From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
Six months later, in August 1958, we came to trial. The government wanted us out of Johannesburg this time, to avoid huge crowds of Africans thronging the court precincts, as there had been at the beginning of the preparatory examination. The trial was to be moved to Pretoria, where the African population was much smaller and the Congress organisation not as strong as in Johannesburg.
Pretoria is thirty-five miles from Johannesburg city and almost fifty miles from Soweto where almost all the African accused lived; even those from other areas were accommodated there. Not one of us lived in Pretoria. The government provided a leviathan-type bus, which picked up its treason passengers from Soweto for a long and exhausting journey of nearly 100 miles every day.
When we had been 156 accused, we had started off in the Johannesburg Drill Hall, in a military setting, the only place big enough for us all. Although the number had fallen to ninety-one the problem still remained because in the Pretoria Supreme Court there was no dock large enough to accommodate so many people. However, there was the "Old Synagogue", a large rather ornate structure, long since given up by the Jewish community. It was now standing empty, it was central, spacious, it had a gallery ”” it would do for us! It was still unmistakably a synagogue, but officially it became a "Special Criminal Court" for the Department of Justice. We went incongruously from army drill hall to synagogue and all in the name of justice.
This extra travelling would obviously make my already 'flexi' office-hours more difficult, as it would Stanley Lollan's of the South African Coloured People's Organisation also one of the remaining accused. He worked in the same office as I did and somehow we had to make up thirty-seven hours a week regularly. If there were any court adjournments we could revert temporarily to normal office hours. I reorganised my own office hours and Stanley shared them for we both had to hold on to our jobs.
We got ourselves to the office by 6.30 in the morning and worked there until 8.00. Robert Resha was holding down a reporter's job in the same way, so he would meet us as we left the office. Nelson Mandela drove in from Soweto to his law office at the other end of town for a couple of hours' early morning work and would meet us along the Pretoria road, leaving his car on the roadside for his return. We travelled the rest of the way together, often with an extra passenger.
The treason bus was slow and ponderous and we needed speed so as to spend as little time on the road as possible.
"Congress Connie" would have been too small and too slow for this swift dash to Pretoria and back, so I bought, and nearly bankrupted myself in the buying, a fast French car. We named her ''Treason Trixie". The court rose at four o'clock and we could be back in our offices before five. At 9 p.m. Stanley and I would lock up those huge empty offices, in which there had been only the two of us since five o'clock. There would be a quick break for a meat pie and coffee at seven so that we did not have to cook when we got home after that fifteen-hour day.
I don't know where we got the strength and perseverance to do all this, but somehow we managed it and saved our jobs. I arranged with my secretary to work flexi-time too, so that she could have some time with me before I left in the morning. She was loyal, devoted and efficient, even though she did not share all my political views. Her loyalty was deeply personal and I valued it greatly. Court adjournments were helpful to us and Stanley and I secretly welcomed each one, although our fellow accused resented them as delaying a long trial still longer.
It was those daily journeys, which brought me closer to Nelson Mandela. I knew him already as a leader, but I got to know him as a person, sitting beside him as I drove, for Nelson's height and long legs could only be accommodated with comfort in the front seat of my car.
On trial he was Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader, standing tall, proud and dignified. He was exceptionally handsome with a magnificent physique, dark piercing eyes, sometimes narrowing above his high cheekbones until he looked almost oriental, sometimes opening wide in serious moments. But his infectious laughter and radiant smile often broke through his dignified reserve. He had the unique quality of being near to you and far away at the same time. Charismatic to a degree seldom seen, it is no wonder that even after more than twenty years on Robben Island, South Africa's dreaded maximum-security gaol, he remains head and shoulders above everyone else. Mandela is recognised as the leader in the South African liberation struggle, respected and revered, not only by his fellow prisoners and by the African National Congress but by thousands of people, black and white, the world over.
