From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
The Congress of the People was over. We had come down from the mountain, down to our daily lives. The delegates from other areas had driven home through the night after a very late start, interminably delayed by the police searches. Those of us who lived in Johannesburg had gone back to our jobs. I know that I felt a little dazed by what had happened, curious about this treason-clouded future, but not yet apprehensive because it was all so unreal. I had seen the mass endurance of the delegates, their dignity unassailable, their commitment unshaken. "Throughout our lives, side by side!", we had pledged ourselves. This seemed to strengthen my position, for I was not alone. I was side by side with thousands; there could be no turning back for me. I was now where I belonged, with the oppressed people, moving into the next stage of the struggle for peace, justice and freedom.
The Freedom Charter had now to be ratified by each of the sponsoring congresses, and public support for it must also be canvassed. The Congress Alliance set its sights very high ”” a million endorsing signatures to be collected from the public, black and white, within a year. A national consultative committee was set up to co-ordinate the congress plans for this goal. I represented the Congress of Democrats on this committee, and was also there on behalf of the Federation of South African Women, though not as an official representative. That would indeed have been unnecessary, since our affiliated organisations were usually themselves offshoots of the congresses.
During 1955 there had been another ugly government measure to be challenged in addition to the Western Areas Removal and the rape of Sophiatown. The Bantu Education Act had already been passed and on 1 April, the Department of Native Affairs was to take over all African education, hitherto largely provided by church and mission schools subsidised from government funds. This move was intended to give effect to Dr Verwoerd's infamous statement, "There is no room for the Bantu in the European community, above the level of certain forms of labour."
Henceforth African children were to be taught only as much as would fit them for the lowest forms of employment in the service of the white man. The education of their children lies very close to African hearts. Even today there is rankling resentment at the disparity of government expenditure, ten times as much being spent on white education as on black. The Bantu Education Act was suspect to the blacks because it would provide a special kind of education for their children, undeniably inferior to that provided for the white children. On this issue, African feeling had been running very high ever since the Act had been passed. In December 1954, the ANC had called for a total rejection of Bantu education. By the time I returned from Europe, the total rejection had developed into indefinite withdrawal of pupils from primary schools in protest.
A conference of 700 delegates from organisations opposed to Bantu education had been called by the ANC. Norman Levy and I were to represent the Congress of Democrats. We drove through the night to Port Elizabeth with Robert Resha and others from the ANC. This was my first experience of a large, mainly African, conference and I was impressed by the lively yet disciplined atmosphere.
Most of the delegates represented Congress branches, especially from the militant Eastern Cape area around Port Elizabeth. The Congress volunteers, from the former Defiance Campaign days, were out in full force in khaki shirts and black berets to welcome and usher in visiting delegates and to maintain order. Many African women were already wearing the newly adopted black skirl and green blouse of the ANC Women's League, with the green stripe and the additional yellow stripe which distinguished it from the uniform of the Women's Federation.
Freedom songs arc an integral part of any Congress meeting. With delight, I heard hundreds of voices singing the songs I was beginning to know so well but could not sing. I used to "la-la" happily except for the occasional phrases I did know. The occasion was serious indeed, but the conference had life and laughter in it.
The ANC national executive met during the weekend and decided to embark upon the immediate withdrawal of children from African primary schools. Obviously the provision of alternative education of some sort ranked high in the discussions, hut no blueprint for it was adopted other than general agreement that the children must be provided with some educative occupation. It was from this conference that the African Education Movement, an informal educational council, was formed, centred in Johannesburg.
On the long drive back we talked a lot about the proposals for the informal clubs for the boycotting children. The conference had finally accepted this structure to provide some son of education. Obviously the clubs would be manned by teachers whose classes were out on boycott, yet the Act was strict about the requirement that any form of teaching be registered as a school with the Department of Education. We could hardly suppose that any of our clubs intending to assist boycotting children and parents would be registered. Norman was a teacher and I had been one, so we were eager to help as much as possible with what were soon to be known as cultural clubs, a good cover title.
In the car, Robert nobly tried to teach me some of the African freedom songs, but, alas, my ignorance of the African language, combined with my unfortunate lack of a musical ear, proved too strong and we gave up in despair and laughter. I was destined to continue my "la-la-ing".
