From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
On 13 October 1962,1 became the first person in South Africa to be put under house arrest. The minister was "satisfied" that I was engaged in activities, which were furthering or were calculated to further, the achievement of any of the objects of communism. Because of this satisfaction he could and did tear my life to pieces, set me apart from my fellows and deny me association with others, the very stuff of life itself.
It happened so quickly, no pre-warning, just a couple of men walking down my garden path that Saturday morning, to hand me a few sheets of paper, beginning, "Whereas, I Johannes Balthazar Vorster, am satisfied . . ." and ending, "given under my hand this eleventh day of October 1962" and signed J.B. Vorster. In between were the prohibitions, which drastically curtailed my freedom and changed my life. All this was for five years.
No longer could I leave my house after 6.30 p.m. or at any time during the weekend, or leave the magisterial area of Johannesburg, or be in any black area, or factory, or communicate with any banned or listed person. Nor could any of my friends visit me in my home, or even walk down my garden path, nor could I attend any gatherings, social or political. Over and above all these prohibitions, I was compelled to report to the Central Johannesburg police station every day between midday and two o'clock, except of course on the days when I was confined to the house.
I thought at first that it related to the Mandela trial, due to start on the Monday and to the Sunday meeting at which I was supposed to speak. I telephoned one or two other speakers, but found that all meetings or demonstrations relating to the trial had been prohibited in any event, so it wasn't that. I realised unhappily that I should not now be able to get to court to see Nelson, although I did not know then that I should not see him again for a very longtime. Even now, he remains incarcerated. Gradually I found out that I was the only person who had been put under house arrest.
I looked at the orders again and slowly the details began to sink in. The full implications took some time to be appreciated. Suddenly I realised that, as it was ten o'clock, I still had four and a half hours to get out of the house, to see people before the first weekend of house arrest started at two thirty. I drove quickly to Violet who lived nearby and we telephoned other people, the press, lawyers and our many friends. Nor had I realised that I could no longer speak to Eli, Violet's husband, a trade unionist, because he was a banned man. The horror of this aspect struck me for the first time. There would now be so many friends from whom I should be cut off. Many of my friends were banned people, alongside whom I worked and shared my social life, for we stood together in our common commitment to our struggle for freedom and justice. They too, had been banned by the Minister of Justice for their political stand.
Defiantly we all had lunch together, despite this being a social gathering. Then I had to spend the precious last hour getting myself into the city to report to the police station. The police, rather like me, did not know what it was all about. They were totally disbelieving when they learnt that I should be coming there every weekday at this hour for the next five years. I had not been charged with any offence. I was not on bail. It just did not make sense to them.
I did not know exactly what I was supposed to do there. Did I have to insist on seeing the officer in charge, the commandant, to whom my orders said that I must report? But it was a Saturday and he was not there. We finally settled, a policeman and I, for a piece of paper, which he signed to say that I had reported to him and then gave it to me. I doubt that I saw the comic side of all this at that moment as I was bewildered and becoming very angry. I left the press reporters, who had accompanied me there, and drove home from the first of many such visits to the police station.
I reached home to be greeted by more reporters. As I drove my car into the garage and walked back to close the driveway gates on myself, I did not realise that I was my own gaoler. That came later. I went into the house thinking that I should be totally alone for the next forty hours. However, I was wrong about that on two counts. First, the news of my house arrest had spread abroad. There were many telephone calls from friends and strangers. Friends came to my gate, not really believing that they could not come in, not then or for the next five years. And secondly, the security police came to my house at nine o'clock, pounding on the door to find out if I was there. That enraged me, but there was nothing I could do about it.
That weekend, after the initial shock began to wear off, I had time to think about what had happened to me and what my life might be like for the next five years. The astonishing part was that it was, in fact, only me. I found this impossible to understand and so, I am sure, did many other people. There were many others in the Congress Alliance who were far more prominent than I. True, I had been very active in the Federation, I was its National Secretary, I had been the National Vice President of the Congress of Democrats, but only for a few short weeks before it was banned. I had been detained in 1960, been on trial for high treason, but had been acquitted. Were these activities furthering the achievement of any of the objects of communism? Did the government really think I was so dangerous ”” a sort of mastermind? This could not be. Active I certainly had been. What had the treason prosecutor said of me? That I was one of the most active members of the liberation movement. But that was already two years ago.
