From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
The Congress Alliance, functioning with a closely co-ordinated leadership, was working on the preparations for the coming Congress of the People, the mass multiracial gathering to be held the following year, 1955. Other organisations, such as the Liberal Party, the Labour Party, even the United Party and the Nationalist Party, had been invited to become co-sponsors of the Congress of the People. In the event, however, the Congress Alliance, which had taken the lead, stood alone as the only sponsors of the imaginative and comprehensive plan to call the people of South Africa, black and white, to come together and adopt a people's Freedom Charter.
The Congress of the People activities brought me to an inspiring new level of personal activity, for as the campaign unfolded there were joint meetings of the national executives of the Congress Alliance organisations. These were exciting meetings, always held in great secrecy, for fear of police raids or other interference, and there were always some banned leaders amongst us. Sometimes we had narrow escapes.
On one occasion we met in a top-storey flat in Johannesburg where we had felt very secure. We finished our business and came down in the lifts, banned and unbanned together. As we came out of the building into the street, we saw four senior members of the security branch of the police coming across the road towards us. We stood and laughed and laughed. It might have been very serious for several of us who were banned, and we had no means of knowing how our plans had leaked, but the police had come just ten minutes too late! They could do nothing but turn around in the face of our mocking laughter and walk back to their car.
Another meeting that I remember especially was held in Evaton, an Indian suburb about twenty miles from Johannesburg. We drove there at night into the unlit streets until we came to a house, set a little way back from the road. One by one we filed quietly, almost surreptitiously, into the back yard and through the back door into a room lit only by one petrol lamp. I don't know what purpose that room usually served, but that night there was only a bare centre table, several chairs and a few wooden benches. Our friends were there from other cities. Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, having travelled many hundreds of miles.
It was the first time that I saw Chief Albert Luthuli, President General of the African National Congress. His dark face was softly etched in the lamplight, unforgettable, with the wise kind eyes and the ready smile that had already inspired thousands to follow him into gaol in the Defiance Campaign.
Albert Luthuli had come into the political field late in his life, when he was nearly fifty ”” like me. He had been a highly respected educationist and a lay preacher in the Methodist Church. He was chosen by his people in the Groutville Reserve in Natal to be their chief. When he was elected Natal President of the ANC and because he supported and led the Defiance Campaign, the government dismissed him from his chieftainship. He was officially no longer a chief, but to the end of his life he remained "Chief Luthuli" to his people.
Of all the national leaders, Chief, as he was called by all of us, was the most beloved. He drew love and loyalty and he gave it. It was at that Evaton meeting that he said, "People ask me why I work with communists and my reply is that I have one enemy, the Nationalist government, and I will not fight on two fronts. I shall work with all who are prepared to stand with me in the struggle for the liberation of our country."
Chief had spelt it out very clearly on behalf of the African National Congress. It was his reply to persistent criticism of the Congress Alliance who would not reject those, black or white, who had made a great contribution as leaders when they had been free to do so, no matter whether or not they were communists.
Not surprisingly the two campaigns, for the Congress of the People and against the Western Areas Removal Scheme, aroused considerable interest on the part of the security police, eager as always to intimidate and suppress Congress activities. On 24 June 1954, a Western Areas protest conference was held in the Johannesburg Trades Hall, the historic venue of so many labour and trade union activities. It was invaded by armed policemen and security branch men who took the names and addresses of all the persons present.
I was not at this conference, but I was there a week later for the conference for the Congress of the People. This time the organisers were more than ready for such police action. I was standing next to the entrance when five security branch detectives, led by Colonel Att Spengler, the former rugby player, marched in, shoving aside anyone who tried to stop them, including me. The detectives sat down and began taking notes of the speeches, but two of the conference organisers left the meeting with an urgent petition to a judge, sitting "in chambers". Victory was ours when Judge Blackwell issued an interdict against the police. "South Africa is not yet a police state," he said, and the police could not enter a closed conference without a warrant. Colonel Spengler and his team were loudly booed out of the hall and as soon as the doors closed behind them, the conference came to its feet, singing "Nkosi Sikelele" in triumph.
1954 was a campaign year and my weekends, especially Sundays, were taken up with attending meetings, often in Sophiatown. I was, as yet, no public speaker, but I used to convey greetings and support on behalf of the Congress of Democrats, usually standing on the wagon, which served as a platform for outdoor meetings. In July, a special anti-removal mass meeting was held on Freedom Square there. Chief Luthuli was to speak, but on arrival in Johannesburg, police met him with a banning order forbidding him to attend any gatherings or be away from his home area in Natal.
