From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
June 1971 had brought me freedom from all the frustrations of house arrest and the other onerous mutilations of my liberty. It had done more than that. It had set me free from the crippling fear of unending renewal of house arrest. I felt that I had moved into a new life. Here was a new decade. I did not know what it would bring to us in South Africa. The 1950s had come and gone, leaving great memories of resistance, of the Defiance Campaign, of the women's resistance to passes, of the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter. But great scars remained too, the scars of the banning of the ANC. the long years of the treason trial, the scar of Sharpeville.
The 1960s, the decade of repression, forced us to the very sobering realisation that the security police had become an evil, sinister force. Succeeding Acts of Parliament gave them more and more powers of arrest and detention without trial. They were in reality answerable to no one but themselves for the treatment of their helpless victims, held completely incommunicado and beyond the protection of the courts. This power was a growing evil. The whole image of the security police seemed to have changed. No longer were they the bumble puppies at whom we had jeered. Within ten years they had become terrifying sophisticates, skilled interrogators, armed with secret methods of torture, which left no physical marks, with the power to hold anyone in total isolation for months on end. I suppose it is true that forcing information out of detainees, both mentally and physically, is a cheaper, quicker, more efficient way of getting what you want than the old. Outdated methods of investigation. It is an evil enshrined in South Africa's laws.
In the first excitement of being unbanned, I had not been able to assess the full implications of my freedom and how I could best use it. It had all happened so suddenly ”” I had been cut off from the mainstream of political resistance for so long.
The Congress of Democrats had been banned for nine years; the Federation of South African Women, though not banned, had lost too many members through bannings, gaol and exile, for it to become viable again. I was in touch with some individual women from the old days but others were still banned and there could be no personal communication.
I did not take much account of the other disabilities of being a listed person until I was elected the Honorary National President of the National Union of South Africa Students ”” NUSAS. This was such an unexpected and tremendous honour that I accepted immediately when the telephone call came from their national congress in Durban.
My joy was short-lived for suddenly I remembered my listing and hastily consulted my private and rather sinister file, entitled "Bannings and house arrest” and there it was. As a listed person, I could not become an office-bearer of any organisation that ”” the same old litany ”” "attacks, defends, criticises, propagates or discusses the policy of the government of a state". And certainly NUSAS does that, in its dedicated and principled struggle against all forms of apartheid and injustice. Thus it was brought home to me sharply that my new freedom was only partial. I could not join any organisation that was even remotely political.
I hastily sent a telegram resigning my office of Honorary National President. My resignation was not accepted and the office stood vacant for two years, during which I was the Honorary National "Un-President" of NUSAS. After that I became a Hon. National Un-Vice President. I still am.
Early in June, Father Cosmas ("Cos") Desmond, a militant Roman Catholic priest, was banned and put under house arrest, apparently because he had published a book. The Discarded People, about the abitrary mass removal of thousands of African people from areas on white-owned farms or outside white towns, where they had lived for generations. They were resettled on bare, undeveloped land in black areas. Cos had exposed the shameful conditions of these human dumping grounds. He had lived amongst the people, shared in the brutal hardship of lives which had been torn apart to fit the nationalist masterplan of a totally segregated South Africa. He had assisted, too, in the making of a film for overseas about it. These were his crimes. They were enough for him to be placed under house arrest and banned for five years. On the day before he received his banning orders, he had been with me and my friends, sharing with me my new freedom, unaware that he was so soon to lose his own.
The President of the Witwatersrand University Students' Representative Council asked me to speak at their mass protest meeting against Cos's bans. I knew I wanted to, but I wasn't sure that I could, because of the listing restrictions. I consulted a legal friend whose first reaction was that I could not speak. I was listed and that was that. We discussed a loophole, which I thought I had found, that there was nothing in the listing provision to say that I could not participate in the activities of NUSAS or any other politically involved organisation. In my banning orders, such an embargo was included, but it did not appear in the clauses of the Act governing listing. I certainly could not be a NUSAS office-bearer, but I could speak on any political platform as a guest speaker, provided that I did not join the organisation. To my delight, there was legal agreement on this point.
