From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental right to freedom, justice and security.
I shall never forget what I saw on 9 August 1956 ”” thousands of women standing in silence for a full thirty minutes, arms raised high in the clenched fist of the Congress salute.
Twenty thousand women of all races, from all parts of South Africa, were massed together in the huge stone amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the administrative seat of the Union government, high on a hill. The brilliant colours of African headscarves, the brightness of Indian saris and the emerald green of the blouses worn by Congress women merged into an unstructured design, woven together by the very darkness of those thousands of faces.
They had marched, that 20,000, pressed solidly together, not in formal ranks, from the lowest of the Union Buildings terraced gardens, climbing up those many steps, terrace by terrace, behind their leaders.
Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Sophie Williams and I, Helen Joseph, together with four women from more distant areas, had led the women up to the topmost terrace and into the amphitheatre. I turned my head once as we came up. I could see nothing but women following us, thousands of women marching, carrying letters of defiant protest against unjust laws, against the hated pass system, against passes for African women.
We represent and we speak on behalf of thousands of women ”” women who could not be with us. But all over this country, at this moment, women are watching and thinking of us. Their hearts are with us.
We are women from every part of South Africa. We are women of every race; we come from the cities and the towns, from the reserves and the villages ”” we come as women united in our purpose to save the African women from the degradation of passes.
Raids, arrests, loss of pay, long hours at the pass office, weeks in the cells awaiting trial, forced farm labour ”” this is what the pass laws have brought to African men . . . punishment and misery, not for a crime, but for the lack of a pass. We African women know too well the effect of this law upon our homes, upon our children. We who are not African women know how our sisters suffer . . .
We shall not rest until all pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedom have been abolished.
We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental right to freedom, justice and security.
We took those letters of protest into the Union Buildings, to the offices of the Prime Minister, Johannes Strijdom. He was not there. We flooded his office with them and returned to the thousands of women waiting for us, packed so tightly together, overflowing the amphitheatre. We stood on the little stone rostrum, looking down on the women again, and Lilian Ngoyi called on them to stand in silent protest for thirty minutes. As she raised her right arm in the Congress salute, 20,000 arms went up and staved up for those endless minutes. We knew that all over South Africa, women in other cities and towns were also gathered in protest. We were not just 20,000 women, but many thousands more.
The clock struck three and then a quarter past; it was the only sound. I looked at those many faces until they became only one face, the face of the suffering black people of South Africa. I know that there were tears in my eyes and i think that there were many who wept with me.
At the end of that half hour, Lilian began to sing, softly at first, "Nkosi Sikelele" (“Lord, give strength to Africa!”). For blacks it has become their national anthem and the voices rose, joining Lilian, ever louder and stronger. Then I heard the new song, composed specially for the protest, by a woman from the Orange Free State. "Wathint’ abafazi, wathint' imbokodo uzokufa" ("You have struck a rock, you have tampered with the women, you shall be destroyed!"). It was meant for Strijdom, the Prime Minister, the grim-faced dedicated apostle of apartheid and white domination, implacable enemy of the struggle of the black people for freedom and justice. As it was always sung in the Sotho language, the implication of the last phrase usually passed unnoticed by whites.
The protest over, the women went away, down the terrace steps, with the same dignity and discipline with which they had come, but now singing, down to the public road and the lovely gardens stood empty again. Yet not really empty, for I think the indomitable spirit remained. Perhaps it is still there, unseen, unheard, unfelt, for the women that day had made the Union Buildings their own.
That was on 9 August 1956. Today, nearly thirty years later, it is celebrated as National Women's Day, both here in South Africa amongst those who carry on the struggle for freedom and in other lands where the liberation movement, led by the African National Congress, is known and honoured. How it came to pass that we made our protest that day at the Union Buildings - the most hallowed seat of white government ”” is a small part, but nevertheless a pan of the history of our country, South Africa.
It is even more a part of the story of South Africa's liberation from fearsome racist oppression and domination. It is a story that continues even to this day. It is a story that will be told by others in the years to come, perhaps by some now in goal. Some who have fled South Africa have already told parts of the story. It is a story that must be told and because I played a small pan in this great struggle, I am proud to be one of those who help to tell it.
