From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
At long last 1962 arrived and I could say to myself, "It's THIS year" ”” this year that my bans would end and I would be free again, free to leave Johannesburg, to attend meetings. The last year had brought home to me, more than any of the previous years, that I was restricted. Until that year the trial had gathered us all together in a sort of family circle, which filled the greater part of our days; for me, my Medical Aid Society work and the treason trial summaries filled the other part. I really had not had time before to feel the true pinch of the bans, but once the trial was over, I found it galling to be so restricted, especially not to be able to attend meetings. It was becoming more and more difficult for me to maintain close contact with the Federation and the Congress of Democrats.
My efforts turned now to the banished African people, for in addition to bans there was another harassment of political leaders, especially in rural areas, but also amongst a few trade unionists and Congress leaders. The Nationalist government had chosen to invoke the power of banishment under the 1927 Native Administration Act, passed thirty years ago. This empowered the Governor General to order any tribe or native to proceed forthwith to any designated place and not to leave it again except by permission. The effect of this Act was that any African could be taken without prior notice from his home, with only what possessions could be carried, to be dumped anywhere within South Africa. The banishment order was sometimes served at the home, sometimes at the Native Commissioner's office, but the result was the same.
No specific reason for the banishment was given, only the statement that the removal was in the interests of maintaining peace and good order in the tribe. There was never any previous warning, nor any provision for the wife to accompany the banished man. When the order was served at the Commissioner's office, the banished man left with nothing but the clothes he wore. He was not even taken home to collect some belongings. His wife was not informed of what had happened, he simply did not return home.
Banishment was also inflicted on a few women leaders. One spent more than two years trying to be united with her already banished husband. Another had a husband serving a long gaol sentence. She was banished, together with her young son and daughter, who were both still at school. The girl was only sixteen, but nevertheless she received a banishment order saying that her presence was inimical to the preservation of peace and good order. At sixteen! Yet another banished woman was the widowed chieftainess of the Matlala tribe. Eventually I heard these tragic stories, so poignantly told, from the women themselves.
The wives of the banished men remained behind to gather up the tattered pieces of their lives, to bring up their children and to cling to their land in the tribal area. They dared not leave permanently to be with their husbands.
The dumping grounds were usually empty huts on remote government-owned farms, held in "trust" for some future allocation to the black population. The place selected for each person, obviously by design, would be where the language spoken in the area was almost foreign to the banished man. The opportunities, even for rough farm labour, were very scarce and ill paid, mostly non-existent. Neighbours were few and distant.
These banished people were indeed the forgotten people. Press reports, however, began to appear, telling of destitution, utter loneliness, bare existence on low wages or government allowances of £2 a month only, sometimes. The ANC called for a committee to find the banished people and to care for them when found. Lilian and I were asked to establish the committee and we found friends willing to join us. The Human Rights Welfare Committee was formed to help the few banished people we knew about through the press, and to find the rest.
Only the Department of Native Affairs knew where all these people had been taken. Enquiries for information brought a Chinese puzzle reply. Seventy-five men and five women had been "removed" (the official term for banishment) from twenty-six different places to twenty-seven other places. The names of the banished and lists of the places were given, but there was no information about who had been removed or where they had been taken. It seemed, at first, a hopeless task to sort this out and it took a long time.
Our first contacts with the banished people brought a shocking reply, "I have been banished to a remote area. I am thirty-nine miles from the nearest town and any transport. Before my departure I received £2.1 have since received no assistance whatsoever. The nearest telephone in case of emergency is over the mountain. Life here is not worth living." As the contact grew slowly with the banished men and women, the horror of their lives became clearer. There was little we could do, even after both the banished man and his family had been located, beyond sending money, clothes and food.
Perhaps the worst aspect was the indefiniteness. The banishment order remained in force until the government gave permission for the banished man to return home. There was no term to this hell of desolation.
The banished people became very important to me as contact by letter grew through the committee and we gradually uncovered the whereabouts of these abandoned men. The message was slowly reaching them that there were people who had not forgotten them. "We are made people again,” wrote one man in reply to my first letter to him. The task of finding them was no longer as hopeless as it had seemed in the beginning. Visits to some were being organised and the ugly picture was becoming clearer, the picture of banishment, how it operated and what it really meant to its victims.