A huge crowd of 10,000 people had attended this rally in order to hear Chief peak. My friend Violet's banned husband, Eli Weinberg, stood on an adjacent roof-top taking photographs, thinking that he would not be regarded as illegally attending a meeting. Subsequently he was arrested and charged with violating his banning orders, but acquitted.
The banning of leaders went on steadily. Bram Fischer, the first National President of the Congress of Democrats, was one of the early victims, soon followed by several of our executive members and officials too. The African National Congress paid the heaviest price with Nelson Mandela, their Transvaal President and President of the African National Congress Youth League, together with Walter Sisulu, Secretary General of the ANC, in addition to Chief Luthuli being banned. Altogether almost fifty of the Congress Alliance leaders and trade unionists had been banned. It could have been a crippling blow, yet somehow the congresses rallied and continued.
Loyalty to the banned leaders was affirmed over and over again. "All the banned leaders belong to you," declared Walter Sisulu, before he was himself banned. "They will remain your leaders because they still belong to our liberation struggle and they will still find a way to make their contribution. They have not been rejected by us, but forcibly thrown out by our enemies." As the first leading members were removed by banning orders, others came to take their places, until they themselves were banned.
After Chief was confined to Groutville, the joint Congress executives had to meet with him there secretly, in an isolated school building, deep in the sugarcane fields on the Natal north coast. We used to leave Johannesburg after work on Friday afternoon and drive 400 miles to Durban, arriving in the early hours of Saturday morning. After a few hours' sleep, we would leave for our rendezvous for the meeting, which would last all day. The Indians, coloureds and whites would then leave for Durban, while the African National Congress went straight into an all-night sitting of their own executive committee, lasting well into Sunday morning.
Strict security was observed for these joint executive meetings and this included all our arrangements for accommodation in Durban overnight. On one occasion, we arrived at about one o'clock on a Saturday morning, only to discover from a very sleepy host that we were not expected because the so very carefully worded telegram to warn him of our arrival had been so cryptic that it was unintelligible!
These meetings were especially valuable for me because there I met the leaders of the other congresses and from the other regions. It was a unique privilege. I was always with our National President and one or two others, so I did not have to do much talking myself. I was able just to listen and admire the stature of these national leaders. I was always learning.
The Federation of South African women had been asked to arrange overnight accommodation for the delegates to the coming Congress of the People. We had no idea how many people to expect, but we estimated it could run into 1,000 or more. We did not view this request as any sort of implied relegation of women to the domestic area. On the contrary, it gave us several weeks of intensive organising through small house meetings, mainly of women, at which we could discuss more important issues as well as beds.
The word "bed" was a little misleading, for in the cramped overcrowded little houses there were few beds and all we looked for was space for a mattress on the floor or a doubling up in someone's bed. It was not a case of "how many spare beds have you?" but "how many people do you have space for?" The answers came ”” one, two, three, even four people. I wondered how they could all fit in.
Bertha was my tireless comrade, always ready to go with me at night into the townships. Robert often came with us, to guide us in the areas, which we did not know well. We would go from street to street, contacting women, talking about the Freedom Charter and the Congress of the People, calling for space for the delegates to sleep. In Soweto we could not work much later than nine o'clock, unless by pre-arrangement, as black working people needed to go to bed early in order to be ready for the five o'clock start the next morning.
Our lists of "spaces" grew to over 1,000: then we were satisfied, because we knew that many of the delegates would have relatives with whom they could stay in the township. When we had finished for the night, I used to drive Bertha to her home in the Germiston location on the other side of Johannesburg, slipping in quietly and illegally, and then quickly out again.
At the same time we had been organising women for a Federation Conference on 29 May, where we would consider, as women, what demands should be sent in for the Freedom Charter. Our regional committee drafted a comprehensive set of demands, covering almost every aspect of daily life, and it came out very much like the final form of the Freedom Charter. This was not really surprising for, as in the charter, the demands of the women reflected the hardships and struggles of their daily life.
At the Federation Conference we discussed the suggested demands very carefully and only two were dropped. One was the section calling for better conditions in the "reserves", the parts of South Africa set aside for occupation by Africans, the 13 per cent of the land for 85 per cent of the people. I was still ignorant of much that mattered to the African people and had not appreciated that the demand would be for a just redistribution of the land, not better reserves. I had accepted, as I accepted so much else, the factual existence of the reserves and demanded; therefore, amelioration of what ought not to be.
The other demand, which was rejected, was also my contribution ”” for better birth control clinics. This was my social work approach and drew lively protest from both men and women. (There were always a few men at our women's conferences, probably out of curiosity.) No one must tamper with the right to bear children, no matter what the social or health consequences. I know that especially in urban areas, health education has brought a somewhat different approach now to birth control, but at that time there were strong political overtones, a suspicion that the "system" sought to reduce the numbers of African people, while encouraging an increase in the white birthrate.
