From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
I remember well that first meeting with the redoubtable Solly Sachs, when I flew to Johannesburg for the interview. He didn't seem at all interested in what I had done already and only talked about the coloured people, impressing on me that the Medical Aid Society's function was to give the workers whatever benefits they were entitled to ”” "not a penny less, not a penny more!" I sensed his great concern for the clothing workers as people, and although I had not intended to come to any immediate decision at this first interview, when he asked me abruptly, “well, do you want the job?”, I said "yes".
Solly used to say of himself, "I am a Jew. I have a rough voice and a Lithuanian accent. I am ugly and I had everything against me. . ." Yet he had captured and held the loyalty of thousands of Afrikaner women in the clothing industry.
As the first months of my new job passed, I found myself in a very close relationship with Solly. He was unlike anyone I had ever met before. He didn't belong to my middle-class life, which he contemptuously called "spit and polish". Nor did I fit into his life. He had come with his family from Lithuania and they had settled inevitably into the Eastern Jewish community in South Africa, which had clung to many of the traditional ways of life. These Solly himself had thrown off, but many of his friends, and to a great extent his family, still belonged to that tight Jewish community. Solly's mind and his total commitment to the cause of the garment workers went far beyond all this. Perhaps this is what drew me to him and led me to try and identify with him. It was never the other way round, for Solly never tried to identify with anyone. He could be tremendously arrogant, even abrasive, yet he was capable of great affection, even tenderness.
Solly had said of himself that he was ugly. In fact when I first met him I found him almost repellent. It was not his features, as they were good, strong and Slav, but his skin was acne-scarred and had been discoloured since his youth. When I became accustomed to it, I never thought him ugly again. Indeed his curling silver hair gave him almost an air of distinction and he carried himself well, despite a slight stoop when he was tired or deep in thought.
We were an oddly assorted pair but he taught me human values, which I had not appreciated before ”” and much else too. His intense love for the workers, his determination to fight for them, to carry on the struggle in which he had won so many victories for them during the past twenty years, inspired me, and I am sure played apart in setting my feet on the road which I was to walk for the rest of my life. He scoffed at my lack of political erudition but I learnt more from listening to him than I ever learnt from the "masters" whom he was always urging me to read.
I had begun my work at the Medical Aid Society in March 1951. It took me a little while to learn about this new work, but personalities in the management committee soon emerged. There was Solly himself, and in the union I found Afrikaner women of outstanding personality and leadership. One and all they had come into Johannesburg during the depression years, driven off the land by poverty into clothing factories to work for 12/6 a week. One was Johanna Cornelius, later to become General Secretary of this militant union. It is said that she addressed public meetings in her old school blazer; quite unconscious of the strange impression she must have created. Her words as a young girl speaking at a large public meeting in Germiston still ring out strongly. "We are tired of slaving for a few pence." she declared, "our fathers rebelled for freedom and we are their daughters." The young Johanna knew gaol, police persecution, and physical assault for the sake of her fellow workers in the factories. She became a dynamic trade union leader, greatly loved for her warmth and compassion.
There were others too. Anna Scheepers, President of the union for many years, was noted for her skill as negotiator in disputes with employers. Johanna's sister, Hester Cornelius, was the national organiser and there were many more like her. They were indeed the rebels' daughters who had built up the militant Garment Workers' Union, led and guided by Solly Sachs.
In May 1951, the Separate Representation of Voters Act was passed, removing the coloured voters from the common voters’ roll. This proposal had aroused a storm of protest after the Act was passed and the Torch Commando took the lead, starting off as a war veterans' organisation. It soon widened its ranks and together with a few of my friends I marched in procession across Johannesburg by night carrying flaming torches.
This was really my first political activity, and very impersonal it was, for we marched in the dark, 4.000 of us, eight abreast. At its zenith, the Torch Commando numbered a quarter of a million followers, but the Nationalist government achieved its aim ultimately by increasing the Senate in order to get the required two-thirds majority needed to change the coloured vote. It had been a short but bitter battle, in which the Black Sash also played its part.