The Act had been used against 116 people during the past twelve years, not eighty as claimed by the government. Over forty persons were still banished, some for more than eight years. Eleven had died in lonely exile and forty-one had been released and had returned to their people, but with the threat of re-banishment hanging over their heads. Six were still missing and could not be traced unless the authorities disclosed their whereabouts, which had not been done so far. A few had fled this unkind land and were struggling for existence elsewhere.
It was true, of course, as the government claimed, that there was nothing to prevent the wives from visiting their husbands ”” nothing but the fact that there was no money for food and education, let alone for travelling thousands of miles. The families of the banished were left destitute. Sometimes they were not even allowed to plough and the government-appointed chiefs took their land away or burnt or confiscated their huts.
The children of these people grew up without education because there was no money for school fees or books. When the families were not even allowed to plough, they lived on the charity of friends and relations. And even when some of the banished men were allowed to return home they found ruin and destitution and had to start again ”” with nothing.
For many of the wives there was no contact by letter with their men and they were not told where they were. There was nothing but silence. Some of the banished men were illiterate, sometimes barely able to write a few words in their own language and there was no one to write a letter home for them.
In Parliament, the Minister of Native Affairs said, when challenged about the banishments, "They are not prisoners." Yet when one of them was visited, his friends were not allowed to speak to him in his own language unless every word was translated for the benefit of the three policemen who remained throughout the visit. Not a prisoner?
Sometimes the banished men lived in exquisitely beautiful surroundings, waterfalls, mountain streams, luxuriant bush country, or maybe beside the blue Indian Ocean. But the greenest of willow trees, the loveliness of the low veld, cannot ease the ache in the heart of a man for his home, for his children. "I want to see my children," they said sadly. "I want to go home."
My mind was full of all this. I had arranged a few visits for others through my contacts with the banished and I asked myself why I should not go too. My bans would end on 30 April 1962, and I wanted to see it all for myself. I wrote urgent letters to the addresses that I knew, made special arrangements about contacting the banished men when I reached their areas and planned a complete and comprehensive itinerary, covering the Northern and Eastern Transvaal, Swaziland, Natal, Lesotho (the British Protectorate of Basutoland, as it was then), the Transkei and the Northern Cape.
I invited Joe Morolong of the ANC and Amina Cachalia of the Indian Congress, for the tour. Joe had been amongst the accused in the first part of the treason trial, until the case was withdrawn against him at the end of the preparatory examination. He had already visited two banishment camps in the Northern Cape for us, with visitors whom we had sent. I knew that he was free to come with us for he was living in his home area, having been deported from Cape Town for his political activities. Joe was a lively companion for the trip, with valuable knowledge of African languages, though little knowledge, alas, of the mechanics of a car. I suppose he was in his thirties then. He was only too happy to come with us on this adventure.
Amina Cachalia was a member of the Human Rights Welfare Committee for the banished and also active in the Federation. She had herself served a gaol sentence when she was very young, in the Defiance Campaign of 1952, when she was included in the first batch of Indian women to court a gaol sentence. It is difficult now to describe how beautiful Amina was when we toured together. She is still beautiful today, with dark eyes and hair, a lovely smile that lights up her whole face. She seems untouched by time, but in 1962 she was at the peak of her beauty. Yet she was no delicate oriental flower, she was a sturdy comrade, ready for gaol or journey, full of laughter and fun, willing to face long tiring drives and completely undaunted by the accommodation problems of our racially-mixed trio.
As soon as we arrived, total strangers, in a Transvaal town, we would head for the Indian area, where Amina never failed to find friends or strangers who would offer us hospitality. Her husband, Yusuf Cachalia, was politically famous for his leadership in the Indian Congress and his name helped to open many doors for us.
I had bought a new car for the journey to replace the gallant "Treason Trixie" which had taken us on so many daily journeys to Pretoria for the treason trial. We left Johannesburg at dawn on 1 May after the expiry of my ban at midnight. It was only when we were safely out on the open road heading north that I became really aware that I was free at last, free to go anywhere I chose, with whom I chose, no longer confined to Johannesburg or banned from gatherings. I was excited about our tour and the adventures to come, but underneath there was a tremendous private joy. The bans were over and like the treason trial they faded into the past. I realised that they might be reimposed, especially in view of what I was doing in seeking out the banished people and their families, and I certainly intended to speak out about what I saw and heard when I returned. Somehow that did not matter as it was almost an occupational hazard and could not affect my present plans.
