I had to read it a couple of times before I understood it myself. It was also published very unobtrusively in the government Gazette so that it took a little while before even the people affected were aware that they could no longer work for an organisation, which was political. Parliament was in recess and this notice was not even debated.

I was now totally excluded from the Federation of South African Women and had to resign as its National Secretary. This came as a very bitter blow because until I was banned in 1962, the Federation had formed possibly the most important part of my life. From now on I should be permanently cut off from it. Listing does not come to an end when a banning order expires. It is permanent and it still affects my life twenty years later. The earlier five-year ban in the 1950s, and even the more recent restrictions, had brought only difficulties that could be overcome and I was still the National Secretary. But that was over, for this notice undoubtedly covered the Federation ”” and me.

I also had to resign officially as the Honorary Secretary of the Human Rights Welfare Committee for the banished people. Its political nature was inherent in its very name but I had no intention of abandoning it. We had always held our discussions in private and my name never appeared thereafter in any minutes. After our journey to the banished people and their families, I could not tolerate the idea of giving up the close personal connections that had grown out of it. I continued my correspondence with the individual banished men and women, but only in my personal capacity.

I received a letter from the liquidator appointed for the Congress of Democrats after its banning in 1962. I was invited to show reasons why my name should not be included amongst those of the already listed people, on the grounds that I had been an office-bearer, a member and an active supporter of the Congress of Democrats. I had certainly been all of these and I was proud to have been so. I had also given sworn testimony in the treason trial about my position in the Congress of Democrats. In any event, nothing would have persuaded me to deny my association with my organisation. I ignored the liquidator's letter and my name was duly placed on the list. Now I fell under Notice 2130 on three counts. I was banned, I was listed and I had belonged to an illegal organisation.

Already in 1962, I had written to the Minister of Justice asking for the reasons for my banning and house arrest orders. I received a reply as ludicrous as the one asked for at the time of my first bans in 1957. It added a few choice extras, for example that I had associated with listed communists but as the names of the listed people were published only after my house arrest, I could not see how I was supposed to know who they were. I certainly had not known that Joe Morolong, who had been with me for the whole journey to the banished people, was a listed person, until I saw that one of the reasons given for my house arrest and bans was that I had arrived in Cape Town in the company of this listed person. And I still could not see laughing, friendly Joe as a dangerous person!

At the end of March 1963, the Supreme Court of Justice upheld the minister's appeal against Jack Hodgson's legal victory, which had brought us that precious three months of partial freedom. My taste of social life again had been brief but very good, but this time the minister had won and we went back to our half-life under house arrest. I found that I soon slipped back into the former routine. The first shock was over and it was not as difficult as the first time, especially as all the other restrictions had remained in force.

As I moved slowly through the first year of house arrest, it developed its own rhythm. The freedom to move out of my house as early as half past six in the morning didn't mean very much to me. This couple of hours before my office work began seemed a bit of a waste, until I started to call on my friends sometimes to have breakfast with them. I called on others on my way home in the evenings for a quick drink and some chatter ”” behind drawn curtains if there was more than one other person present, and always watching the time so that I could be sure of getting home before half past six.

For a time, one of my greatest joys was having the Cachalia family, Amina, Yusuf and their two little children, just around the comer from my office, not even five minutes away. I could and did go there often for a quick lunch with them, the kind of meal which only banned people know, always on the alert for a knock on the front door and the hasty retreat into another room with your plate, knife, fork and glass. It was not a violation of my bans to be found in the Cachalia home, but it would be if I were discovered with more than one person.

I had always known that Amina suffered from a heart condition, even from childhood, but the news that she was to undergo major heart surgery came as a great shock to me. I became deeply anxious and depressed over it, fearing that I might lose this precious friend. I suppose it was inevitable that during periods of enforced isolation, such as I had every night; anxiety affects one more severely. I reached the lowest level of depression that I had yet experienced. I could not sleep properly, I wept, I suppose mostly in self-pity, in fear that Amina might die and for my own feeling of being so desperately alone.

