From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
Right up to the morning of 1 July, I did not know what to expect. Even before the bans were due to expire I was invited to open a women's conference at Wits University ”” if I was free to speak again. I waited that last month, finishing the draft of this book, eager to be able to speak out again, but was I, I kept asking myself, at seventy-seven, too old to be banned again?
The banning orders were not renewed. I could attend political meetings again and address gatherings of students. I could go on where I had left off two years ago. Without warning, bans could be reimposed. This was not important, merely a risk that had to be taken since I still did not intend to ban myself from speaking in public if I was needed.
The first week was very exciting. Telephone calls came from near and far, telegrams, visits, flowers, press and television interviews ”” overseas television of course, because the prohibition on quoting me in South Africa still remained. I continued to be a listed person, even though the bans fell away.
The welcome from the Wits students at the conference, my first "free" meeting, moved me very deeply. The ovation as I came forward to speak almost overwhelmed me. I knew that the link with the students had not been broken. Here was the proof that I was still needed, that I could still make my contribution to the struggle for freedom and justice and to the young. I was nervous at first. Could I still hold an audience the way I used to? Would my voice be strong enough? Was age catching up with me? Almost at once I knew that it wasn't so, for the response from the students was there. I spoke of the women's resistance in the 1950s and of the great women's protests to Pretoria ”” the heritage from the past.
Since I have been unbanned, calls to speak on university campuses have been many. I have been several times to the University of Cape Town, to Wits University and to Natal University, also to Rhodes and to the Indian Westville University. I have had the honour of giving the annual Academic Freedom addresses at five English-speaking universities. Initially I felt inadequate about giving these important lectures, all delivered in the past by very prominent people both in South Africa and from overseas. The lectures are always printed for the occasion and widely distributed. Mine could not be. All this made me feel unequal to the task but I was inspired by the confidence of the students, both in me and in the value of a formal lecture, which must be confined to the actual audience.
I am no academic, no ideologue. I could not pretend to be what I was not, so I spoke as simply as I always do, putting academic freedom where I think it belongs, into its true context, beyond the ivory tower. I tried to make it meaningful, to place the responsibility for its survival upon the shoulders of the students. I wanted to show that academic freedom is but a part of the greater freedom for which South Africa must strive. The students on the five campuses showed me plainly by their ovations that I had not reached out in vain. And so I continue today. I am privileged to bring to students and to other audiences, black and white, the message of the struggle for justice and human dignity and the principles of the Freedom Charter.
The political face of South Africa is changing, not only through government effort at so-called constitutional reform, but by the widespread emergence of grassroots community organisations and the development of a fast-growing extra-parliamentary constituency. The old all-white Parliament is gone. We have a new constitution. We have three Houses of Parliament, one for the whites, one for the Indians and one for the coloureds, but nothing at all for African representation, for the voteless millions still left after the shuffling off to the homelands. There is talk of considering their relation to the new parliamentary apparatus. Commissions will sit, but this cannot compensate at this stage, if ever, for the plain fact that the African people, three-quarters of the total population, have been excluded from this new Parliament.
There was referendum for the whites on the new constitution. The result was heavily in favour. The coloureds and Indians had no referendum. They were not asked if they wanted this new dispensation: they were simply called upon to vote for it.
The Indian people had a parliamentary vote for the first time and the coloured people voted again after many years. Each race could only vote for its own House of Parliament. There is no common electoral roll.
When the three Houses come together in this tricameral Parliament, the loading of seats can be clearly seen. The coloured and Indian members are heavily outnumbered by the whites. They are in a permanent humiliating minority, and white supremacy is enshrined in this new dispensation. It was small wonder that when the elections were held, the percentage polls were sensationally low. Boycott campaigns made their mark and some 80 per cent of voters simply stayed away. The Nationalist government forged ahead, undeterred.
The opposition to the new constitution, however, brought into cohesive being a formidable and expanding extra-parliamentary constituency, spearheaded by the United Democratic Front, both the acknowledged leader of the real multiracial opposition and the prime target of government and police repression.
The launching of the United Democratic Front became for me the third high peak of the past thirty years ”” indeed of my whole life. To the historic gathering in Cape Town came 15,000 people, the old and the young, the black and the white, the professional and the worker, the housewives. I was there. I spoke. I was introduced as "the mother of the struggle". I was elected an Honorary Patron. Listing barred me from any executive position, but I am proud to be a patron, to know that I belong there, to the people, as much as to the university students.