The meeting was astounding. More than 1,000 students filled the Great Hall, sitting in the aisles, crowding outside the doors. There had been no announcement of my speaking until that very morning, for fear of a new ban, but when I walked onto the platform, the students rose in a standing ovation. They were on their feet again when I began to speak in protest against Cos's banning ”” who knew better than I what lay before him? I affirmed that I knew no gratitude to the government for my release, for it had only restored to me a part of the rights, which ought never to have been taken away. It was no act of compassion. It was the fear that I might die under house arrest that had prevailed. It was expediency, not a change of heart.
I spoke of the banished Africans, recalling that the last public speech I had made in 1962 had been to an earlier generation of Wits students. It seemed fitting that after nine years I should come again to Wits University to make my first speech there, that I should re-enter public political life with this new generation of students, a new generation, but still part of Wits campus life and tradition.
I ended with my promise that I should never ban myself by keeping silent, for that would be to do the government's dirty work for it. If it wanted me to be silent, then it must ban me again.
The final standing ovation almost brought me to tears. I saw that Jean Sinclair, President of the Black Sash, standing close to me, was wiping her eyes. I looked again at the hundreds of young faces below me and saw that some of them too were wiping tears away.
The Wits students had brought me back to political life. How could I ever have doubted that some day, in some way, this would happen? I ought to have had more confidence, even in those worst days of depression. I ought to have known that any testimony of life would eventually be of more significance than any contrived testimony of death.
I was proud that I had been called upon to speak in public again after the long years of silence, but there was a difference. Now when I spoke, it could be only to those present, for, as a listed person, nothing that I said could be quoted, recorded or published. The press, aware of the embargo, would report only that I had spoken at a meeting, but not what I had said. Indeed, if it were taken to the legal extreme, anyone could be charged for repeating to another person what he had heard me say.
October 1971 brought the shocking news of the death of young Ahmed Timol, while in detention. He, like Babla Salojee, eight years before, had fallen to his death from a high window of the security police buildings. Did these young men fall? Were they driven by torture and despair to jump? These were unanswered questions.
I went to the home of Timol's aged parents, a stricken Muslim couple, tormented even before his death by security police telling them they would never see their son again. They were broken in spirit as their son had been broken in body, left to face life without him, never to know the truth of his death.
The Indian community called a protest meeting. More than 1,000 Indians, both Muslim and Hindus, with a few Africans and whites, came together on an Indian school playground, to register their anger at the violent death of this young school teacher while in the custody of the police. His was the twenty-first death in detention.
One of the Indian women leaders had telephoned me the day before to tell me of the meeting. I needed no urging to attend, but I did not expect the warm welcome, which I received from a group of women who came to meet me, hands outstretched. They said, "Welcome back to the Indian community, Mrs Joseph!" I realised that it was many years since I had been in their midst.
On Christmas Day, for the first time in nine years, my friends crowded into my house again. It was a happy celebration and it went on all day, even into the night. It was no longer Christmas over the garden gate. We started a custom then of drinking a toast at midday to our friends in gaol, to the banned who could not join us, to those gone from South Africa.
Since then, many friends come every year to my house on Christmas Day. Over the years the party has grown, as new friends join the old. "Christmas with Helen" has become a tradition. Each year there are friends whose bans have expired and not been renewed, so they are free to communicate with me and join us at the Christmas party. Each year there are more who have served gaol sentences and been released, but there is no Nelson, no Bram, no Walter Sisulu, nor Kathrada. And there is no Winnie Mandela, for only once, in 1975, was she briefly free from bans and able to be with us.
When we drink the toast to our friends who are not with us, we are very close to them, for the message has been carried to the gaols that at midday our glasses are lifted in tribute and in hope.
The Dean of Johannesburg, the Very Reverend Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, came to that first party after I was free. He sat on my verandah looking around in amazement at my guests and then he said to me. "Well . . . Jews. Gentiles, Christians, atheists, liberals, communists, Indians, Africans, whites, coloureds... Marvellous!"