Later in the year came my first continuous period of political activity, when Solly, Johanna Cornelius and Anna Scheepers all stood in the municipal elections as Labour Party candidates. Solly had impressed on me that the Labour Party stood for all workers, but it seemed to me that it was really a white workers' party. However, there wasn't any other political option for me at that stage, so I joined the Labour Party and became engrossed in Solly's election campaign. He stood in Doornfontein, mainly a working-class area and mostly English speaking, but with a fair sprinkling of Jewish immigrants from Europe.
I was suddenly busy every night for a couple of months, either helping at the election office or, less happily, canvassing. Solly decided that my English accent would either outrage the Doornfontein Afrikaners or be unintelligible to the Middle European immigrants. I was limited to canvassing the obviously English names on the voters' roll. I was not much good at this, partly because I was not sufficiently informed about the South African scene and partly because I was shy and not capable of thrusting myself through front doors as Solly and others could. I was grateful for the few cups of tea that I was offered, but I am very sure that I did not win any votes for Solly.
It was an exciting two months for me and out of it came a lasting friendship with Violet Weinberg, Solly's election agent. She was working with the Garment Workers' Union, in charge of the workers' Provident Fund. Neither Solly nor Anna nor Johanna won any seats in the election. Violet, from previous experience, said sadly, "wouldn't it be nice if we could win ”” even just once?"
I accepted that the Medical Aid Society work was to some extent constructive and not merely palliative, but it still did not help my growing feeling that it was the system itself, the colour bar, that had to be attacked. At the Medical Aid Society office I came into contact with the Garment Workers' Union officials, black and white, and, for almost the first time. Met black people as equals in status and responsibility. Yet even this was confined to a work association and I cannot say that I really knew any of them socially, black or white, except Solly and Violet.
Since the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950, several left-wing political leaders, both black and white, and some trade union leaders too, had been ordered to resign from their organisations, forbidden to attend meetings or leave the areas where they lived and worked. In May 1952, Solly Sachs, despite having been expelled from the Communist Party in 1932, was ordered to resign as General Secretary of the Garment Workers" Union, not to attend gatherings or leave the magisterial area of Johannesburg. I was soon caught up into the fury of thousands of garment workers that their leader, the man who had led them to their victories during the past twenty years, should be thus summarily removed from them.
Within a few days, a public protest meeting was held on the City Hall steps, the Hyde Park Corner of Johannesburg's political organisations. This was on the morning of 24 May 1952, a Saturday morning. Thousands of workers attended, black and white, and I marched in my first daylight procession from the Trades Hall to the City Hall. I felt very conspicuous, despite the size of the procession with Solly himself at the head of it. When we reached the City Hall, we saw the coloured workers arriving, marching eight abreast, in their thousands. Solly had publicly announced his intention of addressing the meeting. It was his defiant act of public protest. As he took the microphone and began to speak to the cheering crowds, the police burst out from the doors of the City Hall behind him and pulled him violently backwards with them until the doors closed again. The workers were incensed and there was a spontaneous surge forward. The City Hall doors flew open again. I was standing nearby and saw it all. The police burst out and charged the crowds with batons and even bits of broken chairs. The helpless people were literally beaten back, beaten to their knees as the police chased them, nearly all women, down the steps into the roadway.
It was a horrifying sight, women and a few old men, with bleeding heads, scrambling to their feet to get away. I had not known that police could act lib this. I watched their faces as they rushed past me. They were young, but not too young to relish this brutality, legalised and official. It was later described as a riot but that was no riot, for there was no violence among the workers. It came only from the police. About sixty people were treated at the hospital and many privately.
