From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
I drove back alone to Johannesburg, to my comfortable home in a white suburb, to my comfortable white life; my well-paid white job and it all seemed unreal. Lilian's bitter cry, "You are better off with your skin" was haunting me again. I had accepted my whiteness for so many years, ever since I came to South Africa. I had accepted that whites, simply because of the colour of their skins, lived on a higher socio-economic scale. It was for the eradication of this utterly invalid privilege that I was now fighting. The experience of the last few years, particularly the treason trial and the search for the banished, had begun to make me ashamed of being what I was and it made no difference that I did not choose to be white. I am white and I live a more comfortable life because I do not or cannot break out of my whiteness.
I had told Violet Weinberg that I should be back in Johannesburg on 30 June, but as she had not heard from me directly since I left two months previously, she stared at me, almost unbelievingly, when I walked into her house just in time for supper. There was so much to tell but I had to get back to my own house and rest before returning to work the following day, exactly on schedule. It felt strange after those two months of travel, adventure and companionship.
For our long journey not to be in vain, I knew that I must write and talk about those men and women, the forgotten people, whom I had seen for myself, those stories of injustice and suffering I had heard for myself, from their own lips. I wrote articles and letters to the press, I talked often at students' meetings, to Congress of Democrats members, to the women of the Federation ”” wherever and whenever I could get a hearing. It was good to be back and able to speak, even though I did not know for how long.
I had returned to Johannesburg only three days after the new "Sabotage Act", the General Laws Amendment Act had become law. It spelt out the Nationalist government's determination to crush all opposition under the guise of preserving the safety of the nation. Not only did it create a new crime, sabotage, but it defined it so widely that it was the Suppression of Communism Act all over again, only worse, even more despotic. The new Act really perpetuated the 1960 State of Emergency; there would be no need for the government to proclaim another, for all the ingredients were there. "Sabotage" could mean almost anything, from blowing up pylons and buildings, to the Illegal possesion of a firearm ”” and heaven knows how many thousands of unlicensed firearms there are in South Africa. It would now be for the accused to prove that the offence, great or small, was not committed with any hostile intent. No longer did the state have to prove a man's guilt, the accused must, disprove it ”” and guilt carried a minimum sentence of five years.
Unlimited powers of prohibition were given to the Minister of Justice, power to ban people, to impose house arrest, to forbid people to be members of legal organisations, to require people to report, even daily, to the police, and to face a I compulsory twelve-month gaol sentence for failure to do so. He had the power to forbid banned people to communicate with each other, even members of the same family, and to forbid publication of statements by banned people. All that was required for any of these drastic infringements of personal liberty was for the minister to be satisfied that the person was furthering the aims of communism or that his activities were likely to do so. There was much else in this tyrannical Act, which no amount of opposition both inside and outside Parliament had been able to prevent. Like the banished people, the banned person's liberty of person, of association, of movement, could be in jeopardy without any trial, any recourse to a court of law.
The first blow from this repressive regime came in September 1962. The South African Congress of Democrats was declared an illegal organisation. We had held what was to be our last conference a few weeks before and I had been elected Honorary National Vice President. I was certainly proud to hold this high office in an organisation, which had maintained its stand as a full member of the Congress Alliance, side by side with the ANC, the Indian Congress, the Coloured People's Congress and the Congress of Trade Unions.
" Side by side," we had pledged ourselves at the Congress of the People, "until these democratic changes have been won." We had been side by side with the Congress Alliance in freedom and in gaol, and now we were side by side with the ANC as outlaws. As an illegal organisation we could not call on our national executive committee members to meet together, yet there was one decision, which had to be taken urgently. Should we try to continue working from underground, as the ANC was doing, or should we fold up?
Six of us sat one night in a car munching hamburgers, at a drive-in cafe, arguing until we came to what was really the only possible decision. We had been formed particularly to campaign politically amongst whites, and since we could no longer do that, certainly not from underground, we must fold up. It was our end as an organisation. In the nine years of our existence we had never mustered more than a few hundred members, but we had made our voices heard on many issues, we had been the spur to prod other organisations, especially the Liberal Party, into more militant stands. We could serve no purpose as an underground organisation, and in any event it was obvious that there could be no room for another secret organisation in addition to the ANC.