Amina recovered from her operation, but her family moved away from the little house around the comer from my office. It was no longer possible for us to share my lunch hour. We telephoned each other often until one night she said; "Hold on, Helen, there's someone at the door..." There were indeed ”” two security policemen who served five-year banning orders on her, while I was still holding the telephone. It meant that for the next five years, we should not be able to speak to each other, yet even this restriction could not destroy our friendship.

After that I could only look at her on Saturdays when she and her husband, Yusuf, also banned and house-arrested like me, would walk with their children to the police station to report. I would get there at the same time, just so that we could smile at each other as I passed in my car or walked in silence beside Yusuf to write our names in the house-arrest register.

Despite all my restrictions, I did not escape attention from the security police. They suddenly instituted a vicious campaign of following me by car wherever I went. It was unreal, sometimes comic and mostly sinister. When I left my home in the morning to go to work, one or even two cars would be parked in Fanny Avenue, a block away, and would pull out behind me and follow me all the way to town. This performance would be repeated when I went to report at the police station too, whether I went there by car, or bus, or walked. When I returned home, they were there again.

For six weeks I went nowhere except to work, for I had no intention of leading these tailing cars to the homes of my friends. I think I drove the entire time with one eye on the rear-view mirror. I had two collisions with other cars during that time. Then this persecution stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Perhaps I supplied a useful exercise in training police recruits to follow suspect cars. Perhaps the police foolishly imagined that I was planning to escape from my irksome house arrest by leaving South Africa. I certainly did not have any such plans, then or at any other time. I had the right, as British born, to leave South Africa, but the bans prevented me from leaving Johannesburg to reach any airport or seaport. So perhaps they really thought I was going to make a dash for it.

It was a gruelling experience for me, but once I got a laugh out of it when my unwelcome escort got in front of me in a traffic snarl and I deliberately followed him, bumper to bumper, until he tired of this reversal of roles and drove away very fast. It reminded me of a time when Robert Resha and I were returning from a meeting one night and realised that we were being followed. We came to a traffic circle and I drove round and round it until it was impossible to say who was following whom. When it finally dawned on the police that I was not even trying to get away from them, but laughing at them, they drove off in disgust.

During the three months when house arrest fell away, I forgot one Saturday afternoon that I should have reported to the police before half past two. I was arrested a few days later and spent a few solitary hours in the police cells before being charged and released on bail. I was held in the same large cell where we had been detained three years before and I was delighted to see that our lipstick and eyebrow pencil scrawls, our defiant graffiti of Congress slogans, were still on the walls.

This dire offence, to forget to report to the police station and write my name in a book, carried an unbelievable minimum sentence of twelve months in gaol. I don't think anyone has ever really understood just why this offence should be considered so dangerous. Over the years almost every banned person has come to grief over this senseless obligation. To forget is not a planned defiance, as no one in his right mind would deliberately fail to report and court twelve months in prison for it.

Inevitably, I was convicted. It was held by the court to be blameworthy negligence. I should have taken adequate precautions to see that I did not forget this vital obligation. I did not of course know beforehand that I was going to forget but perhaps I should have plastered my office with notices, "Report to the police at lunch time!" It had not occurred to me to do that.

I was sentenced to the compulsory twelve months' gaol but the magistrate suspended it all except four days and I served my sentence in Johannesburg gaol. It ended up as only two days, thanks to the happy coincidence of a weekend and a public holiday. I handed myself over with a plastic bag containing my toilet things, which was all I was allowed to have of my own possessions, donned the prison garb and was released again the following morning. That part was over, but I still had eleven months and twenty-six days of gaol hanging over my head. This could be imposed, in addition to any new sentence, should I again forget to report.