We had set ourselves a long trek for the first stage of our journey into the Northern Transvaal and then into Swaziland before going on to Durban. It took us almost two weeks. We met many people, the friends who offered us their generous hospitality, the contacts we made along the way, the banished men and, in other places, their families.
In Natal we met our beloved Chief Luthuli, President General of the African National Congress. He was restricted to the Groutville area, some miles from Stanger, where we had stayed overnight with Indian friends. Chief was banned from being with more than one person at a time, so we had to meet clandestinely by night, by special arrangement. We drove to Groutville through miles of I sugarcane fields to stop on a curve of the road and wait for him.
I Out of the darkness he came walking softly, and we heard him greet us. I could not see his face but to hear his voice was enough and to sit beside him as I we crowded him into our car, always watching the road for the lights of any other approaching vehicle. Time was precious because Chief had risked disastrous consequences to see us and to hear our reports on the banished people whom we had seen. If we were all caught together then Chief could be charged with attending a gathering.
I told him of the Matlala people, deep in Northern Transvaal, hundreds of miles from Johannesburg, where we had visited the wives of men who had been banished eight and ten years previously. The sun had been shining brightly as we drove around the rocky hills to meet these lonely women. They had put on their brightest headscarves and their gayest beads to welcome us but as, one by one, they told us their tragic stories, with Joe interpreting, the sky seemed less blue and the gay colours only served to deepen the lines of sorrow on the dark faces. Sometimes tears trickled slowly down their cheeks as they spoke to us. Only one man had returned.
Mrs Sibija Matlala told us how an agricultural officer had come on a motorbike and told her husband to go to the police station at Sandfontein.
Then he was taken away by train and I did not get a letter from him all the years afterwards. One day he walked back into the house. I thought it was a ghost and I got a shock. This was on a Monday. He collapsed on the floor and then he got up and asked, "How are you? How are the children?" He said he was well, but he was not well and he fell down again. He lay in bed for a week and then he died. He did not speak again after the first day.
When we asked how this dying man had reached his home, his wife told us that her husband had walked a few steps at a time and then sat down to rest. It had taken him nearly all day to walk the five miles from the bus to his home. We knew that Sibija Matlala had been released from the banishment camp at Driefontein, 1, 000 miles away in the Northern. Cape. Joe and our friends had visited the camp previously and found him there, even then too ill to move about. Yet that man had been put out of the camp to struggle home alone, only to die when he got there. We can only assume that the authorities did not want to have him die in the camp.
Another Matlala woman told us, "We were at home when the officer came in a government car and said to my husband, 'Stand up, let's go!' They wanted to take me too but when my husband knew that he was going to be sent far away, he would not allow them to take me. It was only after five years that I heard that he was still alive but now I do not hear from him at all." We said to her before we left, "Don't look so sad. We shall find your husband soon and you shall go and see him." Then she smiled for the first time.
We found him in the Eastern Transvaal, some hundreds of miles from his home and when we told him that we had seen his wife, he actually jumped for joy, this very little, very old man, well over eighty. He had served in the South African forces during the First World War in East Africa. He explained to us that he was a soldier and soldiers did not take their wives to war with them and that was why he left her behind when he was banished. Perhaps it was his age that had moved the officer even to suggest that his wife might accompany him. A tempering of cruelty with mercy? But Maema would have none of it.
I told Chief of others too, whom we had seen, of Chief Faku from the Transkei, now isolated on government property in the Northern Transvaal. His wife was with him but their little child had died. He wept as he told us how the baby had to be buried in the hospital grounds because the ground where he lived was too hard and stony to dig even so small a grave.
We had found Stephen Nkadimeng, a militant leader of his people, in Sekhukhuniland in the Northern Transvaal, but now living high up in the Pongola Mountains on the border of Swaziland. It had taken us several hours to reach him and we had almost given up more than once. Then we found him, with his wife and children, many miles from the nearest village or any form of transport. His wife had followed him and I had seen her when she arrived in Johannesburg and put her on the train for Durban where other friends would put her on yet another train for Zululand.
