By Carl Niehaus
As we have entered the first days of Women’s Month again, my thoughts go back to Helen
Joseph. Most of us know Helen in those iconic pictures of the 1956 Women’s March to the
Union Buildings, where she stands together with Lilian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn and Amina
Cachalia on the steps of the Union Buildings, with their arms filled with the thousands of
petitions against the introduction of the pass laws for women.
Yes, of course, I know that photo, but my favourite memory of Helen is of a beautiful
woman sitting in a colourful caftan on the front veranda of her modest home in Fanny
Avenue in Norwood, sipping tea with her beloved dog lying at her feet. By the time I first
met Helen she was well into her seventies. I was then a young student, but I could never
think of her as old. Her spirit remained young until she passed away at the age of 87 on
Christmas Day 1992.
I was introduced to Helen by another icon of our struggle, Dr Beyers Naudé (or as we all
called him Oom Bey). It was a strange introduction because at the time they were both
‘banned persons’, and were not allowed to see each other, in fact in terms of their banning
orders they were not allowed to have any contact at all. So the introduction was done by
Now, so many years later – and with a whole new generation of young South Africans who
thankfully have no experience of the draconian measures that the apartheid regime
deployed against its opponents – it is probably necessary to explain that a ‘banning order’
could have different degrees of severity, but usually, it was for a five year period and
‘banned’ persons could hardly leave their homes, were not allowed to be in the company of
more than one other person at a time, could not attend any gathering or participate in any
political activity, and most definitely were prohibited from being in contact with any other
So Oom Bey sent through a friend a message to Helen that he would like her to meet me,
and at a mutually agreed time, I arrived at Helen’s garden gate. She came out to open the
gate herself. The first thing that struck me was her beautiful smile. It was a smile that came quickly and could linger when she was recalling a pleasant memory, but it could also
disappear instantaneously when she started talking about apartheid. Helen’s eyes
softened with her smile, but when she was angry they became hard and grey like
Within moments after I first met her, I knew that she was not someone to be messed
around with. She held strong views, which she did not hesitate to express with a mind as
sharp as a razor. Fools were not suffered easily. The gentleness of her appearance belied
an ability to find just the right selection of words to denounce an enemy with the most
devastating effect. Both in intimate personal conversations and on stage addressing a
crowd, this ability to cut to the chase never failed to make an impact. Charisma is one of
the most evasive and difficult things to define, but one always knows when someone has
it, and Helen had charisma by the buckets full.
The apartheid regime knew it, and they feared her ability to mobilise against them. Helen
knew this too, and she revelled in the knowledge that even as an aged pensioner she remained a factor that they had to contend with. One of her favourite stories, that she
never tired of telling, was about how John Vorster, the bombastic NP Prime Minister
addressed a crowd of Afrikaner faithful telling them that they had nothing to fear and that
under his leadership they would conquer all resistance to apartheid – but just as he
reached the crescendo of his bellicose speech and old lady right at the back of the hall
shouted, “But what about Helen Joseph?”. Apparently, there was a shocked silence and the
speech disintegrated into an anti-climax. Whether this is exactly how it happened was
neither here nor there; Helen knew how to tell a story in order to drive her point home, and the point she was making was that the apartheid regime had to reckon with her.
It was exactly that ability to communicate effectively and always drive her message home
that made Helen such a favourite with young people. Together with Oom Bey, she was an
honorary President of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and
whenever she was not ‘banned’ (which was not very often) she was a regular, and
favourite speaker, at NUSAS rallies. A speech by Helen never failed to become a major
news story, and of course, those speeches never failed to earn her more banning orders.
Helen was a consummate politician and communicator with an uncanny ability to use
those banning orders with great effect to communicate the evils of apartheid oppression.
Every year since the 12th of June 1964 when Nelson Mandela and his fellow Rivonia
trialists were sentenced, Helen hosted a Christmas party at her house. When it was
possible the guests included the wives of the Rivonia prisoners, and Winnie Mandela and
Albertina Sisulu would be there at the seldom occasions when they were not themselves
banned. Exactly at twelve noon, Helen would make sure that everyone had a glass of
champagne in their hands, and she would propose a toast to “our absent friends”.
Referring to Nelson Mandela, the other Rivonia trialist prisoners, and many other political
prisoners and detainees.
