From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
The State of Emergency was over. Lilian and I came out of gaol together on the morning of 31 August and climbed into the police van for the last time, taking with us our many packages accumulated over five months. Mine had to include groceries, a scrabble board, jigsaw puzzles, books and magazines left behind when the other women returned home, for nothing at all could be left in gaol. It seemed bizarre that after five months, there must be no trace whatever of my ever having been there.
At the men's gaol, we found most of our friends waiting outside in the street for us, for the last ride in the "singing lorry". We had sung freedom songs every day, down to the court and back again. Our police driver had been delighted, encouraging us to "sing up, chaps". He was a friendly simple soul and he was genuinely sorry to say goodbye to us, but glad for our sakes that we were free again. So we sang loudly that day, triumphant as we trundled through the Pretoria streets.
Some of the accused had decided to walk down to the court, just to be able to walk in the streets again, they said. We met, outside the court this time, and went to the cafe opposite for a "freedom" coffee. I walked twice across the road and back, just because it felt so good to be free.
Yet of course we were not really free at all. We were still on trial, listening now to our own evidence, inspired by it, nearing the end of the trial, but not knowing what the next few months might bring ”” acquittal or conviction?
I don't think we listened very much that morning, even to Robert's evidence. Our eyes were constantly turning to the public gallery, rapidly filling up with the friends and families who had come to take us home.
Violet Weinberg came for me; we had last seen each other two months ago when she left our gaol with the other detainees on release. Humanity, for once, broke into the formality of the court and there was no afternoon session.
There were many friends to be seen on my return to Johannesburg. I first collected my car and then drove happily around the city. It was good that I had not had to leave anyone behind in gaol ”” that must have been very hard. I called in at the Medical Aid Society office to greet the staff and make arrangements to resume the early morning and late evening sessions the next day. Life had so quickly become relatively normal again that the memory of the past five months began to fade away.
The next day we were back in court. Nelson, Robert, Farid, Stanley and I had driven again along the Pretoria road, checking that "our" houses had been properly looked after in our absence! At court we were still catching up on the news, which we had gathered only in snatches for so long. Judge Rumpff agreed to our request that the court should not sit on the Friday, so as to give the men from the Eastern Cape an extra day to spend with their families at the weekend.
We noticed Advocate de Vos, another member of the prosecution team, coming into court, inexplicably almost staggering under a huge pile of books, obviously law books. Just before four o'clock, when the court was about to adjourn, this little advocate with a Grecian profile, which we had had so much time to study, rose to his feet and stunned everyone by demanding that all the accused should be returned to gaol, because we were still legally in custody and no longer on bail.
It took a little while for this to sink in. Must we really go back to gaol? What did he mean about our bail? We saw it as a dastardly trick on the part of the government. We despised the prosecution counsel for being party to it. Was the government now afraid that we might be acquitted after the inept presentation of the Crown case? Were they determined to have us in gaol for many more months, in addition to the five we had already spent there? Was this part of the plan for ending the Emergency, to let everyone else go and keep us in?
I think our defence counsel were as angry as we were. Maisels argued vehemently that this could not be. Bail had fallen away when the first indictment had been withdrawn, it had in fact been refunded and we were merely coming to court on summons. Few of us had realised this and I thought again of what an extraordinary group of traitors we were, all coming to our trial without compulsion.
During the short, critical recess, while we were waiting for the judges' finding, we trooped across the road to the cafe for what might be our last cup of "freedom" coffee, so soon after the first. I don't think it even occurred to any of us to slip away while we were still free. Perhaps we were too conditioned to facing the trial to the end; perhaps it showed our complete and unbreakable solidarity with each other? I don't know the right answer, maybe a little of both.
By seven o'clock our anxiety was over. The prosecution had failed and we were still free. Maisels had cut the prosecution down to size. It all seemed to symbolise the whole structure of this unreal trial, becoming more abortive as the weeks went by. Our defence was growing in stature, yet the Crown would not let us go.
On our return to court, after our nearly wrecked long weekend, Professor Matthews, "ZK" as he was affectionately known to so many, the wise elder statesman of the ANC, came into the witness box. Thickset and powerfully built, sophisticated and urbane, he was academically head and shoulders above every other person in the courtroom. Our defence counsel led him through his illustrious career, from being the first African graduate of the University of South Africa, to the invitations to visit the United States as a visiting professor, through the many requests from overseas for attendance at various world conferences, some of which he had been unable to attend because of the withdrawal of his passport by the police. He had been a member of the ANC executive committee for many years and Cape President for ten years.