In our car he was Nelson, just one of us, as we shared our jokes and the peaches we bought and ate along the road ”” the "peach club" we called it. We shared so much else too, long political discussions, comment on the trial, which by now we accepted as a way of life. I don't recall any grumbling about it. We joked about our future sometimes and I would complain, "It's all right for you chaps, you will be together in gaol, but I'll get the husband poisoners because they are the only white women who get long sentences!" Sometimes Nelson would tell us of his childhood in the Transkei, the traditions and even the initiation rituals.
These journeys were friendly and fun-filled. We picked houses along the road for ourselves for the day when we should have freedom. Nelson's house was unpretentious and on the small side. We told him he wouldn't even be able to swing his lawyer's briefcase in it. Robert's house was odd, reminiscent of a series of dwindling dog kennels, but he stuck stubbornly to his choice. He could never explain it to us, even though we teased him that when we got freedom we wouldn't need to be reminded of chains, dog chains or any other sort. Nelson disapproved my choice as too bourgeois, with its well-planned garden and green lawns. I defended it on the grounds that it was painted green, black and yellow, the Congress colours. We chose a home for "Kathy", Ahmed Kathrada, the young Indian bachelor, so gay, who often travelled with us. We sat next to each other at the trial. His was a handsome villa with a large wing on either side "for all his Moslem wives!" Today few cars travel that old Pretoria road, but sometimes I take it just to look at our houses. I prefer it to the swift highway, which has no memories for me. Our houses are still there, but Nelson and Kathy are serving life sentences in a maximum-security prison and Robert is dead.
I know that Nelson sometimes thinks of those drives together for in one of his letters from Robben Island he wrote that one day he would like to drive me to a synagogue! I knew what he meant.
Beneath our laughter was concern for the future of our colleagues, our organisations and our struggle. The trial had begun with the highest in the legal profession in a titanic battle and we were in the middle. What did the future hold for us? It was an unspoken question but there would have to be an answer at some time.
For me those years of journeys to and from Pretoria were unique, privileged. It was then that Congress history opened up for me as never before. I was learning much too, from the many historic documents being read into the court record ”” as treason evidence.
Although the trial had opened in August, we remained locked for three more months in legal argument and technicalities, our defence counsel arguing for the quashing of the indictment altogether and the prosecution offering amendments. It was far above most of our heads, of course, except for a few legally qualified accused, such as Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Duma Nokwe.
At the end of October, the state's indictment was actually withdrawn but only pending the framing of another, so we were not free. We were still out of gaol because we were pending trial and on bail, yet we had not been formally charged because there had been no satisfactory indictment. It was an odd position for ninety-one traitors, but it was to become even odder when it appeared that we were now divided into three groups. Thirty of us must stand trial in January 1959 and the remaining two groups on 24 April. On what criteria the division was made we did not know, nor did we ever know, but it brought us a two-month adjournment.
Nelson, Walter Sisulu, Robert, Lilian, Stanley and I were all among the thirty "first-liners" as we have been called. It seemed that the decision to try the remaining sixty-one would depend on whether we were acquitted or convicted. The prosecution apparently genuinely anticipated that our trial would last only four months, as it was not to begin until after Christmas. It proved to be an unreal calculation.
While we remained on trial, the units for issuing passes to African women were coming much closer to Johannesburg. Announcements were no longer made in advance as to when and where the units would operate. They just appeared without warning and the word went around. It was clear that Johannesburg had been left alone only for the time being, while the outlying areas were brought into line.
Just as in the Defiance Campaign, legislation was passed to hamper resistance to passes, and meetings of Africans outside the townships became illegal. This affected the Federation badly because it meant that while non-African women could not attend meetings inside the townships without permits, African women could not now attend them outside.
The first move by the authorities against Johannesburg was to request white housewives to send their domestic servants for "registration" ”” a deceptive term used to cover the intention to issue passes. While it may have deceived the white madams, it did not always deceive their domestics, but they were almost as powerless as their counterparts in the country. Nor did it deceive the ANC Women's League or the Federation. Pamphlets were swiftly distributed in white suburbs to point out the truth that passes for women were not yet compulsory.
