From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
While I was living encapsulated in house arrest, the 1960s inexorably became a decade of disgrace, of repressive legislation. Sadistic incarceration, even torture by the security police to extract information from helpless victims, was the order of the day. South Africa was following the barbaric example of Nazi Germany and had learnt its lessons well.
Umkhonto We Sizwe sabotage continued and multiplied, always keeping to the policy of avoiding loss of life. Installations and buildings were the targets, not human beings.
During 1961, Poqo had emerged as a new underground sabotage organisation, formed by extremist members of the PAC, now itself underground like the ANC. Unlike Umkhonto, it did not confine its violence to attacks on installations but also planned and carried out violent physical reprisals on individuals, black and white, leading to injuries and death, sometimes in a kind of mindless violence.
In 1963, the government's response was another General Laws Amendment Act, which went far beyond the Act of 1962. Detention without trial was introduced as a permanent feature, obviating any need for the declaration of a State of Emergency. This detention could be used against any person whom the police suspected of planning sabotage, or any offence under the Sabotage Act, or, and more sinister, anyone who, in the opinion of the police, could supply any information relating to it. Detainees were held totally incommunicado for up to ninety days, or released and then immediately re-detained for another ninety days. These were frightening provisions, opening wide the door for ill treatment of detainees in order to obtain information.
The infamous Act became law on 1 May 1963. Within a week the first people were detained and by the end of 1963 there had been over 500 such detentions. There were horrifying reports of detainees' conditions, invariably solitary confinement, usually with no reading or writing material, although sometimes the Bible was allowed. There were reports of physical torture, especially electric shocks applied to sensitive parts of the body.
Some of my friends were detained very soon, others a little later, but the shadow of "ninety days" hung over us all. I listened, as many others did, I know, for the sound of a car stopping in the middle of the night, counting the number of car doors I heard closing, lest it should be the police.
The provision for ninety-days' detention without trial was suspended by the minister at the beginning of 1965, but not before it had cost the lives of three men. Official reports claimed suicide as the cause of all three deaths, but the doubts in the minds of many have never been laid to rest.
Babla Salojee was one of the "suicides". He was well known to us in Johannesburg as a lively member of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress. After sixty-five days of detention, Babla, so often bubbling with laughter before his detention, fell to his death from a seventh-floor window of the police buildings while he was being interrogated. No one will ever really know what led to his death ”” unless you believe the police story. Nor is it really necessary to know the details, for his death, like others, lies at the door of the interrogating policemen.
More than 1,000 people were detained before the notorious Clause 17 authorising the ninety-days' detention was suspended, but it still remained on the statute book, to be invoked should the Minister of Justice deem it necessary. Within six months of the suspension, the ninety days was replaced by the provision for 180 days' detention without trial, this time to compel reluctant witnesses to give evidence. The minister was apparently not satisfied with the ninety days' results, even though one-quarter of the detainees had become state witnesses, betrayed their colleagues and their cause to escape from the horrors of gaol and torture. I should have thought the minister might have been satisfied with one in every four. But no, even harsher measures had to be devised to make a man sell his soul in exchange for his freedom. One hundred and eighty days became an even uglier weapon with the same terrifying background of isolation and torture, physical assault, thirty, forty hours of standing in one spot without sleep or rest, and electric shocks. This last refinement of torture seemed then to have been reserved for blacks. It is humiliating to realise that even in detention the white skin counts.
The year 1967 brought the new Terrorism Act. We had thought nothing could be much worse than the previous year's legislation, but we were wrong. The Terrorism Act spread an even wider net for those who participated in or even knew of terrorist activities, with a minimum of five years' imprisonment and room for the death sentence. Under the grim Section 6 of the Act, detention for interrogation became indefinite and the detainee completely incommunicado. South Africa had indeed become a police state.
Protest, whether national or international, made no difference. This sadistic compulsion remained enshrined in South African law, but the reality of it was hidden, high up on the top floor of police buildings, shut in by thick walls and barred doors, through which screams of agony could sometimes be heard. This barbarous method of extracting information has had different names, ninety days, 180 days, and now, even today, it is the dreaded "Section 6 ". It is still the same, but now not only for blacks. It can be the bag over the head, the total removal of clothes, shocks applied to the most private parts of the body. The miracle remains that so many are not broken on this rack of torture, which leaves no physical mark. But other marks remain. "It has deprived me of my humanity," one detainee told me, "because I can no longer see these people as human beings. And I am angry at being deprived of any part of my humanity."