I had indeed been making the most of my freedom after the five-year ban expired. I had toured the country to find the banished people, and I had written and spoken about them. I had written a book about the treason trial but it was not yet published. Were these activities crimes to bring such punishment upon me? And this time with no opportunity for a court trial where I could speak in my own defence. I could not even speak out in South Africa any more, for it was now illegal to publish any statement by a banned person.
All my political actions, except for a couple of arrests in forbidden areas, had been legal. If they had not been, I should have been brought to trial. I felt that they were all part of a legitimate non-violent political struggle for democratic rights for all the people of South Africa.
I thought about the past ten years and what my life had become, different indeed from anything that I had ever imagined. I had slipped easily, almost unconsciously, into this new political life, which absorbed so much of all my days and nights. I had not made a deliberate choice. Bonhoeffer, the famous German pastor, executed in a Nazi gaol, had said, "I know what I have chosen." That was not true of me. I had not been aware of any specific choice. I had not been able to see what would be the result of this intense political involvement.
Certainly nothing in my early life had prepared me for it. My youth had been almost ordinary ”” a middle-class home, school, matriculation, university. I could not recall any serious discussions with my parents or even with my brother on justice or human rights, beyond the fact that England went to war against Germany for a just cause. Patriotism, therefore, was important. Our politics were respectably conservative and Winston Churchill was our MP. I had floated through university with no real social involvement, except a little dabbling in working-girl clubs. Even going to India was not really the result of any purposeful decision. I had to find a job; without training, teaching was all that was offered to me, and travel appeared exciting. Coming to South Africa had been fortuitous, the result of a riding accident.
My air force career was more of an actual choice, and obviously my late political development had begun during my war service. The community service, which followed it, had pushed me further along a road, which I still did not recognise as any particular road. Yet it was one, an important one for me, and in the 1950s my feet were firmly on the road of political struggle, never to leave it again.
Now I had to face the cost of those heady years of the decade of defiance of an evil and hostile authority. I had, with others, already paid a high price in the danger of the treason trial, in the months of detention, in a five-year ban. Yet through all those years it had been more than compensated by the knowledge of abiding solidarity, of achievement, of being part of something greater than anything else in my life. I had known and shared success in the building of the Women's Federation, in the organising of those great protests, in establishing the cultural clubs during the school boycotts, in seeking and finding the banished Africans ”” and in the great victory of the treason acquittal. Yet now, that weekend, I seemed to stand alone, impotent. The horrors of house arrest at first overwhelmed me. Would I be able to cope with the cruel lonely years that lay ahead? Telephone calls could not fill the empty hours, the empty house. Would I be able to retain my job? And what could I do if I lost it? Who would employ me, house-arrested and banned? Could I adapt myself to coming home night after night to nothing but my own company, to lonely weekends ”” there would be 250 of those?
I did not suppose, of course, that I should remain the only one under house I arrest. There would be others. The question was not really, "why me?" but only "why me first?" To that there is no known answer to this day. There was ' some bitter comfort in the unexpected public reaction, both national and international, brought about by my elevated position as the first "house arrestee".
It certainly seemed an incredibly stupid choice on the part of the government, to begin with an ageing white woman of fifty-seven, who lived entirely alone, who was not even seriously suspected of being a communist, and who had had only a short, if spectacular, political history. Genuine public sympathy and concern was aroused and expressed, though of course with it came execration, mostly in the form of obscene telephone calls, threatening, abusive, always anonymous.