The Federation of South African Women came into being in the early 1950s, at the same time as the effect of the notorious Suppression of Communism Act was being felt. The Act had been passed in 1950; two years after the Nationalist Party had come to power. It was ostensibly to combat the threat of communism, but its real purpose was to harass and hamstring all opponents of the government. By this Act, the Minister of Justice could, through "banning" orders restrict the freedom of association and movement of any person whom he “deemed” to be furthering the aims of communism.
It takes little imagination to realise the effects of a banning order. It is a subtle technique whereby your life is confused, disordered, where you live in limbo. In a strange way it may be almost worse than gaol, for in gaol at least you are clear what the situation is. In gaol you understand that in the minds of the authorities you form sufficient of a threat to be removed from society. With a banning order your freedoms are reduced to a degree that makes normal life impossible, but does not remove you from society.
By the end of 1953 a temporary halt occurred in the flood of repressive orders issued under the Suppression of Communism Act. A banned man had appealed against the validity of his banning orders on the grounds that he had been granted a hearing before they were served on him. He had taken his case to the highest court in the land and there his appeal had been upheld. Overnight, people had found that their banning orders were invalid.
Although this freedom was not to last for long (by the following May the Act had been amended to provide for the banning of people without a hearing), the loophole had allowed, in those few months of respite, two banned women to bring a new and unique multiracial women's organisation. They were also able themselves to attend and speak at its inaugural conference.
Ray Alexander and Hilda Bernstein were two feminist stalwarts amongst the leaders in the liberation struggle. Ray was a well-known and much loved trade union leader. Latvian born, with an accent she was never to lose completely, Ray won all hearts with her outgoing warmth and her “My dear...” and she meant it. In trade union circles she is a legend. Many tales are told of her early union organising days, going from town to town by train, from factory to factory on foot. A staunch Communist Party member, she was elected to Parliament by Africans when they still had three representatives, but was barred from taking her seat through the provisions of the Suppression of Communism Act.
Hilda Bernstein was in many ways like Ray - a warm-hearted communist, free from the chauvinism so often a feature of communism. She was elected by the whites in 1943 to the Johannesburg City Council - the only communist ever to achieve this. During the Sharpeville Emergency of 1960 we were detained together in Pretoria Central gaol and her gay spirit helped all of us there. Hilda’s intense love for her own children flowed outwards into deep concern for the sufferings of all women and particularly for black women.
Undeterred by their previous banning orders, these two women set about realising a dream they shared of a mass women's organisation of all races that would take its stand on women's rights and play its part in the struggle for the liberation of both men and women. I am sure that they could not have foreseen the amazing progress of this new organisation, reaching its peak in that gathering of 20,000 women at the Union Buildings on 9 August.
I heard from Hilda about the plans for an inaugural conference to launch this new body of women, unique because of its multiracial character. Many women of all races would speak on issues close to them and to their daily lives. Additionally, Olive Schreiner's book Women and Labour had impressed me greatly; I was thus delighted to assist with the organising of this conference, with their sights set on their own rights as women. However, by far the most organising was done by Hilda and Ray through their widespread contacts with women, built up over many years. They had the eager help of the African National Congress Women's League and several trade unions.
The conference drew over 150 women from all over the country, some wearing brilliantly coloured national dress, all eager to participate in the proceedings. Interpreters were sometimes hard put to accommodate the variety of languages – English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans.
An impressive Women's Charter was presented to the conference and adopted. It had considerable feminist emphasis but also reflected clearly the conditions of oppressed black people. The conference was highlighted by the speeches of the women from the floor during periods of discussion.
Lilian Ngoyi protested against Bantu education, the government plan for separate and interior education for blacks. “Bantu education makes African women like fowls laying eggs for others to take away and do what they like with!” she declared. Then she spoke of the shanty towns where she herself had once lived: "where a man must dress with the blanket between his teeth because his family sleeps in the same room".