We needed petrol urgently after closing hours and had to persuade a sleepy, white, petrol pump-owner to fill our tank. We decided that we ought not to put him off with our odd mixture of races, all crowded together into the car. I was put into the driver's seat, Norman was squashed into the back with instructions not to show his white face, while Robert got out and knocked up the white petrol pump-owner from his bed, appealing to him to help us out because his "Missus" had to get back to Johannesburg. He confided that she was very cross because he had not filled up properly with petrol on leaving.
Back in Johannesburg, there were meetings of the African Education Movement. We all strongly supported the idea of organising training conferences to assist the cultural club leaders who were trying to educate and occupy large numbers of children, of all ages in playgrounds, in any open space, with no school equipment of any sort, not even schoolbooks or slates, since any teaching would soon label the club as an illegal, unregistered school.
These club leaders' conferences were to occupy a great deal of my time for the next twelve months. Norman and I. with other helpers planned the conferences. We prepared masses of roneod material, including action arithmetic games and counting songs, geography lessons, where we could "chat" about the continents, for lack of atlases. We produced history stories, for which we rewrote the history of South Africa in our own version, oddly unlike the orthodox school history books. Everything had to be some sort of game or informal group activity.
At first, we confined our conferences to one-day affairs. Saturday or Sunday. Beginning them in July 1955, we held them every two weeks, in any black area where Norman and I. and any other whites, could legally be. These were mostly coloured areas or in Alexandra Township, which was not under municipal control.
The conferences were friendly, informal and gay. The club leaders enthusiastically welcomed our material for varying their own programmes. They were finding it difficult to adapt their usual formal teaching habits, trying al the same time to keep large groups of children, out of doors, both entertained and instructed, as far as possible.
James Hadebe from the ANC. singer, musician, teacher, composed his own musical multiplication tables in Zulu and Sotho. The children sang them joyously. Permeating everything, of course, was the sense of defiant protest, triumph in the rejection of Bantu education. The clubs themselves were symbols of protest. There was considerable harassment by police, clubs were raided, leaders prosecuted, the children, too. Club leaders were banned, even deported, but the spirit of defiance was high and the clubs survived.
We became more ambitious in January 1956, attempting a five-day conference in Alexandra Township. Father Trevor Huddleston opened the conference on the first day. Security branch detectives sat outside for the whole five days, for we insisted that this was a private affair and we would not let them in without a warrant to enter, which they did not have. They did however do a great deal of looking through the windows and listening outside the doors.
The Transvaal and the Eastern Cape were the main centres for the withdrawal of children from the primary schools. Over 7,000 children were withdrawn by their parents from government schools during that year. The anger of the parents was directed against Bantu education not only because it was separate but also because it was both inferior and racist, inadequate to the needs of any children. To take their children away from school was indeed a costly decision, for education is very highly prized, but the parents saw it as lower than the cost of exposing their children to the poison of Bantu education.
From Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape came urgent messages that we must come there too, so off we went during the Easter holidays, but there we almost came to grief. Norman and I had gone with Robert and James Hadebe, with a carload of training material, even the homemade instruments for a percussion band, which an enthusiastic nursery school teacher had pressed upon us for demonstration in our conference. We had assumed that, as in the Transvaal, whites could be in coloured municipal areas. So, on arrival we had secured the use of a coloured church hall.
There was a Congress meeting on the night of our arrival, and our conference was formally approved. Congress volunteers were sent in all directions to outlying areas to instruct the club leaders to be at the hall next morning. I was amazed at this tremendous discipline, in which volunteers accepted instructions, quietly leaving the meeting immediately to carry them out. The volunteer spirit of the Eastern Cape ANC, which had led 5.000 men and women into passive resistance and gaol, was still strong.
Thirty club leaders reported by eight o'clock the next morning at the hall and we began the conference. On the second day, we were interrupted by the security police. Norman and I were carted off ignominiously to the location Superintendent's office, there to be shown regulations, which required whites to have permits to be in a coloured area. With the security branch breathing down our necks, we did not go through the farce of applying for permits. They took on names and Johannesburg addresses but we refused to answer any questions about what we were doing there, and they did not insist. It would have gone differently with us today for that refusal.
We were taken back to the hall to collect our belongings. We informed Robert and the club leaders of what had happened, but we knew that the conference could not continue without us, the trainers. Robert told us to wait outside the location gates. We stood there disconsolately for a little while until we saw the club leaders, headed by Robert and James, approaching in a single-file procession, carrying all our conference gear. Norman and I joined in, the percussion band struck up and we marched singing in an unrecognised protest to the centre of the town. There we broke up and Norman, Robert and I drove off, the security branch hard on curtail. I asked myself, could it really be only three years since I had so timidly marched with the garment workers to Solly's protest meeting or sat in fear at signature tables?