I remembered, almost with astonishment, that this was the man who, like us, had been held in gaol for three weeks at the beginning of this trial, had sat through the long preparatory examination and the first part of the trial in Pretoria, so was still one of the sixty whose fate depended upon ours and had been detained in gaol during the Emergency. It didn't fit in with his incomparable academic record.
Completely at his ease, the Professor sat with folded arms in the witness box, though of course on the black side. He might have been participating in some high-level world conference, or just sitting comfortably in his study, dealing with some undergraduate student ”” which was indeed the impression he created when replying to his cross-examiner, Advocate Hoexter.
In five days, Professor Matthews not only testified to the ANC policy of non-violence but established it so firmly that the prosecutor could not make any dents in it. At the suggestion, once, that volunteers were being trained for violence, he exclaimed, "preposterous!" It was preposterous. "Not Africa for the Africans only." declared the Professor, "but Africa for the Africans too." He affirmed that the ANC feared that a violent revolution would leave an aftermath of bitterness like that, which had followed the Anglo-Boer war between the Afrikaners and the British.
It was Professor Matthews who had introduced the idea of a Congress of the People at an ANC conference in the Eastern Cape in 1953. It should be a convention of all people, of all races, to draw up a charter for a democratic future. He said that he had been satisfied with the way the Congress of the People had been carried out; the motivation of the Freedom Charter had been the actual grievances of the people and each clause related to one of these grievances. Although he himself did not believe that nationalisation would be the solution to economic problems, he dismissed as entirely wrong any suggestion that its inclusion in the Freedom Charter might derive from communist influence. It was a world trend.
Listening to our star witness, I think some of us went into a state of euphoria. How could the Crown case possibly stand up to this? We closed our defence on this high note. Now only the last act was still to be played out on this strange stage, a synagogue, which had become a court, yet so familiar to us that it had become part of our lives.
We had a strange feeling that there was nothing more the defence could do. We had given our evidence, defended our organisation and ourselves and affirmed our principles. Now the Crown must prove its case, once and for all. Our defence counsel would reply and then ”” the judgement.
It was a bitter experience to hear the prosecution condemn our struggle as violent, communist manipulated and indoctrinated, ruthless, subversive and treasonable. We knew it wasn't true, but we had to listen to weeks of Crown argument, smearing our organisations, before the prosecutor came to us as individuals. A good deal of this part of the argument was concerned with what I the prosecutor assessed as our degree of communism or communist influence. The shades ranged from palest pink to rosy red, and there were quite a few surprises in store for some of us.
Because we were accused of being members of a conspiracy to overthrow the state by violence, the Crown had to show what knowledge any of us had of this alleged policy of violence. Sometimes it seemed to put us into a world of fantasy, of imagination, so unreal was it.
The prosecution could not do much with Robert Resha in the realm of communism. I never thought they could, and he came out only the palest of pinks, but the prosecutor relied on his fiery speeches to show that he incited the African youth to commit violence and was part of the conspiracy. His evidence was rejected, as indeed was the case with most of us who had been defence witnesses. It did not take long to get the point. When we disagreed with the Crown counsel, then we were simply untruthful or evasive.
When it came to my turn, the main point was that I was highly educated and had wide knowledge. I had, therefore, understood all the treasonable implications of the liberation struggle ”” and presumably also of the treasonable conspiracy. The prosecution counsel said that I was one of the most active members of the liberation struggle, and I felt that this was high praise indeed. He said that I had been untruthful in my evidence on the speeches I had heard at meetings, but he conceded that I was not a communist in the sense that I understood communist doctrine. I wondered whether I could perhaps be called an uncomprehending communist? My crime was that I had adhered to the conspiracy. I wondered too, whether the emphasis on my education, experience and understanding perhaps only meant that I was old enough to know better.
Nelson's powerful and positive evidence caused difficulty for the Crown, but he did not escape being painted red. The prosecutor insisted that he "KNEW" and accepted the communist doctrine of violent revolution. Because of his banning, however, he had made no speeches and the Crown could do little beyond allege his adherence to the conspiracy and his "hostile state of mind".
The prosecution did not get very far with Lilian either; she came out of it almost lily white. No argument on communism was led against her, despite her visit to the Soviet Union and to China. But, like Robert, she was alleged to have been an inciter to violent revolution and this was enough to include her in the conspiracy.
There we were, as the Crown saw us, all members of a conspiracy to overthrow the state by violence. The Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter had also been in pursuance of the conspiracy because the new state we envisaged was to be founded on the principles of the charter. We "KNEW" that our methods would lead to violent conflict with the state and we had intended to provoke it. We had no genuine belief in non-violence. This obviously made us a bunch of traitors, of varying shades of communism.