The weekend passed quickly after all, although I felt like a caged animal on view, as people walked up and down outside, peering over the garden hedge for a glimpse of this very peculiar and dangerous woman. I soon learnt to replace the telephone receiver quickly on the abusive calls. I was glad when Monday morning came and I could go out again. I learnt from the Sunday newspapers, which my friends brought to my gate, that my house arrest had indeed aroused enormous publicity, both here and abroad. It was termed "civil death" and I remembered the living dead, the banished people whom I had seen such a short time ago. I was far better off than they were.
John Vorster, Minister of Justice, declared to the press that when the General Laws Amendment Act was passed, which contained these new frightening powers, it was no bluff. A "certain person" had not heeded this warning and therefore the first house arrest had been ordered. He did not want to curb freedom of speech or the right to protest. Every South African was the child of protest, but the freedom of the state could not be violated. He warned that he could get even tougher. There was indeed some apprehension amongst the public indignation that what had happened to me could happen to others. Intimidation was clearly part of the motivation of the house arrest. Nevertheless, the weeks that followed saw many demonstrations by the Black Sash, in Cape Town ”” where women stood silent in the pouring rain ”” in Durban, East London and Johannesburg, all protesting against this violation of human rights. Outside the Johannesburg City Hall, the Congress Alliance demonstrated at midday and I walked past them on my way to report at the police station. My Congress friends of all races cheered me as I passed. I could not stop or greet them, but it was a very good moment for me.
At the end of my first week of house arrest, there was a multiracial demonstration of young people on the Saturday afternoon, outside my gate. They held their posters aloft, defiantly. "The people are with you, Helen Joseph!" . . . "You will not be forgotten!" They sang freedom songs for me, while three police cars cruised up and down the road. As the young people walked away, still singing, the police told them they were in an illegal procession and must disperse. They were very, very brave, and they had come because they wanted me to know that I was not completely alone ”” a very precious knowledge then.
Nine days after he had dealt with me, the minister struck again. This time it was Ahmed Kathrada, "Kathy", of the treason trial. The orders were served on him outside the Pretoria magistrate's court where he had gone to attend Nelson's trial. House arrest orders were out for Walter Sisulu, too, the banned Secretary General of the ANC, but it took a few days before the police could find him. Our conditions were all the same, twelve hours' house arrest on working days and twenty-four at the weekend, no visitors at any time and the restrictions on attending gatherings, plus several other prohibitions.
I met Kathy one day at the police station when I went to report. We walked in side by side to sign our names in the house arrest book. We were not sure if we could even smile at each other ”” would that be communicating? But we did. From then on, house arrest orders and bans multiplied almost daily, although far more people were banned than house-arrested. I did not ever discover on what basis the minister selected certain people for house arrest, the preferential treatment! However, he had said that he could get tougher, and he did.
By the end of October, people were being put under twenty-four hours house arrest, not twelve. I had been promoted to the privileged class as I could be out of my house for twelve hours on every weekday. Sonia Bunting, Jack Hodgson, Moses Kotane, all good friends, had to remain in their homes without ever going out, for five years, nearly 2,000 days. They were not entirely alone, as I was. Not even the Minister of Justice dared put a person who lived alone under twenty-four-hours house arrest for five years, but nevertheless these intensified bans shocked South Africa anew, almost as much as mine had done initially. As in my case, no prior warning had been given to anyone.
The South African Broadcasting Company suddenly produced a programme on me as part of their regular broadcast to schools, "Current Topics". Apparently I had become a prominent current topic, a subject of much controversy. "She proudly gives the clenched fist salute of the banned African National Congress, and recently toured the country visiting many people under restriction orders under the Suppression of Communism Act." The last part of the accusation was inaccurate; the people had been banished, not banned. It went on, "Whether or not the orders issued against her are too strict is therefore a matter of opinion." It was more than a matter of opinion to me.
This broadcast to the children was only a curtain raiser, a prelude to the real thing, for a few nights later in the series, "We Present Facts", the SABC did a very workmanlike job of smearing, trying its damnedest, as the Rand Daily Mail editor pointed out, "to show that Mrs Joseph was a communist, or a crypto-communist, or at best a fellow traveller." Gobbets from the treason trial evidence, divorced from context, were presented, presumably as "facts", but what the broadcast did not quote was the prosecutor's concession at the end of the trial, "The Crown does not propose, in this particular instance, to direct any I argument at the personal position of this accused as far as communism is concerned." I could not reply to the broadcast because, as a banned person, nothing I said or wrote could be published or quoted. It brought home to me how effectively I was gagged.
