Obituary: Helen Joseph

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The Independent Online
Helen Fennell, teacher and campaigner, born Midhurst Sussex 1905, married Billy Joseph (marriage dissolved 1948), died Johannesburg 25 December 1992.

SHE DIDN'T resemble the conventional picture of a freedom fighter. Rather tall, upright, Helen Joseph, her spectacles often hiding a mischievous twinkle, looked more like a dedicated headmistress in rural Sussex than a threat to the bully-boys of apartheid over the past 40 years in South Africa.

In fact she was born in Sussex and, as Helen Fennell, taught the children of nawabs and other sahibs in Hyderabad, India. After settling in South Africa, however, she was transformed from a memsahib to a tireless campaigner for the rights of the poor.

Helen Joseph died on Christmas Day in Johannesburg after a remarkable life spanning 87 years on three continents. Her beloved African National Congress, which recently bestowed on her its highest honour, Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe, said yesterday it might stage her funeral on 8 January, when it celebrates its 81st anniversary. The funeral will be a celebration of the life of one of South Africa's least likely, but greatest freedom fighters - a woman outside the conscience of the country's white mainstream but revered, especially by older people, in black townships.

She first came to South Africa from India around 1930, then went back to England to join the WAAF during the Second World War. She returned to Durban, where she continued to mix with the rich and privileged in the 'Last Post of the British Empire', and, because of her love of Indian culture and food, with the well-heeled descendants of Indian sugar-plantation workers.

She married Billy Joseph, a dentist. The marriage didn't last long. Helen Joseph moved to Johannesburg, where she joined the industrial council of the Garment Workers' Union, coming into contact with the trade unionists Johanna Cornelius and Anna Scheepers. More significantly, she met Solly Sachs, father of Albie Sachs, an SA Communist Party member and now the ANC's constitutional lawyer.

Solly Sachs had a profound impact on Joseph. It was through him that she came to see the hideous face of apartheid, of the physical and psychological oppression of people not classified white. With a convert's zeal, she joined the political fray, not as an ideologue, but as a person with a gut reaction to the injustices she witnessed.

'Because she was not wedded to any ideology, she later studied theology by correspondence with London University,' her close friend Amina Cachalia recalls. 'Religion - especially Christianity - became the focal point of her life.'

Joseph, a member of the ANC's white ally in the 1950s, the Congress of Democrats, was appalled by the 'double oppression' of black women. She was a pivotal figure in the formation of the pro-ANC Federation of South African Women. When the white government decided to extend the dreaded pass laws - curbing the mobility of black men - to black women, she and the late Lillian Ngoyi spearheaded a protest march of 20,000 women to Pretoria's Union Buildings in 1956.

She trekked around South Africa to locate 'the forgotten people', the unsung anti-apartheid activists who had been banished to remote rural areas. With many other prominent anti- apartheid campaigners, she was an accused in the marathon treason trial of 1956, which later collapsed. So the government banned and 'listed' her, which meant she could not take part in political activities or be quoted in the press. In 1962, she became the first South African woman to be placed under house arrest.

She was restricted to her modest little house in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Norwood, with a security policeman moving in next door.

'I was the first white woman to become subject to the pass laws,' she said, laughing, when I interviewed her at length four years ago. 'At least, my house won't be burgled while I'm at home and the police are watching.'

But close police scrutiny did not stop her enemies pumping bullets into her windows or from placing an explosive device in her letterbox.

Why apartheid's backers feared her puzzled her. 'How a weary old girl, an ou tannie (old aunt) like me can be a threat to state security only they can say.' The government wasn't saying. It lifted her house arrest order in 1971 after she was diagnosed as suffering from cancer, then restricted her again for two years from 1980.

Perhaps it feared her friendship with other well-known women in the ANC. Security police harassment forged a close bond between them. Joseph became especially close to Winnie Mandela. A picture of the two was displayed proudly in Joseph's house. 'Winnie is the daughter I always wished I'd had,' she said fondly.

Joseph, ravaged by illness and confined to a wheelchair, was the loyal, protective mother when allegations about Winnie Mandela's activities surfaced. She didn't want to believe them, much less discuss them. 'Nobody knows how she has been made to suffer these many years,' said Joseph. 'I know Winnie, she wouldn't do such things.'

This fierce loyalty was reciprocated by a band of close friends from across South Africa's colour, cultural and religious spectrum - the Mandelas, Sisulus, Amina Cachalia, Sheila and Violet Weinberg among them.

In the last few months of her life, Helen Joseph became disillusioned with the turn taken by the liberation struggle - the escalating violence and the ANC's policy of forming a government of national unity with FW de Klerk's National Party. According to friends, she warned Nelson Mandela not to trust de Klerk and his colleagues because of their past record.

When I asked her how she wished to be remembered, she reflected for a while, then said: 'Simple Helen Joseph fought for her freedom too. You know, Winnie once said 'I am the Mother of the Nation'. It's quite exaggerated, don't you think? 'Grandmother of the Nation' would also be exaggerated, but it would sound rather nice, wouldn't it?'

(Photograph omitted)

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