There came a day, of course, when I did forget a second time. I was totally unaware of it and protested the next day that I had actually been to report, whether or not the house-arrest register had my signature. I persuaded the policeman on duty that I had been there. He believed me and reluctantly permitted me to sign the register for two days. On my way back to the office I tried to reconstruct the previous day, which I had taken off to attend to a number of private matters and do some shopping. Horrified, I realised that in fact I could not have reported to the police station at all.

I generally regard the police as enemies, even the uniformed police, for they are guilty of shameful acts of brutality towards black people. Yet over the years there had inevitably developed some friendly relations with the staff at the police station where I went to report. They had almost always been helpful and courteous. I felt ashamed that I had, even if unintentionally, deceived that young policeman. I was concerned lest his breach of duty might be held against him.

I drove back to the police station and demanded to see the station commander. I told him what I had done, that I was prepared to take the consequences. To my amazement he assured me that he knew about it already and that the police were not going to take any action against me for not reporting. I fancy the security police had not been informed of my omission. I went back to my office with a lighter heart. I knew that if I had been convicted again of failing to report, I might have to face the imposition of the twelve-month suspended sentence as well as any new sentence.

During 1964 I was arrested again, not this time for violating my banning orders, but on two other more serious charges, one for possessing banned literature and the other for furthering the aims of a banned organisation, the ANC. The banned literature charge developed a comic dimension. I had, in fact, thrown it into my office wastepaper basket, still unopened, but addressed to me. It had been "discovered" by a zealous security policeman who obviously knew where to look for it ”” on a recessed ledge in the men's cloakroom, where someone must have hidden it. When I protested in court that I had never set foot in the men's loo, the prosecutor accused me of standing in the doorway and pitching the magazine onto the ledge, some eight feet away. Not surprisingly, the magistrate acquitted me on that charge.

The charge relating to the banned ANC had to do with a sum of money repaid to the Federation of South African Women by the ANC in respect of a loan made from the Federation Bail Fund when the ANC was still legal. My defence counsel soon disposed of this allegation of furthering the aims of an organisation by accepting repayment of a loan and I was acquitted.

At this time, the danger of deportation was drawing rather close to me because, although I was a South African citizen, it was not by birth or descent. Conviction under almost every clause of the Suppression of Communism Act could lead to deportation, prefaced by a period in gaol. Fortunately, my only conviction so far was under Section 10 of the Act for failing to report to the police. Although this carried that ominous provision for compulsory imprisonment, it was almost the only clause, which did not carry deportation. So I had to be thankful for small mercies and hope that I should be able to avoid any other offence under the Act.

After the end of the treason trial in 1961,1 had written the story of the trial, as we had known it from the dock. I called it, If This Be Treason. It could neither be published nor sold in South Africa because I was a banned person, which made it an offence to quote or disseminate anything that I had said or written.

The book was published in 1963 and a few copies eventually made their way to me. When I held one copy in my hand for the first time, only then did I feel that I was an author. I had a surprise telephone call from London one night, from the party held to celebrate publication day. My brother spoke to me and I think he too could hardly believe that this was all in honour of his sister's book. It all seemed very unreal to me that this should be going on so far away without me there. I felt isolated and elated, both at the same time.

Ever since our journey to the banished people, I had wanted to write the stories of these men and women we had found. We had listened to their stories, only one or two of which had ever been published. South Africa knew almost nothing about these forgotten people, about the stark horror of their lonely lives, the utter hopelessness of indefinite banishment.

My bans did not, at that time, prohibit me from actually writing, only from being published here, but I didn't want to risk the possibility of additional bans to prevent my writing at all. In 1965 I was able to take a few months' leave from my job and this helped me greatly towards writing another book ”” this time about the banished people. I called it Tomorrow's Sun. I had taken the title from Olive Schreiner's book. Trooper Peter Halkett.

Tomorrow's sun shall rise and it shall flood these dark koppies with light, and the rocks shall glint in it. Not more certain is that rising than the coming of the day . . . here on the spot where now we stand shall be raised a temple. Man shall not gather in it to worship that which divides; but they shall stand in it shoulder to shoulder, white man with black and the stranger with the inhabitant of the land; and the place shall be holy for men shall say, 'Are we not brethren and the sons of one Father?'