It had taken the prosecution team four months just to argue its case against us. Our defence counsel had argued in reply for only two weeks when the judges announced that they wished to consider the position so far and see whether it might be unnecessary to hear any further argument from the defence. The court was then adjourned until the following week.
We were all taken by surprise. Bram Fischer had prepared an argument on our speeches, which he said would take a month to present, but he only got through a few days of it. Yet our counsel were actually triumphant, assuring us that this move of the judges could only mean acquittal. Despite what we had learnt of court matters during the past years, we were almost unwilling to believe it. We scattered for those few days, not knowing what to expect.
On 29 March 1961 we returned to court, and this time we all travelled together in the treason bus and came singing to the end of our trial as we had come singing to its beginning. It did not take long ”” only about thirty minutes for us to listen to the judgement. I found it difficult to follow and my hopes went up and down, uncertain of the outcome, until we rose to our feet for the verdict. "You are found not guilty and discharged and you may go." For us, some of the most beautiful words in the English language.
The Crown had failed to prove that the African National Congress intended, as a matter of policy, to achieve a new state by violent means. There was no conspiracy and there were no traitors. We could all go home. Yet, for more than four years of our lives we had been absorbed by this incredible, monumental folly of a treason trial.
Our defence counsel had been brilliant, had routed the prosecution. The ideas and the beliefs of our organisation had proved unassailable. Berrangé had said in his opening address, so long ago: "in the result, this trial will be answered in the right way, by history". It had been so. History had itself supplied the answer.
Yet it was a bitter and costly victory, after years of frustration, anxiety, deprivation, for so many. The state had failed to break our solidarity, it had indeed strengthened it, but there had been grim periods when our enforced personal inactivity had been hard to bear ”” the defection of the Pan Africanists, Sharpeville, the long months of detention when leadership was needed to keep the liberation struggle going forward.
For Lilian and me, especially, it had been almost unbearable that the great passive resistance of the Johannesburg women against passes had come and gone while we were still on trial. Now we were free again, but I was still banned, there were many others banned, and legal repression was mounting rapidly, year by year. The ANC Women's League had been banned along with the ANC, and it would take months of intensive organising to repair this damage to the Federation.
Our legal victory and the vindication of our organisations was celebrated nationwide, especially in Soweto, where it was said that there was a party in every home on the night of 29 March. We had carried our defence team, shoulder high, out of the treason court. We had taken our last ride in the treason bus, all of us together, not even remembering to look at "our" houses along the way. We thought sadly of Elias Moretsele, who had died only two weeks before, an old tired man. Perhaps it was those long journeys which shortened his life and deprived him of the joy of knowing he was acquitted.
It was good to be back in my office and have time in the evenings and at weekends to be with friends. It was a great relief to be finished with the trial summaries, but I missed my trial companions as we slipped back into our normal lives. Yet not all of us. There were several of us who had still to face months of unemployment, of further dependence on wives or families who had shouldered family responsibilities during those years. I realised how fortunate I had been to keep my job. It had meant hard work, but others had not even had that opportunity.
March 1961 was the month of triumph, not only for our acquittal but also for the holding of the All-in Conference in Natal. In the last weekend of the trial, Nelson Mandela had slipped away to Pietermaritzburg. His five-year ban had expired, apparently unnoticed and certainly unrenewed by the authorities, and he was free, not only to leave Johannesburg, but also to attend and address a gathering.
The All-in Conference had been intended to be a widely representative gathering, but in the event it became almost a Congress assembly, with hundreds of former ANC members representing groups from all areas. The idea of broad participation, which had promoted the conference, had not been able to stand up to the enthusiastic support from the former ANC members. Indeed what else could really have been expected from a banned mass organisation? Former PAC members made only a token showing, due perhaps in part to PAC's immature organisation, even before it was banned, and in part to its unwillingness to accept that the ANC still dominated the political scene.
The conference was a great success, notable for its spirit of defiance and determination, calling for a national convention of all races to decide upon a representative constitution for South Africa. Nelson made a charismatic surprise appearance. It must have been an unforgettable experience for him after so many years of bans, but it proved to be his last public appearance in South Africa. After our acquittal he disappeared, to continue leading the struggle from underground, sacrificing any return to normal family life.
From that All-in Conference came the demand for a truly national convention of all races. If the government did not heed this call before 31 May, the date set for the proclamation of the Republic of South Africa, then there were to be countrywide demonstrations against the government and a call for a stay-at-home from work.