I went with some of the union leaders to the police station where Solly was held, to take food and books to him. He was brought out from the cells to us without his collar and tie. Somehow that really seemed to mark him, for me, as a prisoner. He insisted that he was perfectly all right and being well treated. He was released on bail that evening.
Meanwhile the union called for a one-day protest strike for the Monday when another mass meeting would be held on the City Hall steps. That Monday morning Solly first appeared in the magistrate's court and was charged with breaking his banning orders. His case was then remanded to a later date. A few hours later he came to the meeting, defying his banning orders for the second time.
Thousands of workers were gathered on the City Hall steps, just as they had been on the Saturday. I think there were even more of them this time. As Solly came towards the platform, the police arrested him. He told them there was no need for them to break any more heads; he would go quietly with them. He was once more led off to the police station. The union leaders continued the meeting and the police did not interfere again, but feelings were running very high among the workers. On this occasion, Solly was refused bail until the following morning. I suppose it was feared that he would go straight back to the meeting. And I think he would have done. He came to trial later on two counts of violating his bans and was sentenced to six month's gaol on each count but he remained on bail pending his appeal to the higher courts against the conviction.
Weeks of protests, meetings and demonstrations followed, all against Solly's bans and I became part of them. I stood with a placard in Eloff Street, Johannesburg's main thoroughfare. I rode to Pretoria in a bus filled with garment workers, mostly Afrikaners, joining them in their folk songs. I found all this exciting; yet still felt that I was really on the outside looking in. I was not a union official. I was not a garment worker. I had never worked in a factory of any sort.
Solly's case came before the Appeal Court at the end of the year it Bloemfontein. He argued his case himself before the five judges. "The five old men of Bloemfontein," he used to call them. He had considerable ability and experience in the law and he had decided that neither he nor his union could afford legal representation at this high and costly level. The appeal judges complimented Solly on his able presentation of his case but refused to set aside his convictions. The magistrate's judgement was upheld and consequently the validity of his banning orders. His six-month gaol sentence was, however, suspended for three years, provided he did not commit a similar offence.
It was a bitter disappointment to Solly. He felt he had achieved nothing. He wanted only one thing, to have his bans set aside and to be free to return to his union, the organisation he had built and led for twenty-four years. All political work and trade union activity was now closed to him and he decided to leave South Africa. I thought he should stay, despite the restrictions. His influence in the trade union movement was still very strong and his presence in South Africa would continue to be valuable. I could not see that he would serve South Africa more by leaving, whatever he might achieve overseas. Of course, personally, I also wished that he would stay, but I don't believe that this had anything to do with my conviction that he could do more by remaining in South Africa.
It was now pretty clear that there was no permanent future for me with Solly. I had begun to doubt whether I could really fit into his intensely individualistic personal life. Perhaps my middle-class conventions were too strong, but I was not content to accept the second-class role, which seemed to be all that Solly was prepared to allow me. In fact, I learnt long afterwards that he decided not to marry me because he was looking for some woman with "epic" qualities to share his life. I doubt that, for Solly, I ever graduated from the "wishy-washy" liberal he used to call me.
Nevertheless I followed him to London, spending time in France with him before I went on to London and then to Geneva. After that I joined him briefly in Manchester, where he had obtained a research fellowship at the university. That visit finally convinced me that I could not adjust myself to his life. In any event, by now I felt committed to the struggle in South Africa in whatever way would be possible and Solly had decided that his future lay in England.
The main political event of the year 1952 was the Defiance Campaign, organised by the Congress movement. It had brought together the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress and the Cape Coloured Franchise Action Council. They united in this great protest against injustice, and thus the struggle for the liberation of the black people. It was also the beginning of the Congress Alliance.
The particular unjust laws chosen for protest were those relating to the pass system, the culling of cattle (a long-standing grievance in African rural areas) and the Suppression of Communism Act, especially for its banning of black leaders. The Separate Representation of Voters Act was of course also included, for its arbitrary removal of coloured voters from the common voters' roll.