Much has been written over the years about this appalling attack on humanity, which continues to this day in South Africa. The Nationalist government justifies it as a defence against encroaching communism. What white South Africa cannot see is that if anything can convince people of the advantages of communism, it is the poverty and exploitation that is firmly rooted in the apartheid system, supported and protected by a police state.
As these laws were passed, I became increasingly horrified and frustrated. Surely it could not be possible for human beings to stand back and allow these laws to be passed, to operate with all that goes with them in the detention cells? Yet white South Africa does. Almost the whole white population does nothing more than "cluck". The Western world equally "clucks" ”” and continues to enjoy the economic relations, which benefit it and unashamedly bolster up this abhorrent regime.
I have already said how often I am ”” and still am ”” asked why I don't leave South Africa. Part of the answer lies in my utter hatred of the security and apartheid laws and practices of South Africa. It is my belief that by staying in South Africa, having suffered some of the persecution inflicted by the government, by being prepared to accept whatever lies in the future, I can make my stand clear.
By the end of the 1960s, seven years after the introduction of ninety days, eighteen black men had already died in detention. Only six were alleged by the state to have died of natural causes. Twelve were shamelessly claimed as suicide or death by hanging. Imagination shudders at what the dead men must have suffered to bring them to the state when death by hanging is preferable to life. Were they tortured beyond endurance until they made the statements demanded by their interrogators? Did they find death preferable to becoming state witnesses? Whatever the cause of death, these "suicides" must, like Babla Salojee's fall, lie at the door of the security police. Nor are there lacking proven cases of murderous assaults by the police upon their helpless victims. For Joseph Mdhluli and Steven Biko, for Neil Aggett, the full circumstances have never been disclosed, yet in these cases there can be no doubt that they died at the hands of the police. Were these indeed the only such cases?
As the trials began in the courts, so also came the triumphs and tragedies of the accused and the witnesses. The police bragged, "They all talk sooner or later." Perhaps they do. Human endurance must have its limits and gradually reports emerged of the sufferings of the detainees. Evidence was needed by the police for successful prosecutions. Statements from the detainees had to be obtained. Complaints to the courts of statements extracted under duress brought no relief. There were policemen a-plenty to deny any truth in the detainees' reports of violence or long periods of sleepless standing.
This decade of political trials led off with the famous Rivonia trial. Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, my colleagues at the treason trial, had been dramatically arrested with twelve others at a house in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb of large houses and pleasant wooded gardens. Nelson Mandela was brought from gaol to join them while he was still serving his five-year sentence.
Only ten men stood trial on charges under the Sabotage Act. Four of those who had been arrested had made a dramatic escape from the Marshall Square police station. Their escape was hailed as a triumph in those dark days. Robert Hepple did not stand trial for he had made a statement to the prosecution and was released. He fled the country immediately and no one knows whether, had he not been freed, he would have become a state witness and faced his friends in the dock. James Kantor was discharged at the end of the state case.
Nelson Mandela spoke from the dock in words that have made history. The African National Congress is struggling for the right to live . . . During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
South Africa had waited in tense expectation the day before they were sentenced. They had all been found guilty except one white. Would they live or die? The death sentence had been demanded and it was a possibility. I had not once been able to attend their trial in Pretoria because I was forbidden by my bans to leave Johannesburg. Even at this crucial time, I could not say goodbye to my friends.
On the day of the sentence I did not go to work. I felt that I could not bear to be sitting in my office when it came, whether life or death. I went instead to sort and prepare the food and clothing for winter parcels for the banished people. I took my transistor radio with me and when I heard the words "life imprisonment" I could only whisper "They live! They live!" Then I thought of the agony of the wives and the irony of it all, that they would be so thankful for the life imprisonment of their husbands, which would make a mockery of their marriages. Life imprisonment for these convicted men meant just that. There would be no remission. Life meant for the term of their natural lives.