Lilian accused African husbands of holding back their wives from the conference. She was a widow but I doubt that any husband would have been able to hold her back. That was the first time I saw Lilian Ngoyi later to become the greatest leader of women in the 1950s. Soon afterwards she came to see me in my office, a slender woman dressed simply but smartly in a black suit, wearing a little round black hat. I never saw her in anything but one of these little black hats.
She did not wear the customary beret of so many African women of that time. Lilian was beautiful then, beautiful and black: in her forties, but looking only thirty, head often tilted a little to one side on her slim neck, laughing eyes and a flashing smile to show an enchanting little gap in her front teeth. I could not of course know how closely our lives would be bound together as leaders in the Federation of South African Women, in and out of goal together, on trial together for over four years, banned and separated from each other over long periods " or that we should walk together leading 20,000 women in protest against passes. She became one of my closest and dearest friends ”” a joy and a delight to be with even though this was not to be very often.
The conference allowed, for the first time, the voices of the women of South Africa to be heard. They listened with interest to the scheduled speakers on women of India, of China, on the need for a women's organisation, on the need for world peace. Their own emphasis was on the struggle of men and women together for freedom and justice, on the need to stand together in that struggle and the determination of women to fight for the rights of their children.
My own most worthwhile experience of that conference was in fact afterwards, when the other organisers had returned to their homes and children and I was left to entertain twenty black women from other areas until their departure later in the day. Entertaining black friends in South Africa is always a problem because of the lack of multiracial amenities, but we were soon off on a black bus for a picnic with boxes of minerals, fruit and buns. I think this was what I had been waiting for so long - complete acceptance as a person - and I had got it. Songs, laughter, dancing, then to the railway station and a joyous farewell, with anticipation of another conference.
That first conference of the Federation was a very deep experience for me and I was moved when I was elected to the national executive, for I had been quite happy to be a backroom person at the conference. The conference had indeed been held just in time for Ray and Hilda to speak there, for it was only a few weeks before the new amendment to the Suppression of Communism Act was passed and both women were soon re-banned. They had used their respite heroically to bring this new organisation into being, for it was undoubtedly to become the most dynamic of women's organisations in the history of South Africa.
Lilian Ngoyi and I grew to know each other quite well and since she worked in a Johannesburg clothing factory, we would occasionally meet for a sandwich in a car during her short lunch break. I began to understand better the acute transport problems for African people, especially women: long bus queues stretching around two sides of a street block, unbelievably crowded trains, passengers clinging outside onto closed doors, and the dangerous walk home from the railway station or bus stop through dark, totally unlit streets. These difficulties made evening meetings for the Federation women impossible, so we had to rely on weekends, which meant that again the women had to travel in from the townships. Nevertheless our first Transvaal provincial conference was successful.
Josie Palmer, veteran leader of African protest against location permits even in the 1930s was elected Transvaal President and I became Honorary Secretary. This time I was not a white woman doing things for black people but a member of a mixed committee headed by a black woman, it was different and better than anything I had known before.
Towards the end of 1954, the Johannesburg Municipality announced a sharp increase in rentals for Soweto, the sprawling, spreading township housing the ill-paid workers and their families, the people who had no money for an increase in rent. The Federation took up the issue, calling another multiracial conference. Once again women spoke from the floor, describing their pitiful homes and their inability to meet any increase of rent.
I wished that the hall could have been filled with housewives from white suburbs to hear them. But it wasn't, nor was the Federation ever able to attract more than a handful of white women from the Black Sash or the Liberal Party to attend its conferences. Our identification with the African National Congress and the liberation movement saw to that. It was a small price to pay for the tremendous feeling of oneness with the national struggle for freedom.
From it’s early days the Federation had felt drawn to the Women's International Democratic Federation, formed in Europe at the end of the Second World War, to unite women in defence of their rights and to work for peace and social progress. It claimed to represent 140 million women from all parts of the world, through its affiliated organisations. Both Ray and Hilda were in close contact with this International Federation and cherished the idea of the South African Federation affiliating to it. We certainly maintained contact with it, but never got as far as even debating affiliation, certainly not in the Transvaal.
