Right up to her very last years Helen’s lev­els of en­ergy and pres­ence of mind were re­mark­able,writes

The Sunday Independent - - DISPATCHES -

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

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