They left the dock, these leaders of their people, left their wives and their children and went singing down the steps into the underground cells below, singing into gaol, for the rest of their lives. Their wives came singing from the court to face the empty years. Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu led them, both to face many years of bans and house arrest, in addition to the loneliness of the "Robben Island Widows", the women who see their husbands once a year through a perspex window in that forbidding maximum security island gaol.
Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela: they were leaders in their own right, just as their husbands were leaders. Their dignity, their courage, their control, were beyond description. Winnie was already banned and we were forbidden to communicate with each other. One wife, Caroline Motsoaledi, could not be there. She had seven young children, the youngest only a few months old, born during her husband's detention. Caroline had been arrested and detained while she was actually in court during his trial and held in gaol for several months. She was not told until long after the end of his trial whether her husband had been acquitted, sentenced to gaol or condemned to death, and even then she did not know what to believe.
The Rivonia trial was not even a month over when another political trial affecting some of my friends flared up. From 4 July onwards there were mass raids throughout the country. I was raided as usual, in the middle of the night, relieved that it was only a raid and not an arrest. I lost some valuable material on the banished people and a few books. All these were removed by the police and I never saw them again. I sometimes wonder where and how all our documents are stored and if they have been properly filed by archivists so that at some future time we shall be able to recover them in good order. I doubt it.
In the morning I learnt that several of my friends had been detained and that the raids and arrests had indeed been nationwide. It seemed to have been a national crackdown and it led to many political trials of which the one involving some of my friends was the Communist Party trial. I knew that the former Communist Party had been revived as an underground organisation, because since 1960 pamphlets had been appearing sporadically over the name of the Communist Party. I had no idea who the members were. I supposed that they must be some of the old members working underground. I did not know that new members had been recruited, nor that some of them were former members of the Congress of Democrats. As a matter of fact, some of my closest friends turned out to have been Communist Party members. Some of these people had joined the underground Communist Party during the 1950s, including our president, Pieter Beyleveld; others only after the Congress of Democrats had been banned. Although these disclosures came as a surprise, I cannot say that they disturbed me greatly. The Congress of Democrats had conscientiously tried to do its work as a member of the Congress Alliance. It seemed irrelevant that some of its members had also been members of the Communist Party, for this was true also of the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress, though admittedly in far smaller proportions.
Bram Fischer, our beloved advocate of the treason trial and the leader of the defence team in the Rivonia trial, was amongst those charged. He was detained first for a few days in June and then released again until a second detention in September. He was granted bail so that he could fly to London for an important civil case in which he was appearing as senior counsel before the Privy Council. He returned to South Africa to stand his trial with the other accused, but before the end of the trial, Bram went into hiding to work underground.
All except two were convicted in this trial, under the Suppression of Communism Act, and served sentences in gaol varying from one to five years. Most of them had been amongst my friends in the Congress of Democrats and I missed them very much, not only when they were in gaol, but also when they were released, because they all received house arrest and banning orders and we could no longer communicate with each other. That they held some political theories differing from mine was totally irrelevant to our friendship and to our loyalty to the liberation struggle.
It was during the 1960s that real treachery first raised it ugly head. In the Rivonia trial, Robert Hepple led the way. He had been arrested with the others but during the months in gaol before the trial began, he had been prevailed upon to make a statement to the security police and to agree to become a state witness. This was the first time in political trials that such a thing had happened and it came as a great shock. During the trial, Walter Sisulu said of Hepple in reply to the prosecutor, "He is a traitor. Anyone who gives information to the police is a traitor . . . Hepple will be ostracised to such an extent that he can do no further harm."
It was the first time that I had had to think about this and it seemed to me that Walter was speaking not just about Bob Hepple, but about any others who might fall in the same way. It has remained in my mind ever since. There have been many since Hepple; some tortured beyond endurance and for them there can be nothing but pity. There are others who have not been so tortured but have not kept silent. It must be a terrible burden to carry for the rest of your life and to be ostracised for it. When the Communist Party trial began later, it brought further shocking examples of betrayals of trust. Pieter Beyleveld, National President of the Congress of Democrats, a leader in the liberation struggle, appeared as a state witness against his former colleagues.
