From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
When I began to give evidence, my knees were actually trembling for the first time in my life. Somehow I managed to make my opening statement: I did not accept any of the Minister of Justice's assurances that I should not suffer any disabilities, such as further detention, from giving evidence during the Emergency. I added that I had no confidence whatsoever in his bona fides. It seemed to be a pretty bold statement but I wanted to make it.
I explained how I had become politically involved and also my functions in the Congress of Democrats and the Federation of South African Women. I said that I had no faith in a spontaneous voluntary change of heart by the white electorate. I believed that pressure, economic and moral, from outside and within South Africa, could bring about a change of mind. I added that this would obviously involve non-violent extra-parliamentary pressure in the form of strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience from the voteless four-fifths of the population. I denied any suggestion that the congresses were "bent upon a violent and forcible revolution" ”” a quotation from the Crown's opening address. Our aim was to establish a multiracial democracy through universal franchise. I denied that we wished to substitute a communist state for the present state. Our aim was to work for a state on the lines of the Freedom Charter but that the people must be free to choose for themselves the nature of the state they wanted.
I testified to Congress activity at length, especially the Western Areas Removal and the Bantu education protests and the campaign against passes for African women. Judge Rumpff and Judge Bekker asked me many questions. This was a great strain and I dreaded their interventions, sometimes confusing myself in my desperate attempt to make them understand what it was all about. I hated the distance between the witness box and the dock where my friends sat. They were so far away and the judges so close.
When Judge Rumpff asked me in what way I used the word "socialist", I replied that I used it in the sense of a greater sharing amongst the people which would require the nationalisation of some of the resources but I did not use it to the total exclusion of private enterprise.
I also had to answer searching questions on Robert Resha's speech to the volunteers in which he had said, "when you are disciplined and you are told by the organisation not to be violent, you must not be violent. If you are a true volunteer and you are called upon to be violent, then you must murder, murder!" For the prosecution this was the most important piece of evidence against us. To me it was so clear. Perhaps it was because I knew Robert so well. I knew of his passion for discipline and obedience and his whole speech seemed to me to be set in that context, not in the context of violence. The image was indeed a violent one but it was an extreme example and nothing more. I realised that I did not convince the judges of this.
As the days went by ”” and they seemed to go very slowly ”” I became more relaxed. I replied to Farid's questions, so carefully prepared beforehand, to bring out our policies, our ideals, to destroy the terrible smears contained in the prosecution's opening address. I was proud to be part of the Congress Alliance. We had nothing to hide and here was the opportunity to affirm what we stood for, what we were fighting to achieve, a truly democratic state on the lines of the Freedom Charter.
It had taken five days of giving evidence to cover all that we wanted to put before the court and it seemed that their lordships became mighty tired of it. Occasionally Judge Rumpff would try to head Farid off but he clung on doggedly, leading me through every section of the Freedom Charter.
We covered almost every aspect of the Congress activities and then went on to the council meeting of the Women's International Democratic Federation in Geneva and my speech there and also to my article "Women against Passes". According to the indictment, part of my speech and part of the article were both overt acts of treason.
Whenever the judges intervened with their questions. I wondered where they were leading me to and I became defensive. Always at the back of my mind was the knowledge that my answers could affect not only my own trial but also the fate of twenty-nine others. It was a heavy responsibility.
On the sixth day, Farid ended his questions and I became a witness under cross-examination by my fellow accused. Then everything changed. I had not known that I should be separated from the other accused. In later political trials this was not allowed, but we did not know we could challenge it. It meant being brought separately to court, sitting apart from my friends in the recesses, even eating my food sitting apart. It felt like a bad dream to be so cut off.
The accused cross-examined me for two days. Their questions were simple and direct. They wanted to tell the court, through me, of the conditions in which they lived, the injustices they suffered, so that the groundwork of all our activities should become clear: it was the desire for their human rights to be achieved peacefully, and not by violence.
They questioned me on farm labour, on the Western Areas Removals, on trade unions, on passes. It seemed to me that they were painting a picture, each one adding some strokes of the paintbrush. It was so different from the picture of South Africa, which Murray had tried to paint. I wondered, not for the first time, whether their lordships could remain unmoved, could not see that it was South Africa that was on trial, not us and that we were presenting the true indictment.