The anger of African women was aroused and within days hundreds of women marched in protest to the pass offices. They knew that they would be in illegal processions and holding illegal meetings, but this was spontaneous defiance of an unjust law. The first marchers came from Sophiatown and were taken into custody by the police before they reached the pass office. Then they were joined by crowds of women at the police station demanding to be arrested with them. Soon women were coming from Soweto and Alexandra Township, gathering outside the pass office.
I was not tied up with the trial on this day because this was during the long adjournment and I heard the news while I was working in my office. I did not propose to defy my banning order by joining the African women's protest, because it was theirs and theirs alone. But I thought I should be around to show solidarity and be seen to be near them on behalf of the Federation, but mostly for myself. I slipped down to the pass office during my lunch hour. There a fairly senior security branch detective was heard to comment. "Here comes that red bitch, Helen!"
I watched the laughing courage of the women as they were herded into huge police vans, helping each other in. They were driven off, singing and waving the Congress salute from the open backs of the police lorries. To see this was in itself a triumph. They knew that what they were doing was illegal, but this was their way of showing their contempt for the passes.
Soon there were almost 2,000 women in the Fort prison, where we had been in 195 6 at the beginning of our trial. Many women had babies on their backs or at their breasts; some were pregnant. They were factory workers, domestic servants and housewives.
When they came to trial, they were still defiant, then returning, still singing, to the gaol to serve their sentences. "No bail, no fines!" they declared. It was the Women's League protest, and the Federation supported it to the full, doing whatever could be done to help the women still in the police cells awaiting trial. The police were, in fact, unable to cope with this load of women; their food resources were inadequate, as was the sanitation.
I was allowed into one of the big police cells, taking milk for the babies and food for the women. It was a moving, shocking sight seeing women sitting huddled together over every inch of the cell on a stone floor. Some mealie meal porridge, their only food, had been brought to them on an upturned dustbin lid. Babies were crying fretfully, hungry, but the mothers were still proud, defiant, smiling when they saw me with the milk for their children.
The pass protests and defiance lasted three full days. On the first day, 584 women were arrested in Johannesburg, 934 on the second day and 900 on the third. No wonder the police cells and the gaols were full.
The determination of the women did not weaken. Their decision had been taken to serve their full sentences in gaol. but their husbands were pressing for their wives to come out because of the care of the children and the care of the home. The ANC did not believe that the women could sustain a period in gaol because they had not been trained for it, but the Women's League and the Federation had confidence in the women, despite the spontaneous nature of the protests.
It was in fact the culmination of three years of growing anger against the issuing of passes to African women and there had been continuous propaganda and preparation by way of pamphlets, protests and meetings. However, the African National Congress asserted its authority at a special meeting with Lilian and me and we had to obey. We were disappointed and a little angry at first, but we were also disciplined and we were a part of the whole liberation struggle. There was no room for any rebellious spirit on our part and there was none. Bail and fines were paid and the women returned to their homes.
The Federation had also been active as far as it could be in this phase of the women's anti-pass campaign. We planned a mass rally of women of all races on the steps of City Hall, the time-honoured venue of protest meetings. The city council had cunningly planted shrubs and flower beds over most of the steps, obviously to prevent meetings of the former size, as in Solly's day. Very beautiful they were too, carefully guarded by stone borders, so that it was only possible to have some kind of gathering around the flower beds. But even those gatherings are gone now because every year outdoor meetings are banned in Johannesburg.
The Black Sash had been refused permission to hold a meeting there and it was absurd to suppose that we should succeed where the Black Sash had failed. We changed our plans and worked on a mini-Union Buildings plan for our protest, calling women of the East Rand and the West Rand, as well as Johannesburg itself, to come to the City Hall. There they would sign protests to hand to their leaders standing just outside the City Hall doors, flanked by other women holding placards. The protests were addressed to the Mayor of Johannesburg; calling upon him not to co-operate in any way in the issuing of passes to African women by demanding reference book numbers for township housing or lodgers' permits. He must make representations immediately for the suspension of the issuing of passes.