From the detention cells had come reports of ill-treatment of detainees, both black and white, long unbroken hours of interrogation without rest or sleep, and physical assault. Affidavits testified to the truth of these reports. The common pattern of detention was continued physical abuse in addition to total isolation and mental torture.
Pieter Beyleveld had been subjected to none of this. He decided, very deliberately, to betray his friends after only a short time in detention rather than face the possibility of a gaol sentence. This was the man who had been our leader, trusted and accepted not only by us but by the whole Congress Alliance. I heard the rumours of his dishonour but I refused to believe them unless I saw him in the witness box ”” almost anyone else, but not Pieter Beyleveld. I soon knew that it was true, that Piet was a traitor. He had sold his friends to gain his own freedom.
I was appalled at this betrayal and I could not bear to see him again. A year later, however, I saw him coming towards me in a city street. There was no time for me to cross to the other side. We passed each other in silence but our eyes met. I have seen that same look in the eyes of my dog after some misbehaviour but the difference is that I feel sorry for my dog.
On the other hand we also paid the price of our naivety. Gerald Ludi, whom we had accepted fully as a member in all our Congress of Democrats activities, turned out to be a professional police spy. He had been very active with us and also in the underground cells and committees of the Communist Party. He testified in court as a paid infiltrator. It cost the accused dearly in their trial but although I hated Ludi I never felt the same contempt for him as for Pieter Beyleveld.
Against this agony of betrayal by those we trusted, there were those who refused to testify in court to the statements forced out of them by torture and they faced, unflinchingly, periods of imprisonment for their refusals. Amongst them were my friends, Violet Weinberg, Leslie Schermbrucker and Izzy Heymann. Leslie went to gaol for 300 days for refusing to testify against Bram Fischer, Violet was sentenced to three months for refusing to testify against Izzy. Izzy refused to testify against a friend and was sentenced to a year's imprisonment. There were many amongst the blacks too, but Izzy, Leslie and Violet were my friends and it came very close.
I thought often of whether I should be able to hold out against the threat of imprisonment, against torture. The pressure for a statement under physical duress is not something for which I can predict my own conduct. I have not been so tested. I do not know the limits of my endurance. I can only pray that I should be given strength enough for whatever might befall me.
Despite these heroic stands, the 180-days law was relentlessly succeeding with many in its vile purpose. Witnesses appeared, morally shattered, aware that they were betraying their friends and their cause, yet lacking the strength to face imprisonment and a broken life on discharge.
The claim is sometimes made that their evidence added little or nothing to the case against the accused. The judicial value of the evidence is set against the possible gaol consequences of refusal to testify. But this takes no account of the damage done to the witness, the shame that has to be carried for life and the ostracism that has been earned, the stigma of "traitor" that cannot be excised.
Some left the country; others remained. Some felt no shame. Yet most had been people of stature in the liberation struggle and this made their fall the more tragic, to have been so trusted and then to betray. This was a bitter period. No one politically involved felt safe from the menacing knock on the door. No one could get news of relatives detained for many months.
Even before Bram Fischer's arrest in 1964, tragedy had struck his family. Immediately after the end of the Rivonia trial, Bram and his wife, Molly, had set off for Cape Town for their daughter Use's twenty-first birthday. On the way, there had been an accident on a river bridge. Bram's car had fallen into the river and Molly could not be rescued from the car in time to save her life. Many banned people came to her funeral to say goodbye to her and to be there with Bram and his children. Yet with all our sorrow, there was also a feeling of triumph for us in being together with so many other banned people whom we had not seen for so long, to greet them with a clasp of the hand and a few whispered words despite our bans.
Bram returned from England to stand in the dock with his colleagues for the first part of his trial ”” no longer the eminent counsel in his robes, but an accused, still standing as upright, as fearless and dignified as on the day he applied for the recusal of the Judge President in the treason trial.
There came a day when Bram failed to appear in court. There was only a letter to his counsel. "I owe it to the political prisoners, to the banished, to the silenced, and to those under house arrest, not to remain a spectator, but to act." He had gone into hiding in South Africa in order to oppose the policy of apartheid as long as he could. He believed that unless the whole oppressive system was changed radically and rapidly, disaster would follow. To try to avoid this became a supreme duty.