Passive, non-violent resistance in the tradition of the South African Indian Congress in 1908 and 1946 had been decided on. Volunteers must defy the laws, but only selected volunteers, who must be trained to defy, to undergo harsh gaol conditions and not break, must be trained not to retaliate whatever violence might be inflicted on them.
6 April 1952 was to be celebrated throughout South Africa as the 300th anniversary of Van Riebeek's landing at the Cape. It was a joyous occasion, no doubt, for whites, but for the blacks it merely marked 300 years of wrong. The congresses decided to launch the Defiance Campaign on 6 April, with nationwide meetings calling for volunteers. Many thousands responded and actual defiance began on 26 June.
Nearly 200 were arrested on that day for defying curfew regulations or entering post offices or railway stations through "whites-only" entrances. Defiers intended in all cases to go to gaol without paying fines, but in some later cases they were turned out of gaol against their will. Money found on their persons was taken by the police to pay the fines.
The campaign continued and grew. At first the sentences passed on defiers were fairly light, a month or two in gaol but they became increasingly severe as the campaign proceeded. In August, the peak month, over 2,000 were arrested. Everything was highly organised, even the names of the intended defiers and the time, date and place of the intended offence, and were published by the congresses. There were some reports of ill-treatment in the gaols, but generally the groups of defiers established themselves effectively through their own discipline, their songs and their determination and unfailing cheerfulness. It became an honour to be a defier.
I was of course, aware of the Defiance Campaign, which had attracted considerable press publicity. The idea of non-violent resistance to injustice appealed to me strongly. I believed, on the example of India, that if it grew to fully national proportions, the government would have to negotiate, even on its own repressive laws. Yet it did not really touch me personally. I was still moving in the trade union field, though not even as a significant part of that, and I was kept very busy at the Medical Aid Society office. As the months went by, however, this amazing campaign of self-discipline and self-sacrifice made me feel ever more ashamed that I was part of the unjust system and not pan of the campaign against it. I think that this was true of many other white people. It was only at the end of the year that a handful of whites actually went to gaol. They were all very much more politically involved than I was, so I lived on with my sense of guilt, which I did not yet see clearly as white guilt. That came later.
Overseas publicity and sympathy for the Defiance Campaign was growing steadily. Some 8,000 men and women defied the unjust laws and went singing to gaol. No violence of any sort arose out of actual defiance episodes, but in the last two months of the year, ugly rioting was sparked off by police violence, when police fired into crowds. It soon became clear that the Congress could and did discipline effectively its own members, especially the volunteers, but they could not exercise control over masses inflamed by police violence.
Even before the end of 1952, government regulations had raised maximum penalties for defiers to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of £300. When Parliament met at the beginning of 1953, drastic repressive laws were passed, specially designed to crush passive resistance and to make it impossible for it ever to be revived in this form. Whipping, up to twelve strokes, had been introduced as an additional penalty for defiers. Inciting others to commit an offence by way of protest became a new offence for which fines or imprisonment were up to £500 or five years in gaol. A second new crime also came into being: assisting materially in any way whatsoever any person campaigning against any law by way of an unlawful act ”” even members of the family.
These laws dealt the fatal blow to the Defiance Campaign and it had to be called off. Hitherto the gaol sentences for defiers had been one or two months but the possibility of three years" imprisonment was a different matter. The defiers refused to pay fines because this would violate the principle of courting imprisonment as an act of defiance. Yet the Defiance Campaign had not failed, as it had strengthened the determination of the oppressed people to continue their struggle for freedom and justice. Their sacrifice had not been in vain, for it had highlighted the evil regime of the Nationalist government, heaping injustice upon injustice. As for me, I was still hoping for ways to become directly and personally involved. I had joined the Labour Party when Solly had told me to stop criticising it, get into it and do something about it. I still saw it as a party involved in the interests of white workers. I found I was regarded, and rightly so, as a newcomer amongst the experienced stalwarts of the labour movement, but much as I admired their dedication and leadership, I realised that I would not find here the political non-racial home, which I sought.