At the beginning of that year, the whole Anglican Church had been shocked when this same burly Dean of St Mary's Cathedral was detained and then charged under the Terrorism Act. It sounded so absurd ”” what had terrorism to do with the Dean of a cathedral? His flat and offices were searched and then he was taken off to John Vorster Square, the enormous modem security building and police station, which had replaced the old familiar Marshall Square. After a week in detention, he was charged with having participated in the affairs of unlawful organisations and also with incitement to violence. He was released on bail to await his trial.
This Dean was famous for his plain speaking from the pulpit against apartheid and for his compassion for people in distress. He was held by many, including me, to be one of the greatest and truest Christians in South Africa. For him to be detained, charged with political offences, was almost unthinkable, but it had happened and the whole Anglican Church was shaken. Never before had so high a dignitary of any church in South Africa been subjected to police custody leading to a political trial. There had been Father Trevor Huddleston in the 1950s who had stood by the African people in the Sophiatown removals, but he had left South Africa. There had been Ambrose Reeves, Bishop of Johannesburg, who had stood by the people of Sharpeville in 1960, but he had been deported.
Dean ffrench-Beytagh had drawn many to hear his thundering sermons against injustice and had shocked the complacency of many Christians. He was known to have assisted many political victims financially, for that was no secret. For him to be charged in court under the Terrorism Act dealt a savage blow to whatever political awareness or conscience was stirring in the Anglican Church. Fear took over and the church withdrew to its citadel of "no politics in the church".
The Dean came to trial in August 1972. It was held in the Old Synagogue in Pretoria, where we had sat for so many years. I could attend his trial because I was no longer restricted to Johannesburg. I sat on the same bench where I had sat before, for it was no longer that large dock, but the public gallery. I looked again at the great Star of David over the judge's head. This time it was a Christian priest on trial for his conscience and his compassion.
He was found guilty of receiving welfare funds from the Defence and Aid Fund in London, banned in South Africa, and of encouraging others to support acts of violence. He received the compulsory minimum sentence of five years in gaol under the Terrorism Act. This dignitary of the church was now a convicted terrorist, but he was granted leave to appeal against his conviction and sentence and could remain out of gaol on bail. He won his appeal in a higher court on the grounds that the state had failed to prove its case against him.
The Dean's ordeal was over and within hours of his acquittal he left South Africa. I was not indifferent to his safety ”” how could I be? But I did not share the fearful insistence of those who advised him to leave immediately lest he be detained again by the security police. I saw it as a Nationalist victory that such a man was driven away and I realised that his going would seem like an act of betrayal to many black people who had had such confidence in him.
At the beginning of 1972,1 embarked on a national tour of the English-speaking university campuses as their Honorary National Un-Vice President, accompanied by NUSAS President Paul Pretorius. I was to speak to the students on academic freedom, then threatened by the government-appointed Schlebusch Commission enquiring into the affairs of "certain" organisations, of which NUSAS was one. The Commission was a Parliamentary Select Commission, which could and did call upon NUSAS to produce all its records and also its officials, to testify before the Commission. NUSAS had reacted strongly against these arbitrary requirements, seeing the whole issue as a new and sinister threat to academic freedom.
The student leaders went to the campuses for support in their demand for a judicial enquiry, which would be held in public and not behind closed doors. They also sought support for their recommendation that University Students' Representative Councils should refuse to give evidence before this Commission unless compelled to do so by law.
Freedom, whether personal, academic or political, was a subject very much in debate and very important to me. To join this issue would give me a unique opportunity to talk about it, both from my own personal viewpoint and from a wider perspective.
Throughout the tour, I was apprehensive that I might be re-banned or searched by the security police and lose my speech. I even travelled with a tightly folded duplicate typescript concealed in my brassiere. That speech had taken me a quite a few days to prepare and I didn't want to lose it to the police and then try to rewrite it. I was certainly watched carefully and openly by the security detectives at every airport, but there was no interference.
This generation of students represented to me the questioning youth. This spirit had not been there when I was a student at Wits myself in 1947. Now the students were questioning the values of their own society, questioning their own roles and the moral values of the universities. I could not provide the answer to their questioning, but I welcomed it.