For months Bram succeeded in evading capture and led the lonely life of a fugitive, in heavy disguise, moving from place to place. His youngest daughter Use spoke of him with her own quiet dignity: "My father is a great, great man." Her mother dead, her father on the run, both within a few months, left a heavy burden for this twenty-one-year-old girl to carry. Her married sister lived in Rhodesia, a prohibited immigrant, able to enter South Africa only by special government permission; her younger brother was in very delicate health.
On 11 November 1965, Bram was captured by the police after months of hiding, but never far from Johannesburg. His trial began. His Communist Party colleagues were already serving their sentences. They had been convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act but Bram was linked also with Umkhonto We Sizwe and charged under the Sabotage Act, which carried the death sentence.
Towards the end of his trial, Bram spoke from the dock. He had refused to give evidence on his own behalf because he knew that he would then be cross-examined and could endanger other people.
I am on trial for my political beliefs and the conduct to which those beliefs drove me. The charges arise from my being a member of the Communist Party ... two courses were open to me. I could confess and plead for mercy or explain my belief and my activities. If I were to ask for forgiveness I would be betraying my cause, I believe that I was right and I will explain my views to the court.
He spoke of the tragedy of the fine and loyal persons who turned traitor to their cause and their country, because of the methodology of the state. In this, his final statement to South Africa and the world, Bram Fischer said,
In confidence we lay our cause before the whole world. Whether we conquer or whether we die, freedom will rise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds.
It was a translation of the inscription in Afrikaans on the base of President Paul Kruger's statue in Church Square in Pretoria, only a few yards away from where Bram himself stood that day. When I chose Tomorrow's Sun as the title of one of my books, I did not know that I was echoing Paul Kruger's words.
Bram was sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 May. His children were now alone and he gave them his last smile as he went down from the dock to the cells below, his hand raised in the Congress clenched-fist salute.
He had defended us in the treason trial and we were acquitted. He had defended the Rivonia trial accused and they had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Now he too was sentenced to life imprisonment. There was a press photograph of his children. Ilse and Paul, leaving the court. Ilse's head was held very high.
I could not be present at Bram's trial, just as I had not been able to go to the Rivonia trial, so I did not see Pieter Beyleveld standing again in the witness box, this time to testify against the man who had loved and trusted him.
During 1963 and 1964 there had been literally hundreds of political trials all over South Africa, wherever there had been centres of political activity. The Eastern Cape area had been the main target of the police crackdown. It had always been the most militant stronghold of the ANC from the days of the Defiance Campaign. With the national leadership of the ANC already imprisoned on Robben Island, the security police moved in against the rank and file membership everywhere and especially here. "We mean to have peace and quiet in the area for the next ten years," said a security policeman to a press reporter. His meaning was plain, but he did not spell out the cost to hundreds of men and women, mainly for membership of, or assisting, the banned ANC.
Almost 1,000 were arrested. Hundreds faced trial after months in custody, sometimes more than a year. The sentences were long, up to twelve years in some cases. There was sometimes immediate re-arrest after short sentences, sometimes even before the completion of the first sentence.
Trials were often held in camera, presumably to protect the state witnesses, and deliberately situated in out-of-the-way towns, making the provision of defence difficult at short notice. Sometimes there was no notice of a trial. Accused men wrote from police cells asking for legal defence for their trials and the letters arrived after the prisoners had already been sentenced and taken to Robben Island. The Eastern Cape was the area most severely affected, but this was the general pattern of political repression during those years.
It was during this time that the Federation of South African Women gradually ceased to function. At national and regional levels the executive membership was increasingly depleted by banning orders on our leading members, just when we needed them to organise and develop the new women's clubs for affiliation. In the Eastern Cape these clubs had initially been very promising, but this area was badly affected, not only by bans but by arrests of active African women. Several of them were gaoled under charges relating to the banned ANC.
Francis Baard and Florence Matomela were the outstanding leaders of women in the Eastern Cape, a formidable pair of fearless women. They endured years of political persecution; bans, detentions, solitary confinement and imprisonment, but nothing could break their spirit.
