Helen Beatrice Joseph (''née'' Fennell) (8 April 1905 – 25 December 1992) was a South Africa
n anti-apartheid activist
. Born in Sussex, England, Helen graduated with a degree in English from the University of London
in 1927 and then departed for India, where she taught for three years at Mahbubia School for girls in Hyderabad. In about 1930 she left India for England via South Africa. However, she settled in Durban
, where she met and married a dentist, Billie Joseph, whom she later divorced.
Helen Joseph was born Helen Beatrice May Fennell in 1905 in Easebourne
, West Sussex
, the daughter of a government Customs and Excise officer, Samuel Fennell. Helen Joseph came from a middle-class white family.
She grew up in a racially prejudiced household.
In 1923 Helen attended the University of London
to study English, graduating from King's College London
in 1927. After teaching in India
for three years, she intended to return home via South Africa
. In the port city of Durban she became friendly with Dorothy Stubbs, a teacher at Clifton School (Durban)
, whose father Harry Stubbs was headmaster. When Miss Stubbs left the school to get married, her father offered the vacant position to Helen Joseph. She taught at the school in 1930–1931. In Durban she met and in 1931 married Billie Joseph, a Jewish dentist 17 years her senior. She served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force
during World War II
as an information and welfare officer. After the war, she divorced Billie Joseph. She trained as a social worker and started working in a community centre in a Coloured
(mixed-race) area of Cape Town.
In 1951 Helen first met Solly Sachs
when she applied for the job of Secretary-Director of the Medical Aid Society of the Transvaal Clothing Society. At the time, Sachs was the head of the Garment Workers' Union.
Appalled by conditions for black South Africans, she fought side by side with activists to gain them greater rights, such as health care, freedom of speech, racial equality and women's rights.
She was a founder member of the Congress of Democrats
, and one of the leaders who read out the clauses of the Freedom Charter
at the Congress of the People in Kliptown
in 1955. Aghast at the plight of black women, she played a pivotal role, along with Lillian Ngoyi
, in the formation of the Federation of South African Women
. With its leadership, she spearheaded a March of 20,000 women
on August 9, 1956, to the Union Buildings
to protest against the pass laws
. This day is still celebrated as South Africa's National Women's Day
Treason trial and house arrest
Joseph's opposition to the State had not gone unnoticed and she was a defendant at the 1956 Treason Trial
. Justice Rumpff
stated, "On all the evidence presented to this court and on our findings of fact, it is impossible for this court to come to the conclusion that the African National Congress has acquired or adopted a policy to overthrow the state by violence, that is, in the sense that the masses had to be prepared or conditioned to commit direct acts of violence against the state."
However, Joseph was arrested on a charge of high treason
in December 1956 as a result of her anti-apartheid activism. In 1957, Joseph was banned from publicly opposing the government through her speech and protests.
The treason trial dragged on for four years and she was acquitted in 1961. Joseph was one of six Jewish women on trial, the others being Ruth First
, Yetta Barenblatt
, Sonia Bunting
, Dorothy Shanley, and Jacqueline Arenstein
. While on trial for treason, Joseph learned that the government was forcing people out of the country and into remote areas if they were thought to have violated apartheid laws.
In 1962, Joseph found most of the banished people then reunited them with their families and gave them supplies.
In spite of her acquittal, Helen Joseph became on 13 October 1962 the first person placed under house arrest under the Sabotage Act
introduced by the apartheid
government. She narrowly escaped death more than once, surviving bullets shot through her bedroom and a bomb wired to her front gate. In May, 1971, she was briefly released from her house arrest in Norwood
, a Johannesburg
suburb, so that she could receive cancer surgery at a hospital in Johannesburg
. By then she had spent 3,145 consecutive days at home, despite never having been convicted of a crime, Her final banning order was lifted in 1985 when she was 80 years old and had spent 23 years in confinement.
In a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Paul Erasmus, a secret service operative, stated that from about 1978 till late in the 1980s, he and his colleagues had on many occasions damaged the property of Mrs Joseph by throwing stones through the windows of her house, made telephone threats, fired shots at the house but did not intend to injure any person, ordered and caused unwanted supplies to be delivered to her house, and poured paint remover over her motor car, as well as a car belonging to Ann Hughes, when the latter visited her.
The apartheid state's fear of her was puzzling: "How a weary old girl, an ou tannie like me can be a threat to state security only they can say?" Joseph is quoted as saying. From the late 1970s, Christmas Day was "Open Day" at Helen Joseph's house for those involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. All comrades brought food and at 12 noon everyone raised their glasses to those imprisoned on Robben Island. (Apparently the Robben Islanders were aware of the ritual.) On 25 December 1992, Joseph was in hospital and the venue moved to 11 Plantation Road, The Gardens. Robben Island's prisoners had been released, and those present raised their glasses to Helen, who died shortly after.
"On 31 December 1956, I moved into my little cottage with the tall trees, delighted to have a home of my own...." — Joseph was quoted as saying in 1986. The cottage
was 35 Fanny Avenue, and moving into it in December 1956 was an act of faith and optimism, as Helen had been arrested just days before that, charged with treason, and faced trial for four years. It is tempting to speculate that Helen Joseph chose to live in Norwood
because two of her fellow comrades, Bram Fischer
in Oaklands, and Violet Weinberg in The Gardens, lived in close proximity. Whatever the reason for her choice, she would conduct her struggle against injustice from this address until her death in 1992. During that period she was banned four times, jailed four times, and she saw her life become a long saga of police persecution, much of it spent under house arrest.
Helen had no children of her own, but frequently stood in for the children of comrades in prison or in exile. She was viewed as a mother in the eyes of many activists, and for many years, they celebrated her on Mother's Day
Among the children who spent time in her care were the daughters of Winnie
and Nelson Mandela
's – Zinzi and Zenani – and Bram Fischer
's daughter, Ilsa.
Legacy and honours
Helen Joseph died on 25 December 1992 at the age of 87, having been admitted to the Order of Simon of Cyrene
in 1992, the highest honour the Anglican Church of Southern Africa
bestows on lay members providing outstanding service.
She was awarded the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankwe Medal
by the ANC in the same year.
Clifton School (Durban)
named a library after Helen Joseph, who taught there when she first came to South Africa. The library contains a specially commissioned portrait.
Places named after Helen Joseph include former Davenport Road in Glenwood, KwaZulu-Natal
, the Helen Joseph Hospital
, a student residence at Rhodes University
, and roads in Rustenburg and Johannesburg.
On April 8, 2021, Google
celebrated her 116th birthday with a Google Doodle
'. Johannesburg: Maskew Miller Longman. 1995. .
*List of people subject to banning orders under apartheid
Notes and references
External linksShort biography on the website of the ANCSAHistory - Helen Joseph
Category:Alumni of King's College London
Category:Jewish South African anti-apartheid activists
Category:People acquitted of treason
Category:South African Anglicans
Category:British emigrants to South Africa