It is of course quite possible that, had the Communist Party still been legal, I might have found my way into it and swallowed its doctrines for the sake of its multiracial membership but the Communist Party, the only multiracial political organisation in the country, was banned, and there seemed nowhere for me to turn.
I had gone with Solly to Muizenberg in the Cape for his last holiday in South Africa. Understandably I was not very confident about my political future after he had gone. I walked on the beach with Violet Weinberg and I wondered how I should "fill my days" without all the various tasks which Solly had demanded of me and which I had carried out so gladly. Violet, too, spent much of her time assisting Solly in various ways, but she had a young family and was thus not as absorbed as I had allowed myself to become. I knew little of her political affiliation outside her support for the Garment Workers' Union, nor of her friends, but she did say that she thought there would be plenty for me to do and she offered to put me in touch with others in Johannesburg.
There had been an important meeting in Johannesburg at the end of 1952, attended by many whites, both radical and liberal, who were feeling much as I did, that the time had come for them to do something about their strong sense of outrage at the Nationalist government's oppressive regime and at the conditions of poverty, injustice and racial discrimination in which the black people lived. The United Party, the official opposition to the government, was conservative, still seeing the racial situation in terms of trusteeship, with the whites as guardians to wards, who were presumably never to come of age. Liberals could not find a political home there, nor in the relatively more radical but still narrow sphere of the Labour Party, which was, in any event, now little more than a shadow of its former militant self.
I do not know how I missed that meeting, other than that I simply did not know about it. The African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress had arranged the meeting to bring together this slowly growing number of whites sympathetic to their aims and to the Defiance Campaign. There were differing shades of political views at the meeting, mainly between those who wanted a loaded franchise for blacks and those who stood for universal adult franchise. One group took the lead afterwards in forming a white organisation to stand firmly alongside the congresses on universal adult franchise. This organisation was to become the South African Congress of Democrats.
To my surprise, I was invited to serve on the provisional committee for the formation of this new organisation. At the committee meetings I came into contact with Father Trevor Huddleston of the Anglican Church, and Father du Manoir of the Roman Catholic Church. Cecil Williams. Ruth First. Joe Slovo and "Rusty' Bernstein were there too, all former members of the Communist Party and also of the Springbok Legion, a radical service organisation during the war. 1 served on this founding committee but don't think I contributed very much towards it, certainly not ideologically. I was still pretty ignorant, despite Solly's teaching. But it did not matter, for the really important thing was to get this new white organisation onto its feet to provide a political home for sympathetic whites within the orbit of the Congress alliance.
It was through this committee, however, that I became aware of the "black spots" issue. The government planned to separate white from black, to unscramble enormous residential areas where blacks and white lived adjacent to each other. Sophiatown. Newclare and Martindale, the oldest black settlements in Johannesburg, nestled comfortably side-by-side amidst several white suburbs of western Johannesburg. These were amongst the very few areas where blacks owned freehold property, made doubly precious because there a black man could own the very land on which his home stood.
Sophiatown was the largest of these three areas, well established, though admittedly a slum in parts, but this was due to overcrowding under the pressure of the black housing shortage. It was not, and never had been. a prescribed area controlled by a white location superintendent, holding the power of residence in his hand, the power to decide who should be allowed to live there, or even enter the township. Sophiatown was free and friendly, almost the last bastion of black freehold land in Johannesburg. Despite poverty, squalor and violence, Sophiatown was exuberant, alive. Its people were strong. It was a living community, an organism grown up in its own environment. But Sophiatown was also a black spot to the white voters who had the power to have it removed, this black spot surrounded by white suburbs. For this reason alone it could not be allowed to remain.