Another refinement of the Suppression of Communist Act was the "listing" of persons who had been members of any organisation banned under this Act. By this process the liquidator of a banned organisation places the names of such members, or even supporters, on his "list" and this carries various disabilities and restrictions, the implications of which became clearer as time went by. Listing did not apply to the ANC and PAC, which were banned under a different Act, the Illegal Organisations Act, passed at the time of the Sharpeville Emergency in March 1960. Perhaps the sheer magnitude of numbers and the absolute impossibility of tracing the membership of these two organisations saved them from the liquidator's list.
The banning of the Congress of Democrats gave the Federation of South African Women yet another blow by removing the affiliated white members of the COD ”” which of course really included me, but the committee members turned a blind eye to this. It was not to be for long.
The Federation had, of course, already been affected very severely by the ban on the ANC Women's League, declared illegal as part of the ANC. This deprived the Federation of the greater part of its affiliated membership. It was all too clear that we should be, to some extent, crippled by the loss of the African women.
There was only one thing to be done and that was for African women to start organising clubs for women, to be affiliated to the Federation. The white members must do this, too, but that would obviously not be on the same vast scale. It was a bold scheme, but once the 1960 Emergency was over, we set to work with suggestions for discussion clubs, co-operative vegetable clubs, sewing and knitting clubs, even running all-day training conferences for club leaders, much as we had done in the days of the Bantu education schools boycott.
On 9 August 1961, there had been Women's Day celebrations in all the main centres, clubs were flourishing, and it seemed that the Federation would be able to survive the loss of the Women's League as an affiliated body. After that we had moved on to our third national conference. It was already five years since that impressive gathering in Johannesburg after the Pretoria protest, but much had happened since then to prevent us from meeting together in a national conference.
The 1961 conference was held in Port Elizabeth in September. I had watched some of the Transvaal delegates leave, packed tight in a kombi. Spirits were high and the women went off singing for what must have been a very uncomfortable journey of over 600 miles. I was still banned and could not leave Johannesburg or attend the conference. Standing in their departing dust, I watched them go, angry that I must stay behind, proud of their defiant spirit.
The conference was a huge success with nearly 200 delegates from all the main centres and several hundred observers. It was clear that the Federation was as undaunted as ever and would not diminish its efforts to continue as a multiracial women's organisation, still part of the Congress Alliance and the liberation struggle.
Dynamic as ever, Lilian Ngoyi presided and was re-elected National President, but soon afterwards she received her first banning order, prohibiting her from attending gatherings for the next five years. I was re-elected National Secretary, despite my absence, a very precious mark of the Federation women's confidence in me. I was nearing the end of my bans, but Lilian was only I beginning hers. I knew, only too well, how it felt to see five years of emptiness stretching ahead. A few months later her bans were intensified and she was confined to the Orlando suburb of Soweto. It was a bitter blow to both of us after being so close, almost daily, for more than five years. Now it would be extremely difficult to meet. I was a marked person and could not easily venture into Soweto without a permit.
In 1962, during our tour to find the banished Africans, I had been able to visit Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. In Port Elizabeth I had met the Federation leaders, the African women of the Eastern Cape, stronghold of the ANC during the Defiance Campaign and afterwards too. From this area alone, 5,000 volunteers had gone to gaol. Now the ANC was outlawed, but thousands of its former members were in Port Elizabeth and the Congress spirit was still very strong.
It was a great joy to meet Francis Baard and Florence Matomela again as we had been together during the first part of the treason trial. During the 1960 Emergency, we had all been detained, but had been gaoled in our own provinces and had not met. Now it was good to be with these two formidable women again. Both massively built, tall, their commanding personalities inspired confidence and courage. Francis was the Cape President of the Federation and had been President also of the Cape Women's League. Florence had been one of the most prominent of the 1952 defiers. At our first conference she was unforgettable as she strode to the platform to speak, Xhosa skirt swirling about her, beads jangling and headscarf piled above her head in Xhosa fashion. Warned by the chair that she could speak for only three minutes, she folded her arms and said, "I am a defier! I shall speak as long as I like." I don't remember for how long she did speak, but it was much more than three minutes. These two women were also trade union leaders, and I am sure, too, that it was mainly Francis and Florence who organised that delegation of seventy women from there to the Pretoria protest, because they were the accepted leaders of the ANC Women's League and the Federation. As I had expected, they were busy building up new women's clubs for affiliation to the Federation.