Thoughout this period I worked at least one day a week at my office because I did not want to highlight my being on prolonged leave for fear of unwelcome police attention. I spent many days writing in the lovely peaceful garden of the Community of the Resurrection, or in their quiet library. There I could work with a feeling of security, without listening for the opening and closing of car doors as I did at home. But I took care that I was not followed as I drove there and back.

I finished writing Tomorrow's Sun. I posted the chapters to London a few pages at a time, as friends completed the typing for me. I waited for the publishers' verdict. It came on a very wet Saturday when I was at home for my house-arrest weekend with no visitors allowed. The post brought the opinion from the publishers' official reader. I was devastated. The opinion was unfavourable, mainly because I had tried to put too much into the book; too many stories, too many people. He said, among other things, that I had produced an amorphous clump of people with unpronounceable names.

I found this accusation ridiculous, even an example of English chauvinism. What right had he, or anyone else, to reject names in another language simply because he couldn't pronounce them? At the end, however, he conceded that he had felt that I was standing at his elbow, saying "Listen, listen!!" and he had had to listen. The publishers urged me to consider rewriting the book, bearing the criticism in mind.

It was the day of Churchill's funeral, broadcast in all its sombre majesty. I thought miserably that I could also hear the death knell tolling for my book. It was a terrible afternoon and the rain kept pouring down. My gloom persisted right through that empty weekend. Write it again? Leave out so many of the stories about the banished people? That was what the book was all about ”” I had not wanted to write it for any other reason.

My first reaction was to abandon the book altogether. Then I consulted a couple of friends, themselves writers, finally taking their advice that I must try again. I owed it to the banished people, for there was no one else to tell their tragic stories as I could. Their stories would not be told unless I rewrote my book. I cut and slashed and I tried again. This time with success and the book was published. The stories of the banished people were told to the world, even if not to South Africa.

The advance publicity for Tomorrow's Sun appeared in London in February 1966. The government acted against me immediately. Within two weeks of the publicity I was served with additional banning orders, which prohibited me from preparing any material for publication or even assisting in doing so. The connection with my book was clear enough. I was to write nothing more. This prohibition had not been included in my original bans because this particular refinement had not been thought up then. I could only laugh. The minister was too late, for the book had already been published in England.

When I read the orders more carefully, however, I realised that my laughter was a little too premature. There were other prohibitions, new to me, though often included in the bans of others banned after me. I was now prohibited from entering any building, which housed the offices of a trade union, or any organisation, which produced a publication. 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.

With my usual confidence I was sure that I could find a way out of even this difficulty. It did not take me long to work out an interim plan while I waited for a reply from the minister to my urgent application to be allowed to enter the building where my office was. Meanwhile, I continued my work at home, keeping contact by telephone and fetching and returning work daily; just standing outside the building on the pavement. It wasn't a very dignified procedure but it was better than nothing.

The minister replied with a flat refusal. I realised that he had not only prevented me from writing again, but that my job was now in jeopardy. Within twenty-four hours the management committee notified me that my appointment had been terminated. My suggestion that I might work in an office in an adjacent building was rejected. It was clear. My employers had had enough of Helen Joseph, despite my contribution to the Medical Aid Society.

I was stunned and humiliated, almost unbelieving. The Society was not ungenerous. It paid me a handsome honorarium, which I wanted to throw back, but commonsense prevailed over dignity. I had to live and I had more than earned that money over the years. It took me some time to see the whole affair in perspective and to accept that this turbulent Secretary had sorely tried the patience of the Society. It was not surprising that I had to go when the opportunity presented itself in that I could no longer even enter the building. I sometimes wonder how I managed to survive there so long, fifteen years, for there had been the treason trial, five months in detention and the house arrest and bans.

