Helen Joseph

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Biographical information


Teacher, social worker, political activist, political prisoner, banned person, trade unionist, founder member of the Congress of Democrats, recipient of the ANC's highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal for her devotion to the South African liberation struggle.

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
Location of birth: 
Midhurst, Sussex, England
Date of death: 
Location of death: 
Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Helen Beatrice May Fennell was born in Easebourne, United Kingdom, in 1905. She grew up in London, with her parents and brother, Frank. She graduated with a degree in English from the University of London in 1927.

She then taught for three years in India, at Mahbubia School, a school for girls in Hyderabad. She then came to live in Durban, South Africa c. 1930, where she met and married dentist Billie Joseph.

Her service as an information and welfare officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during the Second World War, and her subsequent decision to become a social worker, exposed her to some of the realities of South African life.

After the war she took a job with the Garment Workers Union (GWU) and came under the influence of Solly Sachs, Johanna Cornelius and Anna Scheepers. Helen was a founder member of the African National Congress (ANC)'s white ally, the Congress of Democrats (COD), and national secretary of Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in the 1950s.

In 1955, she was one of the leaders who read out the clauses of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People. The Women's March on 9 August 1956 was one of the most memorable moments of her illustrious political career, as she was one of the main organisers of the protest.

Arrested on a charge of high treason in December 1956, and banned in 1957, Helen's life became a long saga of police persecution. She was the first person to be placed under house arrest in 1962, and she survived several assassination attempts, including bullets shot through her bedroom window late at night and a bomb wired to her front gate.

Joseph was diagnosed with cancer in 1971, and her banning orders were lifted for a short time before being reinstated for two years in 1980.

Joseph passed away on 25 December 1992 in Johannesburg.

Helen Joseph was awarded the ANC's highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal for her devotion to the liberation struggle as a symbol of defiance, integrity and courage.

• Akhalwaya, A. (1992) “Obituary: Helen Joseph” Available at: www.independent.co.uk [Accessed 28 July 2009]
• Helen Joseph 1905 ”“ 1992 [online] Available at: www.anc.org.za [Accessed 24 July 2009]
• Morris, M. (2004) Every Step of the Way: The Journey to Freedom in South Africa. Cape Town. pp.173, 174, 210
• South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET) (2006) The Road to Democracy in South Africa. Vol.2 [1970-1980]. Pretoria. p. 537
• Van Wyk, C. (2003) Learning African History, Freedom Fighters: Helen Joseph. Awareness Publishing [online] Available at: books.google.com [Accessed 28 July 2009]

Last updated : 27-Feb-2019

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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