There was another demonstration outside my gate, this time by the women of the Federation. Violet Weinberg was there of course, the only white woman, the rest were black. Within a very short time the police had arrived and the women were carted off to the police station. Violet held out for a time, arguing defiantly, but she too, was finally ordered into a waiting police car and driven away.
I looked out over the gate and the road was very empty and quiet, until I saw Winnie Mandela and Adelaide Joseph, both of the Federation. They had come to demonstrate but they had been delayed. I told them what had happened to the other women and they went off to investigate at the police station. I felt very proud that they had all come to demonstrate for me. "House arrest can't intimidate us!" one banner had read and I knew it to be true. They could not be intimidated. Nevertheless, I was anxious for them. In due course they were brought to trial and fined.
In Pretoria, Nelson's trial was over and he had been found guilty of inciting workers to be absent from work, to stay at home illegally and also of leaving the country illegally himself. He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Was it for this that he had returned from other lands? He had told the court how his conscience had made it imperative for him to oppose laws, which were unjust, immoral and intolerable.
Nelson's wife, Winnie, was at his trial to hear his conviction and sentence, to realise that she must stand alone, must bring up the two little girls alone, for the next five years. But she did not know then that it would not be just five years and that within two years her husband would be sentenced to life imprisonment. I had received a letter from Nelson, from gaol, while he was awaiting trial:
My dear Helen,
I join the millions of democrats here and abroad in condemning the cruel and cowardly order of house arrest imposed on you by the Minister of Justice. Courage never failed you in the past. It will not fail you now when all signs point unmistakably to the early defeat of all regimes based on force and violence.
You and I and indeed the millions of freedom fighters in this country cannot afford to take this challenge lying down.
With fondest regards,
Yours very sincerely
I carried that letter with me everywhere during those first bewildering weeks. It brought back to me the journeys we had shared, back and forth to the treason trial, and the close and loving friendship that had grown out of those trial years.
The implications of "listing" under the Suppression of Communism Act very soon became clear, for the Act made it an offence to publish any statement made by a listed person, as well as statements by banned persons. The Minister of Justice published a list of 437 people "named" as communists. Neither my name nor Walter Sisulu's was amongst them, yet we had both been house-arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act. Some of the people on that list had left the country, some had died, many had taken no active part in politics since the Communist Party was banned in 1950, many others had been inactive for the past twenty or even thirty years. It was really the roll of the old guard, but it meant, for all of them, that nothing they said or wrote could ever be published or even quoted.
Another ban was to hit the Federation of South African Women ”” Violet Weinberg, Vice President of the Transvaal region, my friend and also my colleague at work. We could no longer speak to each other, nor could I go to her home, or she comes to mine. Rowley Arenstein, too, in Durban, formerly active in the Congress of Democrats, was banned and house-arrested. He earned himself a special "first" within two weeks by becoming the first person to be arrested for reporting late to the police.
Rowley's actual sentence was for twelve months, the compulsory minimum sentence for this apparently most serious offence. The embarrassed magistrate found that it was merely culpable negligence that had caused Rowley to forget to report on time and his gaol sentence was therefore suspended for three years, except for seven days, which he duly served in gaol. I found this ominous, realising that my own chronic forgetfulness might well bring me to the same fate. I was sure that I could not get through the next five years of this unpalatable and inconvenient duty of reporting to the police station every working day without ever forgetting.
The furore of publicity about me had long since died down. Those under twenty-four-hours house arrest were so much worse off than I was ”” and sad to say, the public soon recovered from the first shock of these bans and forgot about our twilight existence. The normal concept of freedom had once again been violated and loud protests had been heard from at least some of the whites. Yet the government remained unmoved, the protests had petered out and everyone was becoming used to living with the new laws. It formed a pattern, a kind of surrender by instalments.