I told them something of what it was like to be banned and house arrested without trial and especially I told them, as I had told the Wits students the previous year at that first meeting, of my determination never to ban myself, never to do the government's dirty work for it, but to stand again to be counted, as they were standing. I told them of the things that had moved me, the tragedies of the banished African people, so well known to me through my journeys and my contacts with them. I spoke, as I have spoken ever since, of my sense of white guilt, which we must all share, the white guilt that has brought black rejection. Black consciousness, the assertion of black human dignity, was already strong on the campuses. I held this philosophy to be utterly right and inevitable. It was an idea whose time had come, was long overdue, but I knew it would bring hurt to many white students to be rejected as a body, even if not as individuals.
We started our tour in Durban, and again I was surprised at the long and enthusiastic ovation that the university students there gave me. It was a wonderful start to this speaking tour and did a great deal to conquer my nervousness, my fear of inadequacy and that I might have been cut off from political life for too long. I had been afraid that I might not be able to put across my thoughts and my hopes to these gatherings of the young. There was a gap of nearly fifty years between us. Would I be able to bridge it? Yet somehow it had been possible and I could feel, almost from the beginning of my speaking, that the communication was there. I had something to say to the students and they were not only prepared but eager to hear it.
At Pietermaritzburg University, that same night, the response, even the ovation, was repeated. A student came to the window of the car as I left, to say, "You have convinced me. I thought I should go and now I know I must stay. "That would have been reward enough for me, without the long applause.
We moved on, to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, a campus divided in its attitude towards giving evidence before the Schlebusch Commission. Not all supported the NUSAS refusal to testify voluntarily. As I spoke, however, I soon became aware of interest and support, ending once again in a tumultuous standing ovation. Long afterwards one of those students told me, "If you had told us to bum down the Principal's house that night, we'd have done it!" I could only laugh, for I certainly had not delivered an incendiary speech of any sort. It was just that somehow I had bridged the gap and had been able to identify with these young students and to be completely accepted by them.
Cape Town University was the high spot of the tour. The students had organised a public meeting on the campus. It was Wits all over again. As I walked onto the platform, and then again as I stood up to speak, the meeting came to its feet to welcome me. When I had finished, they stood applauding for over five minutes; some even declared it was ten! I could not move; I could only stand very still, almost stunned, as waves of applause broke over me, for joy at my freedom and what I was doing with it.
There were several old friends in the audience whom I had not seen for ten years. One came to me to say, "Helen, I was sitting next to the only person in this whole gathering who did not need to feel ashamed after you had spoken." I knew she meant the Anglican priest, Bernard Wrankmore, who had fasted almost to death in protest against the death in detention of a Muslim priest. Abdullah Haroun. I knew, too, that what I had said about standing up to be counted had gone home to many people. I had ended my speech with Pastor Niemoller's famous words,
In Germany, they first came for the communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist;
then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew;
then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist;
then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because i was a Protestant;
then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.
As I flew back to Johannesburg, I asked myself what I had done to deserve these great honours, these tributes. I found no answer, only a deep appreciation and love for all the hundreds of students who had given me this tremendous support. The nine years of house arrest were gone and I had a freedom and an opportunity greater than I had ever known before, despite being listed. I did not know for how long I should be allowed to keep this freedom, but the prospect of being re-banned held no fears for me. What I had endured once, I could endure again and the rewards were very great.
Later in the year, I was back in Cape Town, this time for the Civil Rights Week, organised by the university students. I found a mammoth programme, six speeches in five days. It was a tough assignment but somehow it was all fitted into the daily programmes. I spoke first to the university students; then there was an all-day seminar on passive resistance, a youth service at the Cathedral, a visit to a school to talk to the matriculation class. The attempt to have me speak at the Afrikaans-speaking University of Stellenbosch failed, as I was not permitted to speak on that campus. Some Stellenbosch students, however, organised an off-campus meeting at which I spoke.