This woman from the rural area was terrified of the city, and no wonder, for she had never even travelled on a train before, but she was quietly determined to get to her husband somehow. From the Zululand train terminal she walked up the mountain for thirty miles, her child on her back, her battered suitcase on her head. She could not speak the local language but somehow she made her way to Stephen.
There was no furniture in their hut except one wooden chair and a primus stove. Flattened cardboard cartons on the mud floor served as a bed and that was all there was. But Stephen's spirit was unbroken. He stood beside our car and said to me quietly as I left, "The struggle of my people goes on. I am satisfied."
There were others too, of whom there was no time to tell Chief. When I stopped he said quietly, "Thank you, Helen." It was enough. He had heard from us of the quiet courage of the banished men, of the bitter agony of their wives. Yet there was no bitterness in Chief, only compassion. He even rebuked me very gently for my angry desire to take revenge one day on those who had inflicted this dreadful suffering on others, so carelessly, so callously.
Then he left us again, fading into the darkness. We did not know that we should never see him again, that one day he would be struck down by a sugar train, perhaps even near the place where we had talked together by night in a car.
The next day we drove on to Durban to be with friends for a few days. I met the women of the Federation again, after five years, and some of our banned leaders of the Congress of Democrats. Amina left us to return to her family in Johannesburg and her place on our tour was taken by an overseas visitor, who almost reduced me to my old role of "wishy washy liberal" ”” so politically assured and well informed was she. Despite my years of association with above- and below-ground communists, I was still very vulnerable and aware of my deficiencies as an ideologue. However, Nan turned out to be a good-humoured travelling companion. We shared many jokes along the way despite my rather vain efforts to give her some in-depth understanding of the Women's Federation, what it was all about and why it had not developed along stereotyped separatist feminist lines.
We went on our way to Lesotho, to which some of the banished had fled, having been summarily "liberated" by well-meaning whites, moved by the press reports of suffering and desolation. Yet as refugees they were not materially better off, for Lesotho was a desperately poor country. I told Nan and Joe of Twalumfeni Joyi, banished to the dreary Kuruman country on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. He wanted to take his few fowls along with him on his liberation journey, presumably squawking in the boot of a car as the border was crossed, silently, secretly, in the dead of night. It had been a hard task to persuade him to leave his fowls behind.
The banished refugees in Lesotho were poor, lonely and cut off from their families even more than before. I wanted particularly to see Elizabeth Mafeking, the militant trade union leader and Vice President of the Federation of South African Women. She had been banished in 1959, from Paarl in the Cape to a remote government farm in the Kuruman district. She had refused to go there, to take her eleven children to that desolate place.
In Paarl there had been a great outcry amongst the African and coloured workers against Elizabeth's banishment. There had been street riots and much police harassment. Elizabeth had slipped away at dawn one morning with her youngest child on her back and fled over the border, to hide at first in the Lesotho Mountains. Most of her family joined her, but life was a hard struggle for existence, to feed all her children and herself. I remembered her so well from Federation days, barely forty then, always with her youngest child in her arms, but nevertheless a leader of women, and of men too, an eloquent speaker. It was sad to see her as a refugee, separated from South Africa, unhappy and homesick away from her people.
From Lesotho we went south to Port Elizabeth on our way to Cape Town, calling there again on our way back. The women had organised a great public meeting, solely by word of mouth; not a poster, not a placard, not a leaflet, no press announcement, yet the large hall was packed. The women wept at the tragic stories of the banished, but they sang for the freedom that would come to South Africa and all her people. Compassion and courage, these were the hallmarks of these women.
We had another 1,000 miles of our journey to do, but first back to Kingwilliamstown, to Kgagudi Maredi and another banished man from Sekhukhuniland, and also to Makwena Matlala, a banished chieftainess of the Matlala people. Maredi had been banished twice. He told us that when he was at the Royal Kraal in Sekhukhuniland, his banishment order had been brought by a colonel of the South African police, escorted by several vanloads of armed police. Like all the other banishment orders, it simply stated that his removal was in the interests of peace and good order ”” no details whatsoever. Together with his cousin, Maredi had at first refused to move from his land, but the police had overpowered him.