When Helen was banned and could not receive anyone at her home the Christmas party
guests would at a ‘legally safe’ distance gather across the road from her house, and
exactly at twelve she would walk out of her house to the front garden gate with a glass of
champagne in her hand and without a word lift it in a silent toast. The guests across the
road would do the same. This gesture spoke louder than what words could, and of course, the photographers and television cameras were always there to capture that poignant
moment. The apartheid regime could do nothing, but they were squirming in discomfort
Picturesque and heroic as it was, underlying the pictures of those silent toasts were years
of great sacrifice and loneliness. There were the lonely nights when she was a woman of
advanced age alone in her small house and receiving regular threatening and abusive
phone calls from racist haters. There were several drive-by shootings at the house. I recall
one particularly terrible incident when the shooting continued for several minutes while
Helen, well into her eighties, was crawling on the floor trying to find a hiding place away
from the bullets and flying shards of glass. The next morning when I rushed to her house, I
found her busy sweeping the broken glass up in her lounge – back straight and her eyes
steel grey with anger.
No-one must underestimate how frustrated and lonely someone with Helen’s great love for
people and the ability to organise and make things happen, became with her house literally
having been turned into a prison. Right up to her very last years Helen’s levels of energy
and presence of mind were remarkable. During the long spells of banning orders, she
poured that energy into gardening and writing. Her small, modest, property was turned into a most beautiful English-style garden with lots of roses, and she wrote three outstanding books, If this be Treason (a detailed and dramatic account of the Treason Trial), Tomorrow’s Sun (a journal of her visits to other apartheid activists who were banned and banished by the apartheid regime), and finally her beautifully written autobiography published at the age of 81, Side by Side.
For Helen there were never any ghost-writers, every word was written by herself and she
produced some of the best writing about the anti-apartheid struggle. Her loyalty to the
struggle, the ANC and its leaders permeate every page of those books. She was a great
struggle intellectual, but ultimately it was her huge heart and emotional commitment to the
liberation struggle that made her the charismatic force that she was.
I was very close to Oom Bey, and I worked with and observed Madiba from close-by, but
no-one had a greater influence on me than this remarkable woman. More than anyone she
taught me the value of loyalty and discipline, and that these two critical cornerstones are
kept together not only by an intellectual understanding of the struggle but especially by an
emotional commitment of the heart that never falters even in hard times.
Many people have berated me for my insistence that the democratic organisational
structures of the ANC must be respected, and that whatever concerns any of the members
of the ANC may have, must be dealt with inside those organisational structures. If there is
one person who taught me that one never goes outside the organisational structures of the
ANC and make common cause with the enemies of our liberation struggle it was Helen
Joseph. The title of her autobiography, Side by Side, refers to that well-known phrase in
the Freedom Charter, “These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives,
until we have won our liberty”. That is exactly what Helen believed in, she always closed
ranks Side by Side and pursued the struggle as a disciplined member of the ANC. I have
heard her many a time denouncing people who did not accept the organisational discipline
of the ANC, and I have no doubt that she would not have had a good word for those who
now think they can disregard the democratic structures and discipline of the ANC, because
of some disagreement or the other.
I recall a visit that I got from her when I was in prison. Helen had suffered her first stroke
and had difficulty to walk. She arrived in a wheelchair and insisted that the young student
comrade who brought her had to push her into the visiting room. When the warder who
monitored the visit wanted to take over and push the chair into the room she told him to
keep his “dirty hands” off her chair.
At the time that she visited the apartheid regime had made an offer to political prisoners
that we could be given amnesty if we were prepared to denounce the armed struggle.
Three political prisoners who were imprisoned with me had decided to accept the offer.
They tried to argue that it was simply a strategy from their side to get out of prison.
Although the visiting rules did not allow for politics to be discussed Helen, to the
consternation of the warder, insisted on discussing the amnesty matter. When he tried to
stop her, she gave him that wuthering look of hers with her eyes having become bullet
grey and proceeded to tell me that there is no such thing as ‘strategy’, but only
organisational discipline and that no-one else but the NEC of the ANC will decide when the
armed struggle was over. That was the last time that Helen was allowed to visit me, but I
had been given my line of march in no uncertain terms.
So uMama Helen lived her life – a warm, uncompromising and disciplined cadre of the
ANC – and so she passed away exactly at twelve noon on Christmas Day 1992. I was there with her when she gave her last breath at twelve noon, and I could not help to
remember how every Christmas day exactly at that very time she lifted her glass in a toast
to “our absent friends”.
The hospital where Helen died was called the JG Strijdom Hospital, named by the
apartheid regime after the racist Prime Minister that introduced the pass laws against
women, and to whom the women marchers on the 9th of August 1956 brought their
thousands of petitions.
Helen was buried in the same grave resting Side by Side with her great friend and
comrade Lillian Ngoyi in Avalon Cemetry. Soon after our first democratic elections in 1994
the hospital was renamed to become the Helen Joseph Hospital. Even after her death, this
disciplined cadre of the ANC continued to slay the ghosts of apartheid. Yes, indeed:
“Strijdom, you have touched the women; you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a
boulder; you will be crushed!”
*Carl Niehaus is a former member of the NEC of the ANC, and an NEC member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), as well as spokesperson of MKMVA.