More than this, so that my cup is really running over, I see the women of South Africa coming together again in many organisations, in many centres, moving forward together to the day when a new Federation of South Africa Women, a truly national unity of women throughout South Africa, will come into being. The thirty-year old dream of the Federation will then come true.
Eighty is a great age. I don't know for how long I shall be able, physically or legally, to speak on platforms. Each year must see me less mobile. I am still unbanned. I know that I must make hay while the sun shines, for I do not know for how long it may shine.
I have been banned four times, gaoled four times, on trial for four years and this is my third period of being unbanned. It is a strange feeling. I speak of joy in being free yet it is only a partial freedom. I am still hedged around with the prohibitions attached to being listed. Winnie and other banned friends may not communicate with me. Nothing I say or write may be quoted in South Africa. I may not belong to any political organisation. Others are banned; many more may be banned. What kind of freedom is this? I do not want a freedom for myself, which I cannot share fully with others.
Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, "Kathy" Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, we were all together in those early years, in campaigns, in gaol, on trial for high treason. They are still in maximum-security prisons, on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor gaol. Their lives pass by while they wait for the freedom, which they know, will come for them and for their people. In South Africa's gaols there are more than thirty black political prisoners serving life sentences. There are hundreds of others serving long sentences, some for the rest of their lives and without promise of freedom.
Yet that is not what I really believe. For me there is no doubt that freedom will come in their lifetime ”” at least for most of them, although there are a few whose lifespan is growing threateningly short.
During the 1950s I was deeply committed to the non-violent struggle, as we all were. We believed that it would be possible through non-violent action to achieve freedom and justice in South Africa, to implement the principles of the Freedom Charter and to live by it. That was before Sharpeville, before the grim 1960s, before the suppression by force of our non-violent campaigns. It was before the outlawing of our non-violent organisations and before the decades of detention and torture.
Non-violence cannot successfully oppose a violent repressive system. The demand by the black people for human recognition and rights is a just demand. I abhor and fear violence of all kinds. I share this abhorrence with millions of human beings, but stronger even than this is the conviction that justice must prevail. If white South Africa persists in its refusal to share the land, the wealth and the power, if it continues to use force to maintain itself in its privileged position, then the black people have no alternative but to use force to obtain their just demands. We must expect a bloody conflict with immense human suffering. Responsibility for what is to come must lie at the door of white South Africans.
Over the years I have become ever more conscious of my white guilt. It is not mine alone. I share it with a few million other whites. That does not make it any less mine. I have never been able to forget Lilian Ngoyi's bitter outburst about my pink skin making me better off in gaol. It makes no difference that I have tried to identify with the struggle of the black people. It makes no difference that I have been gaoled, detained, house-arrested. So have many others. I benefit by this accursed system and I cannot shed my whiteness. I feel shame and contrition for my white skin for I have not been able to expiate it. I cannot do it alone. The real expiation can only come about if the white people of South Africa shed their greed and their fears and stand with the black people of this land in every way.
In this book I have tried to open some windows onto the history of the liberation struggle. I could not open them all; mainly these are the windows through which I myself have looked. We are halfway through this decade and I cannot see clearly how it will end, but I hope that there may then be signs of a new, freer South Africa.
I hoped that I might be able to give some Christian witness in the political world and some political witness in the Christian world. A crazy impractical ideal? I do not know, nor do I know if I have achieved even a part of it. It is for others to judge of that.
There is a plant in South Africa, which we call the khakibush. Cut it down, burn it down, it will shoot up again. For thirty years it has grown three feet high over that football field in Kliptown where the Congress of the People was held. Now the invasion of the concrete jungle threatens it and our field lies graveled over. I can no longer see the khakibush but I know that its roots are there. It will break through elsewhere. For me the khakibush is a symbol of survival, a manifestation of unconquerable growth. Like the khakibush, the African National Congress has grown and spread. Its roots are underground in South Africa. They cannot be seen but they send up shoots. It grows and spreads.
Like the khakibush, the Freedom Charter has resisted all efforts to eradicate it. In this crucial decade it is an article of faith for many people in South Africa and overseas. Thousands of copies are spread far and wide. It is displayed publicly and quoted freely. It has come from the hearts of the people to their lips. Its message can never be banned for it is the message of brotherhood and love.
These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives until we have won our liberty... side by side!