Our demands reflected very clearly the direction of the thinking of the women of the Federation. The stress was on the struggle for liberation of men and women together. Separationist feminist liberation did not feature strongly beyond the call for the vote for women, election to state bodies, equal rights in marriage and guardianship and equal work for equal pay.
Rights denied to women must of course find a place in any charter of rights or any demands, but the intimate daily issues were at the heart of the thinking of these women. Demands for better living conditions in all spheres, for mothers, for children, for families, for houses and a better environment, for the removal of migrant labour ”” these were the issues which the Federation women had discussed in our committee meetings and which had formed the pattern of the demands which I had drafted and which the committee put to the conference.
It seems to me that here, as so often is the case in women's conferences, the women themselves shaped the course, which the Federation would follow, for they were mothers demanding better conditions for their children. It was to be a pattern from which the Federation did not move away in the years to come.
Excitement and preparation grew as 25 June approached. It was clearly going to be a conference of the people, delegated by the people at every level, not by organisations on behalf of large numbers of people but by the people of the farms and villages, the streets, the suburbs and the mine compounds, direct to the Congress of the People.
Organising for the collection of demands for the Freedom Charter was in full swing and the demands were coming in, in response to the call to the Congress of the People, widely circulated throughout the country.
We call the people of South Africa, black and white
Let us speak together of freedom
Let us work together for the Freedom Charter
Let us go forward together to Freedom!
It was to be a meeting of people of all races, elected from every town and village, every farm and factory, every mine and kraal, every street and suburb in the whole land who would write their demands into the Freedom Charter.
On the morning of 25 June I left my flat, a little apprehensively, as I had arranged for the care of my cat in case I did not return that night. Police harassment at all levels was mounting rapidly and we might not escape arrest on some pretext or other, despite the legality of what we were doing.
The congress was to be held on a football ground in Kliptown outside Johannesburg, adjacent to Soweto, as no hall would be large enough for this gathering. It had to be held in an area where all must be free to come, black and white. It was all rather primitive and very simple, but the people gave it dignity, the mass of people coming together to spell out their own freedom charter. There were too few seats and many of the delegates sat on the ground. The only structure was the speakers' platform, with the huge four-spokes wheel to represent the four organisations, which made up the Congress Alliance. I was to be a speaker in the section dealing with houses, security and comfort. I felt greatly honoured.
I watched the groups coming into the enclosure bearing banners, “Let us speak of Freedom!”, “Let us go forward to Freedom!" They came from far and near: some had travelled all night in trucks or Kombis (Volkswagen Microbuses). Not every group had reached Kliptown, for the police had been busy stopping vehicles, on every possible traffic pretext, from continuing their journey.
I could feel the strength and the indomitable purpose of these people as they marched in. They had sent their demands ahead of them. There had been 1,000 and more, sometimes only scraps of paper, sometimes formally set out. They had come to this congress to hear, to discuss and to adopt their own charter for the future, born of their heartaches and their hopes. It was a simple beginning for a charter, which has proved indestructible, which refuses to die, despite sporadic bannings of sundry editions of it. A printed piece of paper can be banned but not the ideas expressed in it.
On the first day all went well. The wired-off enclosure for delegates holding some 3.000 people was soon full, but there were easily another 2,000 spectators outside. Most of that day was taken up with greetings, the opening prayers and the Isitwalandwe presentations to three great men, Father Trevor Huddleston. Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Chief Luthuli. This award of the title of Isitwalandwe by the African National Congress was recognition of exceptional contribution and sacrifice by individuals.
Father Trevor Huddleston, Anglican priest of Sophiatown was greatly loved by thousands for his many years of refusal to compromise in any way with the evils of apartheid. Yusuf Dadoo, President of the South African Indian Congress, was a famous leader of both the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign of the 1940s and the Defiance Campaign of 1952. He had taken the lead in establishing close co-operation between the Indian Congress and the African National Congress at leadership and campaign levels. Chief Luthuli was the beloved President General of the ANC. A distinguished and worthy trio indeed, but only one could be present. Chief Luthuli and Dr Dadoo could not attend because both were banned from gatherings and restricted to their residential areas. Chief Luthuli's daughter accepted the honour on behalf of her father and Dr Dadoo's mother, a little elderly lady, spoke on her son's behalf. "Freedom does not fall from heaven, the people have to struggle.”