The police knocked me about very badly; I was bleeding. Then we were both put in leg irons and handcuffs. We were taken like this in a lorry to the nearest police station and from there in a closed van all the way to Ciskei (a journey of over a thousand miles). The leg irons were not taken off until we reached there and my cousin was left in one place and I was brought here.
A year later, Maredi was allowed to go back to Sekhukhuniland for a limited period, on condition that he would not hold or attend any tribal meetings and other such restrictions. After one year, he was told that he was the No.1 Agitator and must return to banishment in Kingwilliamstown. He spoke sadly of his wife and children but he had no hope then of ever being allowed to return to them.
We had seen his wife in Sekhukhuniland, lonely and anxious. Her memories of the banishment of her husband were bitter and full of grief, for on neither occasion had he been permitted to come home to tell her of his removal. He had just disappeared.
From Kingwilliamstown, we went north into the Transkei to find another two men banished to the government farms in the foothills on the Lesotho border and then south to Pondoland on the coast to see the wives of some of the men we should find later in the banishment camps of Frenchdale and Driefontein, the last lap of our travels.
Our journey had not been totally without hindrance and police interference. That was to be expected, as all the banished people were in territory for which an official permit was needed for any entrance by a non-African. We knew that Amina, Nan and I would never have been granted such permits, so there was no need to waste time in applying for them. Risks simply had to be taken and we were extraordinarily fortunate to have been discovered only twice up to that stage.
The first time was in Zululand when we had just found the brother of Phikinkane Zulu, banished years before to Driefontein. We were standing on the road, talking to her, when I saw the police van coming towards us. There was no excuse, no escape possible. We were hauled off to the police station where Joe was locked up in the cells, while Amina and I spent a long, wet Sunday in the sergeant's office. In the evening the security police arrived to search our car and all its contents, which had in fact been taken to the police station.
After that, Amina and I were allowed to leave, with the warning that we had to appear for prosecution the following morning in the magistrate's court. Joe was held in custody, I think as a hostage, to spend an uncomfortable night in the cells.
Amina and I managed to find grudging accommodation in a white hotel, on condition that we took our meals in the bedroom, because Amina, as an Indian, would not be allowed in the public dining room. We had to swallow this indignity for it was Natal, not the friendly Transvaal, where Amina could so easily have found friends.
In court we pleaded guilty to being where we had no right to be, paid our fines and shook the dust of that Natal town off our feet. The incident had cost us more than money, however, for we had been delayed by a whole day. Worse still, the police had found our itinerary and warned us that if we were caught again in forbidden territory it would not go well with us. This meant that we had to change our time schedule but, despite this, from then onwards we were followed from time to time by security branch police cars, even as far as into Lesotho.
Towards the end of the tour, I was caught again in the Northern Transkei. We had found, almost by chance, a banished man whom we had been unable to trace. Douglas Ramakgopa was amazed to see us and to know that there were people who had not forgotten him and even wanted to help him. But I could only talk to him under the suspicious eye of the agricultural officer in whose charge he was. I explained my presence as truthfully as I could and thought I had got away with not having the necessary permit.
Later that day, however, the police came to the house where Joe, Mildred Lesia and I were happily meeting with former ANC friends from the Eastern Cape. Mildred, a black trade unionist, had replaced Nan when she returned to England. My car was searched again, and I appeared in court the following morning, a little apprehensive lest it had been discovered that I had been convicted for a similar offence only six weeks earlier. However, all went smoothly and I escaped with a relatively small fine. Within an hour we were on our way again to the next equally illegal assignment.
The final lap of our 8, 000-mile journey was to Frenchdale and Driefontein, the notorious banishment camps in the Northern Cape. They were very small, these camps, not more than half a dozen men in each, but in stark semi-desert conditions of human isolation. We went first to Frenchdale, a government farm almost on the border of Botswana. We arrived there very late at night, after a long day's drive in a truck, which we had hired for this part of the journey so that our presence should be less noticeable than in a car with a Johannesburg registration number. Joe had been there before and could guide us as we picked our way over the rough ground.