Several weeks of intensive organisation went into this protest and between 3.000 and 4.000 women came to the City Hall steps. They walked in twos and threes, as they had done in Pretoria, past policemen on every corner, careful not to block the pavements opposite the City Hall, not to linger as they handed over their protests. As many as could then made their way to a great welcome gathering in Sophiatown. I had been standing very near the City Hall, proud of this disciplined demonstration. I joined them in Sophiatown, but it had to be in an adjacent house, not at the actual welcome party, although I could hear their triumphant singing.
At the December conference of the ANC that year the women received their accolade. "We proudly salute the women freedom volunteers from Winberg, Lichtenberg, Zeerust. Sekhukhuniland, Uitenhage, Durban, Standerton, Pietermaritzburg ”” and two thousand Johannesburg women." I was proud too, that the Federation had played its part in some of this epic resistance.
We had gone back to Pretoria in January 1959, thirty of us, sitting again in that incongruous building converted into a Special Criminal Court. Our defence counsel had applied for the trial to be returned to Johannesburg, to avoid the long hours of travel for the accused and for themselves, arguing that otherwise adequate consultation with their clients would be almost impossible. There was no redress, however, and we sat on in the building designed for the worship of the Hebrew god. The Star of David hung high above the rostrum where those three red-robed judges were to preside for more than another two years over a treason court. Judge Rumpff, Judge Bekker, Judge Kennedy, they all became persons to us, even though we never exchanged words or even greetings with them.
Two of the judges became ill sometimes and the court would have to adjourn for a day or two. Judge Rumpff never missed a day, retaining his impressive calm demeanour throughout, but with occasional flashes of dry humour. Perhaps his most human trait was his impatience with the prosecution's inability to summarise documents or present their case in a disciplined manner acceptable to his high standards.
We thought our trial would be starting in earnest that January, but it did not. Argument began again on the indictment and went on beyond April, when the trial of the second batch of accused was supposed to begin. It had become an epic battle, with our defence counsel constantly on the attack, determined to expose and quash this inept indictment. The prosecution frequently retired to its corner to amend, to remedy the defects, coming back again and again with modified indictments but still intent on treason. It might have been amusing to watch the defence constantly on the attack and the prosecution always on the defensive, had we not been tied to the trial for more than two years already, immobilised, frustrated, many financially ruined.
I had thought I could not really add any other commitment to my life, divided between trial, travel, office and Federation tasks, but there was still a totally unpredicted call to come which had rather bizarre roots. Even in the preparatory examination I had developed double vision, so that I sometimes saw two magistrates and two court orderlies walking one behind the other to hand in documents. Yet I knew there was only one of each. An ophthalmologist advised me to read, knit, write, close my eyes frequently and do anything to stop myself from staring ahead. As I sat in the front row, knitting and closing my eyes were not possible, but I did write and do some of my medical aid work.
In Pretoria I was again in the front row, now as Accused No 2, and in this more formal atmosphere I could hardly walk in with an armful of office files. I certainly could not knit and there was a limit to the number of letters I could write. Reading made me sleepy. I then brought notebooks and scribbled random notes on the happenings of the trial, anything to keep my eyes away from three judges who became six if I looked at them for more than a minute or so ”” and where else could I look? Three judges were enough; six became unbearable.
During the preparatory examination and the first part of the trial, Lionel Forman, one of the accused, an advocate himself and a brilliant journalist, had been writing weekly summaries of the trial proceedings for widespread circulation by the Treason Trial Defence and Aid Fund. But Lionel was no longer in court with us; he was not one of the thirty.
My pointless and perpetual scribblings had not gone unnoticed and I was asked to take over the weekly summaries. I found it a difficult task because I had to concentrate all the time, but it kept my eyes off the judges and compelled me to take a more detailed interest in the proceedings. At the weekend I would type out my scribbled notes, they were then checked by a lawyer and edited by a journalist before they were roneod and circulated. I soon began to value court adjournments more than ever because the weekend typing removed me from what little was left of any social life.
For several months, the newspaper New Age had published shocking reports of inhuman conditions of African prison labour on potato farms. Some of these men had already been convicted for pass offences; others had been arrested and had "chosen" to work on a potato farm in preference to a trial and possible gaol. But clearly there was no real choice about it ”” it had more of a press gang dimension. The press reports revealed unbelievable conditions of life and work, for mere token wages. Men were locked up at night in crowded huts with no ventilation, no protection against the bitter cold of the winter nights. By day they wore potato sacks and worked under whiplash supervision. Beatings and brutal whippings were common.