Robert told us that the club leaders were determined to finish their training conference: we must be ready early next morning and he would fetch us. Before dawn, we were collected in a truck with our goods and driven to a house about twenty miles away in the low hill area between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, from where we had been routed the previous day. There we found our club leaders, a few dozing, but many still singing.
We went off silently, in single file, carrying food for the day and our conference material. We were led in the half darkness up into the hills to a lonely clearing, which was to be our clubhouse for the day. There under the sun and the blue sky, we taught and laughed and sang, even jumping around to keep ourselves awake, for some of the club leaders had had no sleep at all. In this area of the Eastern Cape, a meeting of more than ten Africans was illegal, but we had volunteer guards posted in the bushes all around us.
We telescoped our teaching programme to put as much as possible into one day, a long day, for the club leaders wanted as much as we could press into the few hours we had together. When the sun went down, we, too, went down the hill again to say goodbye to our friends, promising to return.
In 1956, while we were touring the country, organising for the protest to Pretoria, we managed to fit in an afternoon with the club leaders in Port Elizabeth. It wasn't a training conference, there wasn't time for that but we spent the afternoon discussing problems, sharing them and exchanging experiences. It was good to be together with committed people again, still determined to carry on despite the increasing police harassment. The children were still out of school, and remained out for many more months.
Then the pressure of events began to tell. The children were show ing signs of a desperate need for formal education, parents were worrying about the future of their children without school certificates, and the boycott gradually tell away. It had not failed, it had not been defeated, it had made its mark. A generation later, in 1976, the black children of South Africa came out again in protest, walking in their thousands away from Bantu education.
It was in 1955 that the Congress of the People had been raided "to investigate treason". Somehow we had become conditioned to the word, for it subsequently appeared frequently on police warrants for the increasing number of police raids on offices and homes. We had become used to these raids too and tended to shrug them off. The first raid on my flat had appalled me. The very thought of hostile hands fingering my private papers, of hostile eyes reading my private letters, was utterly repulsive. Yet, since I had chosen the road of public political action, I could not hope to escape such police attention.
The Minister of Justice in a public statement had warned us that he intended to arrest some 200 people on a charge of high treason. The figure of 200 made it seem unreal. We could at any time have singled out twenty or even thirty leaders whom he might want to attack, but 200' And for treason.' It belonged to the absurd. It could have nothing to do with our struggle it must be a bluff, a ploy to placate the reactionary whites. I certainly never thought seriously that the Congress of the People, the Freedom Charter, the Women's Federation or the protests to Pretoria could ever be associated with high treason.
On 2 December 1956, the Federation held its Transvaal provincial conference, electing its officers for the coming year. Lilian Ngoyi was re-elected Transvaal President and I again became Transvaal Secretary. I don't think that it seemed odd to anyone at the conference that we were also National President and Secretary. We were unanimously elected; the women wanted us. The conference adopted a programme of anti-pass demonstrations, collection of anti-pass pledges, and signatures for the Freedom Charter, also opposition to the Group Areas Act.
It was just three days later that the police struck. Like many others, I was raided before dawn and arrested. Like any expectant mother, I had packed a suitcase with a few clothes, thinking that if there were to be 200 arrests I might be one of them and I ought to be prepared. Additionally, friends had warned me that rumours were floating around that arrests of some sort were imminent, involving a few days in gaol until bail could be arranged. I lived alone; there would be no one to collect things for me, so I got ready. Of course when the police arrived I didn't want to admit it, but I finally pulled that suitcase out from under my bed.
After my flat had been searched I was driven to a police station to be fingerprinted for the first time in my life. I was subjected to it on many occasions later, but that first time was a horrible experience. I had my hand seized and my thumb was roughly pressed down onto an inked pad. Then all my fingers in turn and then the other hand. It made me feel as though I had been convicted already, but I scarcely knew of what, for treason still meant nothing. Naturally I was scared and apprehensive, but trying not to show it. I simply did not know what might be in store. It certainly meant going to gaol that very day, that could be in no doubt. Yet my mind did not really grasp that the operative word was treason. That could mean hanging!