After this, Advocate Liebenberg began my cross-examination for the prosecution. I was thankful that it was not Advocate Trengove, the prosecutor who had cross-examined Chief Luthuli so aggressively, and felt that I ought to be able to handle this counsel's questions fairly well. My strength lay in the knowledge that I was telling the truth, simply trying to make everything clear and showing the falseness of the allegations of violence, of hostile intent to overthrow the present state by force.
Most of the cross-examination was directed towards the Congress of Democrats, attempting to show it as a communist-led organisation or a communist front. Often it became a debate of semantics. I was hammered on the meaning of words, of democracy and people's democracy, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism ”” and what I understood by them. What did my organisation mean by them? I sometimes felt that I could stand it no longer and had to resist an urge to walk right out of the witness box and out of the court! I knew, of course, that I should not get very far!
I fought my own battle against the quotations torn from our speeches, always demanding to see the whole document so as to put the quotation into context. Sometimes Liebenberg accused me of dishonesty. "You are not telling us all you know . . . you seem to be abysmally ignorant of the policies of your organisation." Once I had to face forty-five minutes of uninterrupted questions from the judges. I almost broke down, but I only openly became tearful after reaching gaol.
As I anticipated, I had to face extensive questioning on my two "overt" acts; the quotation from my Geneva speech with reference to the Sophiatown removals being "the spark that might set off a mighty conflagration." and the quotation I had put into the women's mouths in my article, "what shall we do when we are told to carry passes?" Had I not clearly invited violence in the first quotation? Had I not encouraged illegal activity by suggesting that the women should refuse passes in the second?
I knew clearly what I had meant, but under the insidious heavy pressure of questions from the prosecuting advocate and the judges, I became somewhat confused and my answers less clear. It went on so long. I wished the clock would move faster. It was exhausting and each recess was a respite but I could never relax completely. As the days went by I felt my responsibility to my friends heavily and feared I might in some way be letting them down. The courtroom became that complex of attack and defence I had read about, but I had never expected to be a participant, fighting for ideals, which most people in the civilised world took for granted.
Judge Rumpff also questioned me searchingly on my views on armed struggle ”” which would be of prime importance, the achievement of liberation or the method of achievement? I replied that I would not support violence to achieve liberation. I said that even if an oppressed people had arms and could shorten the struggle, I still would not support an armed conflict, even if the non-violent struggle took longer. I said that the aim would be less important than the fact that human life could be lost and suffering imposed. I would both regret and condemn any movement by the people to start an armed conflict, no matter for what purpose. I meant every word of it then, for the possibility that the ANC and its allies would eventually be compelled to involve themselves in armed struggle had not yet even been considered. I did not foresee the escalation of both institutional and actual violence by the government and the police, which followed Sharpeville. I did not foresee the spiral of violence, which w as to come so soon.
On the fourteenth day my sojourn in the witness box was over and I could be with the other accused again. They gave me a great welcome, almost mobbing me. "Undented and undaunted!" cried Duma Nokwe, high praise indeed. I could hardly believe it. I had not tailed them. There was much joy in our gaol, too, that my ordeal was over. From the gaol canteen we ordered supplementary food in addition to our rations and a celebration supper was cooked for me.
When we had been three months in detention, rumours of release began to circulate, yet the Emergency still showed no signs of ending. We had made a life of our own in gaol, as well as in court, sharing our chores and our cooking, playing bridge and scrabble, and endlessly knitting. I was given fewer chores and excused from cooking because of my long hours away at court. "Cooking" is perhaps not a good description, because all we could do was to improve the prison rations with what we bought from the canteen. Nevertheless, some surprisingly tasty dishes were concocted.
Then great news came: 1.200 detainees were to be released; on 1 July the prison matron told us, "everyone is going home except Joseph." It was a bad moment, but in the event I was not left alone at first because Yetta was held for another three weeks. It seemed to be only the treason trialists who w ere not to be released. When Yetta had gone, torn between her joy at going home and her grief at leaving me. I was truly alone, except for the time spent at the trial. Lilian was alone too. We had no contact with each other once inside the gaol gates.