The government replied to this demand in its usual way, by a show of police strength, nationwide police raids on homes and offices, mass arrests for pass laws infringement, with nearly 10,000 people in gaol. This time the police action was on an unprecedented scale. Police leave was cancelled and the army rode around black townships in tanks in a demonstration of armed force.
All meetings were banned from 19 May to 26 June, thus carefully eliminating any celebrations of the Congress of the People on 26 June. There was also new legislation to provide for twelve days in gaol before any arrested person need be brought to court. Hitherto the maximum period had been only two days. White reaction was to hoard food and buy guns.
The National Action Council elected at the conference was undaunted, and called for a three-day stay-at-home on the eve of the proclamation of the Republic. The PAC took the shameful way of destructive opposition through leaflets issued from underground, calling upon the people to go to work and not stay at home. This political scabbing, by the very organisation, which had brought about Sharpeville, aroused a new, deep and lasting resentment in the ANC.
Some of my white friends went into hiding as soon as the twelve-day detention before trial was legalised. Several of them had been detained in 1960, others feared their first detention, or feared that the twelve-day period might be extended. Hiding was not a possibility for me, even if I had thought it politically correct ”” which I did not ”” for I had to be at work, except for the three days of the stay-at-home. What then would be the purpose of hiding in the evenings? All the same, I dreaded detention and found myself listening to the sounds of cars stopping in the street outside my house, relieved when there was only the sound of one car door shutting, a little apprehensive if I heard two doors, because that might mean the police.
The Congress of Democrats took a militant stand, or tried to! We drafted an I leaflet to be thrown over the fence into the Johannesburg Union grounds where I units of the Citizen Force were now encamped. The leaflet told the men to go; home ”” and told them why. Our legal advisers, however, clamped down on us, pointing out that this would legally be an incitement to mutiny. With great reluctance we gave up the plan.
The result of the stay-at-home was not surprising in the face of such intensive intimidation of all kinds. The protest had not achieved a national proportion, it was not a mass response, yet there was a positive response in many quarters and the call had by no means gone unheeded. Thousands of workers had stayed away from their jobs on that first day and many even on the second, despite propaganda from the media and armed intimidation by the police. In fact, the radio proclaimed it a failure at six o'clock on the morning of the first day, something which at that hour, no one could have assessed.
It was not the national protest that had been hoped for, but it certainly cast a deep shadow over the celebrations of Republic Day and it posed a question that now required an answer. Was the peaceful protest of the past fifty years still effective or even possible in the face of the use of armed force by the state? The question had indeed been asked ever since Sharpeville. "As long as the grievances remain," said Nelson from underground, "there will be protest actions of this kind or another. If peaceful protests like these are to be put down by the mobilisation of the army and the police, then the people might be forced to use other methods of struggle."
Nelson's statement forced me to question my own position. I had affirmed in my treason trial evidence that I stood unequivocally for non-violence and against an armed struggle. And yet, in the face of all the armed might called up against a peaceful protest, was I going to be able to maintain my stand? Could I still be loyal to the ANC if it moved away from its commitment of non-violence? Could I still believe that non-violence could lead to peaceful change?
I had always relied on the example of India's non-violent struggle and its achievement of independence peacefully. Now I could see that the Indian government's response to non-violent protest, to passive resistance, had nothing in common with South Africa's brutal methods and use of armed force and nationwide intimidation.
The ANC found its own answer. It had been established and maintained on the policy of non-violence and it could not move from this standpoint, could not itself undertake violence. But it could no longer disapprove of properly controlled violence, nor discipline its members engaging in it.
Umkhonto We Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation, came into being to undertake sabotage of government buildings and installations because this did not involve loss of life. It might even avoid bitterness between the races and, hopefully, compel the white voters to think again. Umkhonto was to operate separately from the underground ANC, under its own high command. It would not be confined to Africans, although obviously many ANC members would participate in its activities.
The idea of destroying installations was a form of violent action that I could accept. In fact, I did not see it as actual violence because it was aimed at things, not people. I was in favour of attacking government property. Umkhonto solved my problem. It seemed to me that there might still be room for non-violent activities, protest, strikes, propaganda, meetings, and with sabotage support they might prove more effective.
The beginning of sabotage came at the end of the year, planned for 16 December, the Afrikaners' celebration of their Day of the Covenant and their victory over the Zulu King, Dingaan. Needless to say, Africans see this day differently. On the Day of the Covenant, government buildings in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth were bombed and considerable damage inflicted.