They were waiting for us, Chief Paulus Mopeli and his aged wife, and Piet Mokoena, all from far-off Witzieshoek, banished nearly twelve years previously. There, too, was Theophilus Tshangela, only lately brought from the Transkei, where we had seen his wife a couple of weeks before. Both Chief Mopeli and Tshangela were to die, some years later, in this place of desolation, where hyenas prowled by night and snakes lurked by day, and where there are no trees for shade from the relentless sun.
Tshangela died alone, the last of a long succession of banished men who had dragged out so many years in Frenchdale. He could have left when all the others had gone but he refused to leave without the animals he had slowly gathered around him, a few donkeys, sheep and goats. The authorities would not transport them with him back to Pondoland and so Tshangela remained in Frenchdale with his animals and a little deer he had found and tamed. "Babalazi", he had called her. But she died and he was then alone in those empty huts, his spirit unbroken until he too died. The story of his death is not known, nor ever will be.
In Frenchdale, once again we talked by candlelight. We sat on upturned boxes; there were no chairs. Yet we were made very welcome because we came from the Human Rights Welfare Committee, which had found these lonely, abandoned people and cared for them. This welcome was reward enough for our long journey.
We drove through the rest of the night to Driefontein, another isolated government farm, 100 miles from the nearest town. It was just after dawn when we arrived, still in our hired truck. The five banished men were expecting us, but we could only stay a short while because they told us that police were coming daily, enquiring about a Johannesburg car. However, this was long enough for us to learn that here again were indestructible men, facing with courage the lonely years of barren land, empty huts and empty days.
We had recently seen the wives of two of the men. They had, like Tshangela, only lately been brought from Pondoland and had not expected to get any news of their wives so soon, so we were doubly welcome. For one man we could bring no good news. Mokate Ramafoku's wife had died without him during his banishment. Like Maredi, he was a twice-banished man. He had been a teacher, respected in his community, and now he was old, banished and lonely, a stout heavy man, accepting his fate with dignity. He lived on in Driefontein for another eight years and then I heard from the other men there of his tragic death from an inoperable cancer of the stomach. He laid there in pain, wasting away, for several months before he was removed to hospital, already a dying man. For him there had been no doctor, no medication and no painkillers, to ease his agony during those last months. That he did not die on his dumping ground was due to the efforts of his fellow banished who called the police when appeals for the district surgeon brought no result. Ramafoku's end is a terrible testimony to the deliberate callousness and cruelty of the banishment system.
After Driefontein, our journey to the living dead was completed. Of the forty men and women still in banishment, we had actually seen thirty-six as we moved from place to place. We had talked to fifteen lonely wives and widows, but could bring them no hope of reunion or return, only comfort and compassion.
It had taken two months for us to see these banished people. It had taken nearly 8, 000 miles of driving over good roads and bad. It had taken hours of searching, of asking the way, of retracing our steps until we found them, sometimes in the dead of night, sometimes in brilliant sunshine. We had found them waiting for the years to pass, the years, not the months, nor the weeks, nor the days. Or were they waiting for their lives to pass?
Each banished man's story was a dark testament to the violation of law, of justice. For not one of them had ever been brought to a court of law for their crime, if crime it were, which had led to their banishment. Joe and I had been on trial for our activities. We had been able to defend our organisations and ourselves and we had been acquitted. But the banished people had never been charged in court. Their only judgement was that the Governor General considered that their removal from their homes and their people would be in the interests of the "peace and good order of the tribe". For this they had been condemned to years of destitution and desolation.
In the years that followed, all the banished people, except those who died too soon, had been allowed, one by one, to return to their homes, but to poverty and hardship and a life under surveillance and restriction. Today the government no longer uses this dreaded weapon of banishment in the same way. There are other repressive and perhaps even more draconian laws that I suppose serve it as well, should rural leaders again show signs of resistance to new and unwelcome regimes imposed upon them and their people.
The Human Rights Welfare Committee fulfilled its promise. It helped with money, food and clothes right to the end of this punishment. We exposed the horrors of the system, the agony of the banished. Whether by this we stayed the hand of the government, I do not know, but should like to think so. This I do know, that Frenchdale and Driefontein now stand empty. Men no longer sit there in the desert sun and the dry hot wind waiting for death or release, whichever comes first.