I was driven to my office for that too to be searched. There I was at least given a few moments, though still under police escort, to make emergency staff arrangements for an absence of how long I did not know. It was my first personal communication with anyone, because I had not been allowed to make any telephone calls from my flat. I knew that even in South African law, an accused is presumed innocent until found guilty, but I didn't feel that this was the case at all! What with fingerprinting and a police escort, I felt like what I was: a prisoner.
From my office I was taken to the main police station. I found some of my friends there too, though we were separated, white from black, men from women. None of us had any idea of the nationwide extent of the arrests. I caught a glimpse of Robert at the police station. He looked arrogant, defiant and almost triumphant. I gathered that Lilian and Bertha were also amongst those arrested.
During the afternoon we were taken to the magistrate's court where we were kept in dingy underground cells until we were moved upstairs to a court in batches of about twelve to be charged with high treason. I still seemed to be the only white woman arrested, though I heard whispered rumours that Yetta Barenblatt, the National Secretary of the Congress of Democrats, was still being held at the office during a police search. Just as we were herded into our separate black and white police vans, the door was flung open and Yetta was hustled in to join the five white men and me. Although sorry that she too had been arrested, I was thankful that I would no longer be alone in the women's gaol.
We were driven off to the Fort, Johannesburg's forbidding gaol, high on a hill, where we said goodbye to the men and Yetta and I were marched down the road to the women's section, rather forlornly clutching our suitcases. When we were finally admitted and taken to our cell, we were astounded to find three others there, two of our friends from Durban and one from Cape Town. From their accounts of being flown with others in large military aircraft, we realised that these arrests were really nationwide and becoming more and more sinister. Were we really all so dangerous?
We had sixteen days in the Fort before we were brought back to court, by now 156 alleged traitors in all. In the women's gaol we settled down fairly comfortably in a large cell. We became six when Ruth First joined us some days later. On one of the days we prowled around outside the cell, for once not under the eye of a wardress, and we came upon our black sisters. They were sitting on the stone floor in dark iron sheds. The doors were open and we saw that they had only mats to sleep on and no other furniture. We had time only to exchange loving greetings before we scurried back to our quarters, but we had seen enough to realise with shame how much better off we were in our large light cell with beds and a couple of chairs, even a cupboard. It was a bitter memory, despite the joy of actually seeing them.
Gaol food was not really a problem. As prisoners awaiting trial, we were allowed to have food sent in to us. Friends and lawyers visited us frequently and we learnt that we might soon be bailed out, perhaps before Christmas. After two weeks in gaol, we became a little anxious about it, when Christmas was only a week away. I had grown tired of flat life and had recently acquired a cottage. I was due to move into it on 1 January. I wanted a garden again, but most of all I wanted to have my black friends visit me without prying neighbours or inquisitive flat superintendents. It was not actually illegal to have black visitors, but it certainly aroused hostility and suspicion and led to fairly overt police surveillance.
In gaol, we chatted at first fairly light-heartedly, about being charged with high treason. We knew we could be on a capital charge, but I don't remember ever verbalising that aspect of it, although it must have been in our thoughts constantly. It seemed totally unreal that our activities, our non-violent policy, could have come into the orbit of high treason, even now that we were in gaol. Our legal advisers were, however, taking it more seriously.
We soon began to feel the weight of being confined, cut off from family and friends, except for the frustrating visits through bars during visiting hours. We resented being locked up in a cell, unlocked again at specific times and lights turned out by eight o'clock.
I think it was far easier for me to adjust to all this than for the others, because I had had those years in the air force camps. Much of my present condition reminded me of the first weeks there, even the tin plates. In fact I positively bloomed in gaol because I was having the regular meals and early nights, which I had not had for so long during those years of intensive political activity. Nor had I any husband or children to worry about. We swept and polished the floor of our cell, giggling at the sight of each other on our knees. There was no other work for us to do, so we lived from one visiting day to the next, waiting to be released on bail.
Contact with any of the other prisoners held in the Fort before trial, or serving sentences there, was forbidden but we gathered that they awarded us a very high social status in prisoner society, even though they didn't understand what treason implied. We ourselves felt no shame at being in gaol on a political charge. Far from it, we were proud of it.
Sonia Bunting from Cape Town, Jackie Arenstein and Dorothy Shanley from Durban, Ruth, Yetta and I from Johannesburg, spent more than two weeks in that cell, except for the times when we were allowed into the yard, which amazed me with its green grass and flowers in bloom. For the past three years, I had been trying to suppress my fear of gaol, yet knowing that I might one day have to spend time there. Once there, it did not seem so bad.