It was a new experience for me to be sacked. I had to accept that I was almost unemployable, despite my degree and diploma and my long administrative and social welfare experience. I was sixty-one, heavily handicapped by my political reputation and by these new banning orders with their prohibitions, not only on entering buildings but also on teaching or publishing of any sort.

Like so many other banned people, I abandoned any thought of employment at the executive or professional level, which I had enjoyed for so long. No welfare organisation would dare to employ me as a social worker for fear of losing government subsidies.

I went through a few disillusioning weeks of applying for advertised vacancies. Prospective employers would show initial enthusiasm over my experience and qualifications but freeze in silence on hearing who I was. It was necessary for me to say that I was banned because as both a banned and listed person I was compelled to inform the police of any change of employment. I knew from the experience of others that a new job was always followed by a visit from the security police to the new employers. It had happened to others. It would happen to me.

Until now my life had been cushioned by the security of my job, despite the problems of being banned and house-arrested. Others had not been so fortunate. Being banned had spelt financial ruin to some and to almost everyone intolerable anxiety over the future, with prospects of lengthy unemployment to be ended only with uncongenial and lower-paid jobs. This had already driven some banned people out of the country and well-meaning friends suggested that I too should go, return to England to be free, reminding me that I was at no age to start job-hunting with so many handicaps. Yet the thought of leaving South Africa was never in my mind. I was convinced I could survive somehow; even if I had to live very modestly, sell my car, perhaps even my home. But not yet. I could battle on.

I went on the dole. It had an almost comic dimension. I arrived at the Unemployment Insurance Fund Depot, my glowing testimonials under my arm and my unemployment insurance card in my hand, hoping to have some sort of job offered to me. I had to fill in various forms and when it came to the question whether I had ever been in gaol, I had to answer, "Yes", remembering my one and only conviction, failing to report to the police. I was referred to the rehabilitation office, where I joined some weary men seated on hard benches. They gazed at me unbelievingly, almost resentfully, although I was simply ex-gaol and unemployed, just as they were.

The rehabilitation officer, after reading my testimonials from university, community centres and the Medical Aid Society, said despairingly, "Of course I can't find anyone like you a job. We just don't have that kind of job here." After that I drew my dole every fortnight and no one ever tried to find a job for me. I just went on trying on my own, unsuccessfully.

I wanted to do it myself. I didn't want to ask for favours, but I could not succeed alone. When my six months' dole was almost exhausted I went cap in hand to Fanny Klenerman of the famous Vanguard bookshop. I asked her for a job, any kind of job. I first had to make sure legally that selling books was not disseminating literature, as prohibited in my banning orders, but it was all right. Selling books is merely a commercial transaction. Before the end of the year I was working in the bookshop, though I never became a good saleswoman.

During the 1960s, the number of banned people ran into hundreds and included many who had completed sentences for political offences, only to face a further punishment on release, this time without trial. They too were house-arrested and banned, which effectively destroyed almost every avenue of employment. They were prohibited from entering factories, certain buildings, universities and schools. Bans and prison records sowed fear in the hearts of prospective employers. In this nationwide atmosphere of intimidation, so deliberately cultivated by the system under which we live, very few employers, even today, can be found to give jobs to banned people.

Banning orders were being imposed on all sorts and types of men and women, from university professor to housewife, from the man on the factory floor to the business executive. Joe Morolong, who came all the way with me on that long journey to the banished, Mildred Lesia and Mitta Goeiman, who had joined us for part of the way, they were all banned. Joe was confined to a radius of a mile and half around his father's dwelling in the lonely lands of the Northern Cape, with no other dwellings in sight.

All of us were now banned, Amina, Joe, Mildred, Mitta and I. We could no longer communicate with each other. I remembered those months of close companionship on our long journey and the tragedies of those we had visited together. My own loss of freedom seemed a small price to pay for the joy and hope we had brought to those lonely people. They had been forgotten. We had not.