The congress had inevitably started late because of transport delays and the almost uninterrupted arrival of delegates who had travelled all night, many hundreds of miles, to get to Kliptown. The first day closed with the reading of the draft Freedom Charter. By this time it was almost dark, and the temporary lighting system had failed, which meant that the despatch of delegates to their accommodation had to be handled by the light of only one hurricane lantern. All the carefully prepared accommodation lists became meaningless in the dark and chaos that ensued. Groups of delegates, still clutching the bags and blankets they had held onto all day, were led away by volunteers into the darkness. I never knew whether they reached the correct houses, but they did all find places to stretch their weary bodies and the comfort of hot coffee and food.
The draft Freedom Charter had been read to the congress and the next day, Sunday, it was heard again.
... South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white!
... And we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.
THE PEOPLE SHALL GOVERN.
ALL NATIONAL GROUPS SHALL HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS.
THE PEOPLE SHALL SHARE IN THE COUNTRY'S WEALTH.
THE LAND SHALL BE SHARED AMONGST THOSE WHO WORK IT.
ALL SHALL BE EQUAL BEFORE THE LAW.
ALL SHALL ENJOY EQUAL HUMAN RIGHTS.
THERE SHALL BE WORK AND SECURITY.
THE DOORS OF LEARNING AND CULTURE SHALL BE OPENED.
THERE SHALL BE HOUSES, SECURITY AND COMFORT.
THERE SHALL BE PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP.
These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won our liberty.
The affirmations came over loud and clear as the delegates spoke to them, adopted them, and the draft charter began to take on a reality, moving forward, section by section, until there were only two sections left for discussion and adoption.
I was on the platform, the four-spoked Congress wheel behind me, waiting to make my speech on houses, security and comfort. It was nearly four o'clock when I became aware of a stirring amongst the crowd. I saw that we were surrounded by armed police and a posse was moving towards the platform, a dozen or so detectives in plain clothes, escorted by police carrying sten guns.
The crowd seemed stunned, all eyes on the advancing police, who mounted the platform and presented the chairman with a warrant to investigate high treason. It seemed incredible, unreal: high treason at this gathering of peaceful people adopting a freedom charter. The chairman informed the delegates of the reason for this police invasion and asked if they wished to proceed with the congress. The crowd roared its assent and rose to its feet in a defiant "Nkosi Sikelele".
I gave my speech, surrounded as we all were on the platform, by the armed policemen. The microphone had been damaged in the confusion. There was barely standing room for us and the policemen on the platform, but someone held the microphone wobbling in front of me. I saw police already working their way up and down the rows of delegates, searching as they went, opening bags, looking for documents, not weapons. The police had the weapons, not the people in the crowd.
As I spoke, I looked at the people, 3,000 of them, seated in front of me, so many bright headscarves, so many people proudly displaying the black, green and yellow of the ANC colours. They were indifferent to the searching police, as if they had been tiresome insects. They were no longer watching them, their eyes were on their leaders and I realised, almost unbelieving, that they were in fact listening to what I was saying; my "social worker's speech", incongruously delivered in an atmosphere of armed police provocation. What I spoke of lay very close to the lives of these delegates, the right to homes and houses, the ending of hunger, the provision of medical care, the care of the aged, the sick, the young and the family.
Ironically, the next and last section of the charter was on peace and friendship. Peace and friendship, faced by guns, by armed police with searching hands, humiliating by their very presence. Yet the Congress of the People could not really be humiliated, could not be soiled. It rose triumphantly above this police action. Every section of the charter had been presented, discussed and adopted. It was no longer a draft but a reality: the programme of the people, their own programme for the future and their promise to their children of a land that should be free.
The police must have seized thousands of copies of the draft charter but nothing they could do could touch the charter itself. Its ideas and its message were now enshrined in the hearts and the minds of the delegates, who would carry it far and wide to the people of South Africa for them to make it their own.
"Nkosi Sikelele" was sung again. The Congress of the People was over and it had triumphed. But the delegates could not leave because the police were still searching, recording names and addresses, photographing people. My anger grew as the search proceeded ”” the deliberate humiliation of 3,000 people who had come together, not for violence, not for subversion, not for treason, but simply to speak of their lives and to look forward to their ultimate freedom from oppression. Yet stronger than my anger was my pride in the people.
It grew dark but the police were better prepared than we had been the night before, having brought a supply of lamps and torches. By nine o'clock it was all over, the last delegate had been searched and the police went away. Soon the site of the conference became a football field again, a deserted littered piece of land as after any football match.
To us it is still hallowed ground and will be so for as long as the Freedom Charter lives and that is immortal. Resha had declared at the end of the congress, defiantly, in the face of the police: "This ground on which we are standing here today is holy, friends. This shall be the monument of the people of South Africa."