I was trying not to think too much about Christmas Day and the sixty hours of solitude which would begin at 6.30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. However, to alleviate that thought, Christmas cards and letters soon poured in from South Africa and overseas, from friends and strangers, adding to the amazing number of letters that I had already received. Amongst the most precious of those was one from Bram Fischer, delivered to my house by hand within minutes of "lock-up" time on the first day. He said I deserved the honour of being the first to be placed under Vorster's vicious and inhuman house arrest. I did not think I deserved the honour, but it was good to have Bram think so.
The cherry on the top of the Christmas cards was the one with a snowy wintry picture of the British Houses of Parliament and inside the signatures of 140 Labour MPs. They were all there, Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle, Jim Callaghan, Joan Lester and many others. I was reminded by this of our "penny I post" in treason trial days, when we too passed cards and letters along the rows of the accused to catch all our signatures. Other letters told me that I had been seen on television and I remembered the day when the TV man and I me) secretly in a wooded park, using borrowed cars for fear of being followed by police, for the television interview.
There were so many Christmas cards that first year, more than 500 and letters and telegrams, telephone calls and flowers, until I felt more like a film star than a house-arrest prisoner. On Christmas Day itself, my friends came to the gate to greet me, one by one, almost all day long. We talked for a few minutes only, because no one was quite sure what constituted a visit or a gathering. Children had come with candles the night before to sing carols at my gate: the children of banned or listed parents, whom I could not greet, as they waited for their children a little way down the road. Christmas dinner came in a basket over the gate, turkey, plum pudding and champagne.
When all was quiet again that evening, I thought triumphantly how Vorster had failed, because he had given me the most wonderful Christmas Day of my life. There was soon more triumph to come, for Jack Hodgson had applied to the Supreme Court for the setting aside of his twenty-four-hours house-arrest order, on the grounds that the minister had acted unreasonably and also that a flat is not a "place" as defined in the Act. On 27 December, the judge ordered all the house-arrest orders to be set aside. Suddenly we were partially free, at least from house arrest, though not free from the other restrictions. At first we thought it meant total freedom and celebrated openly until sharply brought to our senses by our lawyers, who insisted that the judgement applied only to actual house arrest. We had had a couple of days of false freedom and then we returned meekly to life with the rest of our bans, thankful indeed to be able to come and go so freely from our homes.
As it turned out, the state did not accept the judgement and took it on appeal to a higher court. If the judgement were to be reversed, then we should all have to revert immediately to house arrest conditions. The appeal took a few months to be finalised, and in any event we knew that, even if the state appeal was lost, it would not take long for the law itself to be amended in Parliament in order to close up thus loophole. It was clear that we would not retain this new freedom for long.
For the past eleven weeks I had lived obediently to a strange solitary pattern, allowed out only to earn my keep for this "gaol on the cheap". By nine o'clock in the morning I would be in my office and the hours would pass all too quickly. I had always to be careful that I did not have discussions with more than one person, as that could be termed a "gathering". The Medical Aid Society had rallied nobly to the shock of the house arrest to their most senior member of staff, just as it had done to the treason trial, once it was clear that I should be able to do my work.
I went by car to work so that I could be ready for the midday scamper to the police station more than a mile away, and by five o'clock I would be speeding to friends for a brief visit before getting home by 6.30. Evenings were quiet, except for the radio and the telephone ”” and visits from the police. Friends telephoned often, strangers too, though they were sometimes too frightened to give their names. This was a welcome break from the silence, despite the many abusive or threatening or even obscene calls. At first the police came every night, once twice in the same night ”” "to check", they said. It wasn't pleasant to wait, night after night, for that knock on the door and the unwelcome intrusion into my privacy.
Weekends were long, even though there was plenty for me to do in my garden. My house had become an empty place and no longer really a home, for a home is the place you share with your family and friends, and this was forbidden. However, the lifting of the actual house arrest was a victory in itself, even if only for a few months. I think that only when you have lost it, can you know how precious a little freedom can be.