Monday night was intended to be the highlight of that Civil Rights Week, with a public meeting in the Rondebosch Town Hall. But our right-wing opponents had been busy before we got there, sprinkling sneeze powder on the seats. Spluttering, we closed the hall and cleaned the powder off. During the meeting a petrol bomb was flung into the hall from outside. This fortunately failed to ignite properly, though it went off with bang. That was followed by a sneeze-powder bomb, which did go off, rather like a stink bomb, right in the middle of another speaker's address. The audience heroically remained in the hall while some of the effects of the sneeze powder wore off. I spoke next and sneezed my way through my speech on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. My sneezes didn't really matter because the audience was in as bad shape as I was.
We had laughed our way through the sneeze affair, but the onslaught from these right-wing terrorists had gone further than we knew. A petrol bomb had been thrown into the home of Geoff Budlender, President of the Cape Town University Students' Representative Council while he was presiding at our meeting and it had gutted part of his house. Slogans ”” "Communists live here" ”” and similar abuse had been painted on the walls of the house where I was slaying with the Reverend Theo Kotze, Cape Director of the Christian Institute, campaigner for right and justice. He had already endured much of this kind of mindless violent behaviour and abusive painting on his walls and sundry other attacks both on his house and his office. I could not avoid the thought, nevertheless, that I had brought this latest attack upon him because I was his guest.
I flew back to Johannesburg the next day and read in the papers that a shot had been fired through one of the windows of Kotze's house. Hooliganism of this sort was appearing in Johannesburg, but it was mainly occurring in Cape Town. I had had nothing further since the bomb at my gate the previous year.
Almost a year had passed since Ahmed Timol's tragic death. There had been an inquest and the magistrate found that he had committed suicide and that no one was to blame for his death. No one? His friends and family knew whom to blame. Feeling ran high in the Indian community when it came to the anniversary of his death. The pupils at the Indian high school where Timol had taught hired buses and came to Roodepoort for a memorial meeting. They crowded along the wide corridor, which opened onto all the flats in the building where Timol's parents lived. Almost a hundred of the schoolchildren came, and after the meeting we marched illegally through the streets of Roodepoort to the Muslim cemetery. We came to Timol's grave and I stood with the schoolgirls, a little apart, obedient to Muslim tradition. When I said to a young girl that I was guilty, with all whites, of Timol's death, she replied, "No, Mrs Joseph, we are guilty too, for we Indians have not spoken out because we have been afraid."
The two years that had passed since my restrictions had been lifted had been so full that I had not resumed my theological studies. I felt very guilty about it, and regretful too, for I wanted to go further in my quest for knowledge about my faith. The political and social world, so unexpectedly restored to me, had eaten into my life because my whole existence had come alive again with people.
There was only one thing for me to do ”” to give my self to concentrated study for several months and work for the first part of the Diploma of Theology of London University. I had enough sense to abandon the course for the Divinity honours degree and register for the less demanding Diploma. I announced to my amazed friends that I was putting myself under four and half months' "study arrest". No one must visit me except on Saturday afternoons and I should not go out at all except to work and to church. I would only relax this rule if I was called upon to speak at a meeting. I repeated this self-imposed ban two years later and finally obtained the Diploma in 1975.
Early in 1973 a law was passed in Parliament, which filled me with forebodings. It provided for the removal of South African citizenship in the case of citizens who had also the nationality of another country, "when it appeared that it would not be in the public interest that such a person should continue to be a South African citizen". I was a South African citizen, but I was also a British national by birth. The minister stated that this provision was aimed at drug peddlers but conceded that it might affect other persons. This alarmed me, for the last thing I wanted was to be compelled to leave South Africa. This land was my adopted home and I belonged here. Yet the authorities might well not agree with me and the minister need not supply any reason for a decision to withdraw South African citizenship. If this happened to me I could be liable for deportation.
I went speedily to the British Consul and renounced my British nationality. I bought myself out of the British Commonwealth for eight rands and ten cents. Now I was safe. I could not be deported. The government might still do many things to me, but it had got me for keeps and I was satisfied.