From Port Elizabeth we travelled on to Cape Town, more than 600 miles away. I remember that we had managed to do it in one day, even in a relatively small car and I had driven all the way. Nan flew back to England and I spent a few days with the Federation women. They were battling to keep the organisation going, despite the prevailing reluctance of many women there to become politically involved after the 1960 Emergency and the many detentions. That crisis had certainly left its mark.
After my return to Johannesburg, the Federation held provincial conferences in Johannesburg and Durban. I was free to attend them. In Johannesburg my arrival at the conference was unannounced for fear of a last-minute new ban. I had a tumultuous welcome and I walked through the hall, past the security branch detectives, gathered there to take their notes as usual. The women sang for me as I went up to the platform for the first time in five years. There was no longer any need for me to wait around outside the hall, excluded from the meeting as I had been for those frustrating years of being banned.
It was exciting to be amongst women of all races again, amongst the women who had stood by their leaders on trial for high treason, amongst the women who had marched to gaol in 1958 and the women who had gone to Pretoria in their thousands in 1956. Winnie Mandela, still so young, made a gallant call to youth and was elected to the Transvaal executive. She was already emerging, as a leader of women and it was then that I began to know her as a friend.
I went to Durban to open the conference there, again in a packed hall with a dozen security police in attendance, and had the same joyous greeting on my return to freedom. These conferences of women were the highlights of my first few months back in Johannesburg and I had great hopes for the Federation, despite the banning of our National President, Lilian Ngoyi. I spoke everywhere, too, of what I had seen on my tour to the banished people and the lonely agony of these abandoned people.
I had known, of course, at the end of the treason trial that Robert Resha would no longer be able to accompany me on our various campaigning expeditions, because he too had been banned and his bans would not expire until three years after mine. I missed his company and his guidance. It was a great shock when he walked into my office shortly after the end of the trial to tell me that he was leaving South Africa secretly that very night. He told me, rather grimly, that he had been ordered to go and he must obey. I knew he meant it for he was still the disciplined volunteer leader.
The ANC was already developing its external mission. Oliver Tambo, Acting Secretary General, was overseas, others would follow him and Robert was needed too. I knew that he did not want to go. He had often said that he must remain with his people, be with them until the end of the struggle. He was a man of his land and he loved it passionately. For me, Robert remained the independent-minded African nationalist, a true patriot, angrily resenting any suggestion that the ANC could be dominated by any white or any communist. "It is an insult to my organisation!" he had always declared. As he left my office, he said, "Helen, I shall come back." Years later, when I heard that he had died in exile; my heart was heavy for he was truly a man of his land.
In July 1962, I heard a horrifying rumour that Nelson Mandela had been arrested, driving to Durban disguised as a chauffeur in a private car. The report was soon substantiated. Nelson, the underground leader of the liberation struggle, had been arrested and would stand trial on charges of inciting workers to stay at home and of leaving the country without a passport. For eighteen months he had been underground and had also left the country to visit many other countries to obtain support for the struggle. He had returned to his country, from freedom, to face the danger of capture and gaol and he had been caught. I could hardly bear to believe that after all those months of hiding, of separation from his wife and children, save for occasional risky meetings, he had been arrested ”” I had seen him only once during those dangerous months and then only briefly in conditions of great secrecy at a friend's flat. Our meeting was precious indeed, joyful and loving ”” and so soon over.
Nelson's first appearance in court was to be in Pretoria on 15 October and mass protest meetings had been arranged in many areas for the previous day, Sunday. Great crowds were expected at the meetings. I was scheduled to speak at one of them in Johannesburg and had made plans to be in Pretoria on the day of the trial.