At court things had changed. When so many detainees were released, it appeared that the end of the Emergency might possibly be very near. We called our legal counsel back and they studied the record of our evidence. Their immediate reaction was strong disapproval of Judge Rumpff’s extensive questioning of our witnesses, especially Chief and me.
This led to an application for Judge Rumpff to recuse himself from the trial on the grounds that his questioning had given rise to a reasonable fear in our minds that we w ere not obtaining a fair trial. We believed that the judge did not approach our witnesses with impartiality and that he was leaning towards the prosecution. It was a startling application and one that needed courage, conviction and integrity for it to be made at all by a senior counsel to the Presiding judge of the court, who was at the same time the Judge President of the Transvaal.
Bram Fischer made the application, and even though it proved unsuccessful, we admired and loved him more than ever for undertaking it for us. Judge Rumpff denied that his questioning of me amounted to cross-examination. He claimed that it w as an example of "bringing the witness back patiently to a particular question ... the witness did not give a simple answer." That might well have been true but he did not ask simple questions. To me his questioning felt much more like cross-examination than anything Liebenberg achieved.
As the trial proceeded, several of my fellow accused went into the witness box. Nelson Mandela gave impressive evidence on the whole history of the non-violent policy of the African National Congress. It was inspiring to watch Nelson there, so completely at his ease, handling his cross-examination with calm confidence, based on his experience as a Congress leader for many years. Sometimes he was moved to anger, as once when Judge Rumpff suggested that to give the vote to people without education would be like giving it to children. We were all incensed at this suggestion for among the accused there were two greatly respected leaders, elderly men who had never been to school. They spent many of their detention days learning to read and write. We felt, as Nelson did, that this was a gratuitous insult to them and to us all.
Listening to Nelson. I realised again the grandeur and prestige of the African National Congress. Even though I was banned, detained and facing a charge of high treason, I wondered how I could ever have deserved to be so honoured as to be close to these leaders of the Congress Alliance. How could I really have come so far in less than ten years, after my fruitless existence during so many years of my life?
Soon after Nelson, Robert Resha went into the witness box. As soon as Trengove began the cross-examination, the tension was obvious. Robert was militant, contemptuous, and the mutual antagonism flared frequently. It was somehow not Robert testifying to the court, but Robert versus Trengove. There was never "My Lords" to the judges, as demanded by court protocol. Even Judge Rumpff gave up and suggested amiably that perhaps it would be better if this witness did not address anyone. But it made no difference: it was a contemptuous "Mr Trengove" to the end.
Robert admitted honestly that he had sometimes gone too far in his speeches. He acknowledged that he had then gone outside Congress policy and had afterwards accepted criticism from his leaders. But he had known what it was to come back to Sophiatown to find his home destroyed, his furniture out in the street and his family looking for some place to sleep.
He rejected the evidence of his speeches as reported by detectives. "God alone knows what I did say," he said. He had some grave doubts himself about the policy of non-violence in the face of government brutality. "Sometimes I feel that we too have the right to use violence." Yet he accepted that the ANC policy of non-violence was the only wise policy.
While Robert was still in the witness box, the Emergency came at last to its end. On 31 August, we knew that it would be over on the following day. We had been held for a full five months without a charge being brought against us.
Being already on trial for treason had nothing at all to do with our detention. Together with 2,000 others, we were simply the victims of the proclaimed State of Emergency after Sharpeville, where the violence had been perpetrated by the police, not by us. But the political climate had been created, the public thrown into a state of panic, which made this violation of justice possible. For us, our trial had proved a partial relief from the confinement in gaol but for all those others, detention had meant living under gaol conditions for endless weeks, allowed only limited visits from families, and deprived of access to news or knowledge of what was going on outside the gaols, or what the future might hold.
We did not know that this was only the partial shape of things to come. We could not foresee that the next decade would bring even harsher conditions of detention, that there would be those who would suffer unimaginable physical torture during interrogation, that there would be men who would die strange deaths in detention. We did not know that Caleb Mayekiso, a treason trialist, with us every day for all those years, would one day die in detention and the truth of his death would never be known.