Robert Resha died in London, in 1973. He would not be coming back to South Africa after all, not even when freedom had been won. I was aware of his resistance to the new policy of the external ANC of admitting non-Africans to membership. I knew this would have angered Robert deeply because of his inflexible African nationalism and his conviction that the ANC should remain the leading political organisation with an exclusively African membership. Other races should, as always, be welcomed in the struggle for liberation but not as members of the ANC.
Robert lost his fight against this new policy and died a tragic, lonely and embittered man, rejected by many of those who, for nearly thirty years, had been his leaders and his colleagues in the struggle to which he had devoted his life. He would never submit to what he thought was wrong and he paid a high price for his stand. A friend brought me a red rose bush and I planted it in my garden. Its flaunting crimsom blooms have something of Robert's arrogance in them. In a letter to me, his widow wrote, "A man's grave is by the side of the road he treads." Robert's grave lies beside that road to freedom, which he trod.
April 1974 brought a parliamentary election. In a Cape Town constituency an active group of young people, mainly university students, past and present, was formed. They called themselves the Alliance for Radical Change (ARC), for they wanted change and were prepared to work for it. They put up their own candidate, Chris Woods, one of the recently banned NUSAS leaders, intending to expose the farce of South Africa's all-white elections, for no banned person could enter Parliament. They campaigned on a socialist platform and I was invited to speak at a mass meeting on the eve of the election in Rondebosch Town Hall, the scene of the earlier sneeze battle.
I was met at the airport by the ARC supporters, all wearing black gags to symbolise the enforced silence of their banned candidate. As we drove through the streets, I was confronted by large posters tied to almost every lamp-post, "Helen Joseph speaks!"
Once again the hall was packed and once again a smoke bomb was thrown into the hall, but it was speedily removed before it could have much effect. I had been very dubious about my ability to hold the attention of such a large crowd for a long period, as I was the only speaker. Everything went well with even a little light relief provided by a heckler, notorious for the leading part he seemed to play in the violent attacks on the homes of NUSAS and Christian Institute supporters. He was not very effective for the crowd was against him and he could easily be dealt with from the platform, even by me.
Since I had started speaking in public again, I had always tried to keep the image of the Freedom Charter alive by quoting from the preamble or the ending: "This freedom we will fight for side by side until we have won our liberty" or " . . . to strive together, sparing nothing of our strength and courage until the democratic changes here set out have been won." For this meeting I had the green light to speak freely and fully about the Freedom Charter because its provisions were basic to the policy of the Alliance for Radical Change.
Vorster, the Prime Minister, had given a television interview, relayed to the USA, no doubt as part of the Nationalist Party's election campaign. He had been tackled on bannings and house arrest and had given some surprising answers about our "right" to appeal against our banning orders and obtain reasons why we had been banned.
I was delighted at the opportunity to deal with all this nonsense in a public speech. I could challenge him in relation to my own experience of house arrest and expose the half-truths, which he had fed to the American televiewing public and to the South African public, even if I could reach only the people present in the hall and could not be reported in the newspapers.
To speak publicly on the Freedom Charter was like a dream come true. For almost twenty years, a great cloud of unknowing had settled over it. There were fears about its legal position. Was it banned or not? I had argued that it was legal because only two of the organisations which had composed the Congress Alliance had been banned, the ANC and the COD, but not the SA Coloured People's Organisation or the SA Indian Congress.
Since that meeting, the government has attacked the Freedom Charter by banning specific printed issues of it. This can be done but the principles of the charter and the words in which those principles are expressed cannot be banned. The Freedom Charter can be, and is, reprinted over and over again.
There could be no doubt about how the audience received it. I was honoured with a standing ovation and I felt that I had done something, no matter how little, to put the Freedom Charter on the map. Predictably, our ARC parliamentary candidate lost his deposit. The Nationalist Party of course won the election. The only satisfaction was that the conservative United Party had to concede some seats to the Progressive Party.
In another area, the election day brought victory. When I came to the campus the next morning it was alive with reports that the Portuguese regime in Mozambique had collapsed and that it would be only a very short time before the liberation forces led by Frelimo would take over the government. This gave new heart and new hope to the black people of South Africa and to the whites who supported the liberation struggle.