They were my friends. Francis is still alive, now living outside Pretoria. She was banished from her old home in Port Elizabeth, the centre of the Eastern Cape, on her return from gaol. Florence died within a year of being discharged. They shared indomitable courage and dedication, yet they were in many ways different from each other. Francis is tall and massive, dignified and reserved, a woman of authority, capable of immense personal and political loyalty. Florence I was laughing and loving, warm and generous of heart. She sang her way through I hardships, always leading and drawing others to her side.
Both these leaders of the ANC Women's League and the Federation were brought to Johannesburg for the early part of the treason trial. They returned to Port Elizabeth to continue their active resistance to passes for African women and their work in the trade unions, especially Francis. In the 1960s they both served gaol sentences. Of such stuff is the liberation struggle of the African people made.
In Johannesburg, the banned women included Lilian Ngoyi, the National President, Bertha Mashaba, Violet Weinberg, Amina Cachalia, Mary Moodley, Albertina Sisulu and myself, all national executive members, some of us also on the regional executive. There were many others. The Federation had needed time to compensate for the loss of the membership of the African National Congress Women's League and the Congress of Democrats. But we did not get the time we needed.
The government's repressive measures had also hit the surviving members of the Congress Alliance in the same way. The Indian Congresses, the South African People's Organisation, the South African Congress of Trades Unions, had all been depleted by bannings and arrests. There were some who had left South Africa. Not one of our organisations had dissolved itself, for that would have been to concede destruction and defeat.
It has been suggested by political researchers that when the government finally made passes compulsory for African women at the beginning of 1963, this marked the failure of the Federation as a women's organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. As far as the anti-pass campaign was concerned, the Federation did not, at any time, stand or fall on whether passes were to be made compulsory in the end. Our task was to unite women in the struggle for freedom and justice. This we did.
For almost eight years, from 1955 to 1963, the Federation with the ANC Women's League undoubtedly delayed the issuing of passes to African women. The whole Congress Alliance saw this as a victory in itself. But in the climate of political repression in the 1960s, there was no possibility for the Federation to survive in the form in which we had known it.
At the end of July 1967, the beloved Chief Luthuli died, crushed to death by a sugar train near his farm. President of the ANC, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, he also held the highest ANC award, the Isitwalandwe, "one who has fought courageously in battle". Deposed by the government from his chieftainship, he remained "Chief to his people and to all of us. I remember him in the treason trial, sorely wounded by Advocate Trengove's suggestion that he was not being honest in the witness box. Seven years later he was suddenly gone from us, killed by a train in Groutville where he had remained, a man of non-violence.
Some 7,000 people came to his funeral; millions mourned his death. His funeral became an African National Congress affirmation. Chief’s body lay beneath the green, black and yellow flag. Men and women of the old ANC, the Women's League and the Youth League displayed their colours and their uniforms in tribute to their dead leader.
Those bitter years of repression brought an exodus of people from South Africa. Some left by exit permit, that one-way door which lets you out but does not let you in again. Others went through the back door, without papers or permits and with this way there is no coming back either. I found it sad, a grievous disappointment that so many should go. I knew and accepted that some were needed to play their part in building the external forces of the ANC, but I could find few valid reasons for others to go, to leave the struggle.
Personal reasons for going were many and varied. None may sit in judgement on those who have made such a difficult and painful decision for themselves and their families. In some cases it was fear of interrogation and detention, of possible conviction and years in gaol. "You are useless in gaol!" I heard this very often but I didn't agree, for to me there is an enormous value in being ready to endure something of what our friends and colleagues endure, in keeping that undying pledge of the Freedom Charter, "Side by side, throughout our lives, until these democratic changes have been won."
Some would say they must go for the sake of their children. I think then of the Mandela children, the Sisulu children, the Motsoaledi children and so many more. Yet I am childless, so it is not for me to question such decisions. Others were unable to adjust to banning orders and house-arrest conditions. This must depend upon the individual capacity to adjust, to accept what you cannot change.
Whatever the reason, those who have left South Africa are not to be envied. Some have been materially or academically successful, others had to struggle to establish themselves. I think they all look back nostalgically to the land they left.