Official statements about slum clearance fooled no one, certainly no one in Sophiatown. All the slum clearance that was needed was to provide proper housing and freehold rights elsewhere. The people of Sophiatown did not want to be removed against their will. They did not want to be herded into Johannesburg's controlled black townships to live under the "permit" system.
The government named its shameful plan the "Western Areas Removal Scheme". It stirred the consciences, at last, of some of the Johannesburg whites, and a Western Areas Protest Committee was formed, quickly followed by other protest committees. The congresses were represented on these committees and I soon became involved. We went on deputations to the City Council, sat at tables in white suburbs and in the centre of the city, collecting signatures for our protests. Most of white Johannesburg was too timid to give names and addresses, even the few who showed interest. We collected money for telegrams and postcards to MPs urging them to oppose the scheme. I felt some sympathy towards the frightened whites, for I too was very frightened when I started collecting signatures. I was convinced I would be arrested, although I was not sure for what offence, as I was too ashamed to discuss my fears with anybody. I was thankful when it rained and our tables had to be moved.
It was about the Western Areas Removal Scheme that I had addressed the council meeting in Geneva. While I was overseas, the first people had been removed from Sophiatown, despite all the protests, the Congress organisation, the weekly Sophiatown meetings and the Congress leaflets proclaiming "We Shall Not Move." It took, however, 2,000 armed police and army reinforcements to ensure that the people did move and 100 African families and their household goods were loaded onto government lorries. They were taken to a controlled location called Meadowlands and put into little matchbox houses, four times the distance from their work. The authorities had to bring the move forward by three days so as to forestall any resistance or response to the ANC call for a general stay-at-home from work on the day of the removals.
Some of the people from Sophiatown had moved voluntarily. What else could they do in the face of 2,000 armed police, there to remove 100 families? Yet such was the discipline of the ANC that despite the provocation of the very presence of the police, there was neither rioting nor bloodshed. Other removals followed later, though never as large, nor as heavily policed, as the first. After several years every black family had left Sophiatown. The long green grass grew in the streets where the houses had stood, marking it as the grave of the life, love and laughter that had once been Sophiatown.
Today a white suburb stands where once Sophiatown stood. Over "Freedom Square", where we held our meetings, a primary school has been built. White children now play in well-ordered playgrounds where once black children ran freely in the streets. The name of this suburb is "Triomf, which is the Afrikaans word for "triumph". What triumph? The triumph of the armed police who carted the families away? Or the triumph of the bulldozer that crushed their homes into the ground? Or the triumph of the Nationalist government, hell bent on separating black from white, on removing the "black spot" that had soiled white suburbs by its proximity?
Meanwhile, preparations were going ahead for the formation of the Congress of Democrats in Johannesburg. In October 1953, a national conference was held, attended by the Cape Town Democratic League, delegates from Port Elizabeth and Cape Town and, of course, our newly-formed Johannesburg Congress of Democrats.
The South African Congress of Democrats was formed and I was elected to the national executive committee. I was already secretary of a Johannesburg branch. At last I was a member of an organisation, which identified itself with the struggle for freedom and justice, with the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress and the newly formed South African Coloured People's Organisation. Like them we stood unequivocally on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. I had found a political home, even if it was not itself multiracial in composition.
There had, in fact, been considerable division of opinion on whether the Congress of Democrats should have a multiracial membership or not, but the ANC had been adamant on this point. The Congress of Democrats must be white. As whites we could be equal partners in the Congress but we would not be welcome to compete with the other congresses for membership.
Our political task was to work amongst the white people, the voters like ourselves, to spread amongst them our rejection of all forms of racial discrimination, our demand for full equality of opportunity, for equal rights for all people, to persuade them that only in the acceptance of this lay any future peace for the people of South Africa. It would be no easy task but it was there for us to do.
Several people at the conference pressed for multiracial membership, but the ANC viewpoint finally prevailed. The South African Congress of Democrats, the COD, as it became known, was formed with a white membership, to be the white wing of the Congress Alliance.