Helen Joseph

(April 8, 1905 - December 25, 1992)

For forty years Helen Joseph dedicated herself single-mindedly to opposing apartheid. Her commitment earned her the ANC's highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal. It also led to a relentless government campaign to silence her, a campaign which ultimately failed - for generations of South Africans, Helen was an inspiration and a symbol of defiance, integrity and courage.

Helen Beatrice May Fennell was born in Sussex, England, in 1905. She graduated from King's College, University of London, in 1927, taught for three years in India, then came to South Africa in 1931, where she met and married 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.

In 1951 Helen took a job with the militant Garment Workers Union, led by Solly Sachs. Sachs had a profound influence on Helen - from him she learnt her politics. Through him she came to see the true face of apartheid - the physical and psychological oppression of people not classified white She joined the political fray, not as an ideologue, but as one moved to great anger by the injustices she witnessed. Helen was a founder member of the ANC's white ally, the Congress of Democrats, and in 1955 was one of the leaders who read out the clauses of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People, Kliptown.

Helen was appalled by the double oppression of black women, and was a pivotal figure in the formation of the Federation of South African Women. The 9th August 1956 was one of the most important moments of her illustrious political career, when, with the FEDSAW leaders, she spear" headed a march of 20,000 women to Pretoria's Union Buildings to protest against the pass laws. August 8 has, since then, been commemorated as South African Women's Day.

Arrested on a charge of high treason in December 1956, banned in 1957, Helen's life became a long saga of police persecution. She was the first person to be placed under house arrest. She endured, and survived threats, bullets shot through her bedroom window late at night, even a bomb wired to her front gate. Her last banning order was lifted when she was in her 80th year. Helen used every opportunity, each brief respite from her restrictions to keep talking, to bear witness, to address meetings.

She wrote three books: If This Be Treason; Tomorrow's Sun, in which she documented her 8,000 mile search for people banished to remote regions; and her autobiography, Side by Side. Helen showed that what a dictatorial and corrupt regime fears most is not force and firing power, but the witness of people of dignity and integrity.

She was fond of quoting an item that appeared in a political "gossip" column in 1970. Writer, Joel Mervis, described an imaginary meeting of Nationalist Party supporters, in which a speaker thundered: "We have the finest army in the world, the finest navy, the finest airforce - what do we have to be afraid of? A voice at the back: "HELEN JOSEPH!".

One of Helen's many endearing qualities was that there was no separation between her public and private life. The loyalty and devotion she gave to the struggle was the same as that she gave to her many friends who became her family. She had no natural children, but took into her care, as her own, the children of those who were sent to prison or into exile: Nelson and Winnie Mandela's Zinzi and Zenani; Bram and Molly Fischer's Ilsa; Eli and Violet Wienberg's Sheila.

There were so many aspects to Helen's personality. She was deeply spiritual - her religion was a private and personal strength.

She was also a gregarious person with a wonderful sense of humour. She loved a party. Her two favourite days in the year were her birthday, April 8, and Christmas Day. On both days her home would be filled, not only with friends and colleagues, but with the tributes, flowers and fond greetings from every corner of the world. In the early 1960s Helen started a tradition of remembering all those in exile, in prison and those that have died in the struggle, every Christmas day at noon. Even during the years of house arrest and bans, this commemoration continued. At times it was only possible for her friends and families of prisoners to file past her gate one at a time, but Helen was always there to greet and encourage them. It is a sign of her extraordinary will that Helen lived until after midday Christmas commemoration which she had organised before her final stroke.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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