I soon realised that I was in the company of high-powered, well-informed, primarily ideologically committed leftists, involved in the liberation struggle, whereas I was involved simply and solely in the liberation struggle and everything else came afterwards. I think Ruth and Jackie were ahead of the rest of us in political thinking, though Sonia and Dorothy and Yetta were also old Communist Party members. I really didn't belong in this political circle, yet we all got on very well together. I did not lose my nervous awe of the crisply intellectual Ruth, but I admired her chic foresight in coming to gaol in elegant black underwear, whereas the rest of us had just packed our oldest clothes.
We were brought to court again on 19 December. There was much pressing of our clothes, even in gaol, for this public appearance. Hustled into the front section of an enormous police van, we were taken to the men's gaol to collect our friends there. They were put into a different section behind us. Small barred windows prevented us from seeing much in the streets, but as we neared the court we could see huge massed crowds on the pavements, even in the street. They were pressing close to our van; even rocking it as it slowly forced its way into the yard. The great crowd, singing and waving, was shut out behind iron gates.
The first part of our trial was to be held in the Johannesburg Drill Hall, simply because there was no law court which could accommodate the 156 accused. The army, ever the eager supporter of the police, had made their large drill hall available and there it was, turned into a law court, with rows of seats for the accused, tables and chairs for the lawyers, a platform for the magistrate and very little space left for the public.
There were ugly scenes that day with the police opening fire on the huge crowds of people pressing to get into the Drill Hall where their leaders and their relations were on trial. We sat immobilised, helpless and unable to be with our people outside. We heard the shots, not knowing how many were wounded ””or killed. Later we learned that over twenty had been injured but none killed on this occasion. It was another example of lack of proper police control. White policemen in South Africa carry guns on all occasions and their flashpoint is soon reached.
The trial proceedings were unbelievably chaotic. Prisoners were eagerly greeting friends and families, hugging wives and children, until we were marshalled into the rows of seats only to find that we could not hear anything that was going on. It had apparently not dawned on the authorities that an adequate public address system would be required for 156 accused to be able to follow the case against them, or, since it was an open trial, that the public would also want to hear the proceedings.
We had arrived in chaos and we left in chaos. The application for bail had not been settled, so we all went back to the Fort that afternoon. The waiting crowds, bearing banners saying, "Stand by our leaders!" sang again for us as the vans inched their way out into the street.
On arrival at the Drill Hall next day, we were confronted by an enormous wire cage, like something from the zoo. We were to sit in this so that we could have no contact with the public. We laughed, but our legal team was incensed, outraged by this insult to their clients and to themselves, too, as they were now unable to consult with us ”” the caged wild beasts. All the lawyers, attorneys and counsel, threatened to walk out unless the cage was removed, agreeing to remain only on the undertaking that the cage would be dismantled before we came to court again. Our supporters in the public gallery raged and then laughed with us as we put up notices on the cage, like "Don't feed the wild animals!", "Dangerous!" and "No monkey nuts!"
We listened to the prosecutor's opening address. He was Oswald Pirow, a former Minister of Justice, an implacable enemy of Solly Sachs in the past, and now our enemy, a formidable Nationalist Party leader. He thundered away, accusing us of incitement and preparation to overthrow the state by revolutionary methods, including violence. Like much else, it sounded unreal and irrelevant, like the warrants to investigate high treason. What had treason to do with us?
At last bail was allowed at a reduced figure after strong argument by our counsel. It stood finally at £250 for whites, £100 for Indians and coloureds and £50 for Africans. It seemed that treason also knew racial distinctions, compared with the astronomical amounts demanded for others in later trials, it appeared we were not considered very dangerous traitors after all. Or did it reflect an unwilling acceptance that we should stand trial, every one of us?
The issue of the bail bonds, necessary before we could be free, was a tedious proceeding. We were taken to the magistrate's court for this, still in custody. From five that afternoon until nine that night a team of magistrates sat, releasing us one by one until they came at last to me.
I almost failed to get out of gaol that night, not because I was a particularly dangerous criminal, but because I could not immediately produce my passport. I knew it was in the office safe, but only the General Secretary of the Industrial Council had the keys. Since it was 21 December, office Christmas parties abounded and he could not be found. Eventually, when I was being escorted to the police station for the night, too late even for gaol, my passport arrived. At last I too was free and home for Christmas.