In May 1959 the ANC called for a boycott of potatoes in protest against this inhuman treatment of prison labour on the farms. The boycott achieved astounding success almost everywhere. Potatoes became taboo. It was not a hardship for the few liberal white boycotters, as there were many palatable substitutes; however, the substitutes were more expensive, and this put them beyond the reach of African families. Yet the response to the boycott call was overwhelming from even the poorest people. It was aimed at the pockets of the very farmers who had so brutally treated the men, young and old, who had been sent away to work on potato farms. The potato farmers had needed cheap labour, starvation labour, and the police cells and the gaols had provided a convenient reservoir.
Within a few weeks the potato boycott skyrocketed to such an extent that sacks of potatoes piled up in markets and warehouses, even on railway sidings. They were still flowing in but the blacks would not buy and the sales to white consumers could not shift the mounting backlog. This boycott was one in which we could really participate, even at court, provided we refused to supplement the potatoes with substitutes. I do not suppose that this minimal self-restraint made any difference to the actual boycott. But it was important to us.
Perhaps black industrial workers, whose standard lunch was fish and chips, made the greatest sacrifice. It was a real hardship to buy fish and bread instead, or only bread where the money could not stretch to fish. Chips were greatly missed. Yet the boycott was sustained for three months. The people gloated over reports of bags of potatoes rotting in the markets and farmers were in doubt as to whether to plant another crop of potatoes.
The boycott achieved its end. The government set up a commission of enquiry into prison farm labour. Not that any of us believed this was designed to probe and expose the whole vicious system. We knew it was intended only to save face in this horrifying exposure of the potato farm labour conditions. But at least the supply of prison labour to farms was suspended and the lorry loads of hopeless black men, despair on their faces, were no longer seen being driven off to face hunger, exhaustion and even whipping on these farms. Boycott had gained another victory.
Thankfully we went back to our usual treason lunches, so generously supplied by Pretoria friends. They were indeed nourishing, but not always my favourite diet. I enjoyed "Indian" week, with its savoury curries, but faltered sometimes over "African" week, with its meat and mealie meal. To bring my own packet of eggs, tomato and cheese was unthinkable, so I ate and then fought a losing battle at the weekends with encroaching poundage. Very occasionally friends from my pre-political days would take me out for dinner and I would indulge in gourmet food. The next day I would look a little sourly at my lunch plate, while my friends laughed, telling me I was back where I belonged.
At the end of May, Chief Luthuli, President General of the ANC, was served with banning orders for the third time and now for five years, not two. The conditions were similar to mine and those of so many of our leaders; no gatherings and he was confined to his home district in Natal. Chief, like me, had a period of grace, if you could call it that, of seven days before the confinement ban took effect. He came post-haste to Johannesburg to spend his last week of freedom at the headquarters of the ANC. His train journey was a triumphal tour as his people crowded onto the platforms of the railway stations to say goodbye to the Chief for the next five years. Yet Chief, even during this confinement, attracted many visitors from near and far, at national and international levels, despite very close and continuous police surveillance. The government's hoped-for isolation of this great man was only partially successful.
Less than a month after the ban on Chief Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Acting President General; Duma Nokwe, Acting Secretary General; and the indefatigable and fiery Transvaal Volunteer-in-Chief, Robert Resha, all fell victims to similar bans, together with provincial Congress leaders.
It was a mighty swoop and inflicted considerable damage on ANC plans and preparations. I was now already through two years of my own ban and could appreciate the drastic effect of such restrictions on these recognised leaders, especially on Robert, accustomed to moving far and fast in his organisational work. He was such an eloquent speaker and now he was to be confined and silenced for the next five years.
By this time, in fact, most of the thirty accused had been banned. Kathrada, the Indian Youth Congress leader, said that if he didn't get banned soon, people would begin to suspect him!