Right up to her very last years Helen’s levels of energy and presence of mind were remarkable,writes
AS WE have reached the last Sunday of Women’s Month, my thoughts go back to Helen Joseph. Most of us know Helen in those pictures of the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings, where she stands 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 with a colourful caftan on the 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 70s. 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 “remote control”.
Now, so many years later – and with a 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 “banned” person.
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. 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 tempered steel. Within moments after I first met her, I knew 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.
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.
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. Together with Oom Bey she was an honorary president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas). Every year sinceJune 12, 1964, when Nelson Mandela and his fellow Rivonia triallists 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 Madikizela-Mandela and Albertina Sisulu would be there at the occasions when they were not themselves banned. Exactly at 12pm Helen would make sure that everyone had a glass of champagne in their hands, and she would propose a toast to “our absent friends”.
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 12pm 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.
Picturesque and heroic as it was, underlying the pictures of those silent toasts were years of great sacrifice and loneliness.
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 80s, 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 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 was 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. 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.
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 member of the ANC may have, must be dealt with inside those organisational structures.
I recall a visit that I got from Helen 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 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 withering 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 National Executive Committee of the ANC would 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.
Soon after our first democratic elections in 1994 JG Strijdom Hospital was re-named 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!”
Niehaus is a former member of the NEC of the ANC and an NEC member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA)
All Niehaus’s articles can also be found on his blog, Carl’s Corner: www.carlniehaus.co.za