This International Federation had what was, for us, a most attractive policy of inviting women to attend their conference in Europe and then sending them on sponsored tours, mainly to the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania, even as far as the people's Republic of China. I am sure the Federation would have gladly accepted invitations to conferences and sponsored tours to the West just as happily but none came our way. The World Federation was to hold a World Congress of Mothers in Lausanne and the Federation was invited to send two delegates to the preparatory council meeting in Geneva in February as well as to the congress later in the year.
The Transvaal and Cape regions were the best-established areas of the Federation so we were to send one delegate from each region. For us in the Transvaal there was one outstanding choice. Lilian Ngoyi. We knew that this great speaker and leader would not merely hold her own with women from other lands but would be our ambassador to bring the sufferings of black people and the struggle for liberation to the notice of women outside South Africa. Dora Tamana was chosen as the other delegate.
We began to prepare for the women to go. In those days it was not yet illegal to leave South Africa without a passport, although travel companies were reluctant to carry passportless passengers for fear of compromising themselves with the South African authorities. Passports for white political people were not impossible to obtain, though often difficult. For blacks there were almost insuperable difficulties. Radically political blacks just did not get passports, so means had to be found to get them transported without documents. There was no difficulty at the London end, merely separate queues for those with and those without passports.
I was going to Europe on leave for a few months, for the first time in nearly twenty years. I was therefore delighted when arrangements were made for me to fly from London to attend the Geneva Council meeting as an observer, in addition to our two special delegates. I still had a valid passport so would have no difficulties and I should hear from Hilda when and where to meet the two women on their arrival in London in January 1955.
I reached London just after the New Year and found letters from Hilda to tell me that the plans for sending Lilian and Dora by sea had misfired because they had been discovered, passportless, on board ship before it sailed from Cape, Town. The captain had refused to transport them, despite their paid passages. They had come undaunted to Johannesburg, from where they would be sent somehow to London where I must meet them.
On the day they were expected, I waited for hours at the airport, fearful for them. Then I found a friendly porter to take a note through the customs and immigration barriers to say "I am here, waiting for you." They came at last, triumphant and excited, and we hugged each other, a little surprised that no one thought this in any way odd for a white and two blacks.
They told me of their adventures. On the ship they had hidden themselves in the lavatory waiting for the ship to sail before they dared to come out. They had been terrified when loud knocks and a command to come out had been heard. How they were found out none of us knows and we never shall. They could do nothing but open the door. The plan had failed somewhere along the way.
Once in Johannesburg, it had been easier to get onto an aeroplane, but they were very apprehensive until the plane actually took off. Racially mixed air travel was still comparatively rare in South Africa and at first the two black women encountered hostile looks and whispered comments from the passengers. Then the captain announced that this was his plane and that there would be no apartheid on board. All his passengers were equal.
After hearing this, I was convinced that nothing could daunt Lilian and Dora. They would overcome all obstacles. We had a couple of weeks together in London and were preparing to go to Geneva when International Federation officials informed us that it had been decided that Lilian and Dora should not go to Switzerland at this stage for the council meetings as they might encounter difficulties there about passports and might even be sent back to South Africa. It would be simpler for them to fly direct to East Berlin from where they could set off on extensive travels, returning later for the Congress of Mothers in Lausanne. It would not matter so much if they were then sent back to South Africa because by that time they would already be on their way back.
I went alone to Geneva for the preparatory council meeting, now promoted to delegate, feeling very inadequate about representing South African women at this large gathering of women from all over the world. But I went, and there I met women from Burma, Indochina, the USA and Canada, the Argentine and near East countries and from every country in Europe.
I listened carefully to their speeches, in many cases accounts of suffering and disabilities comparable to the South Africa scene. From others I heard affirmation of their countries' achievements and a will to assist others still striving for basic human rights. I sat there, full of admiration for these dynamic, eloquent women leaders. I think I had not fully realised the implication of being a delegate and no longer an observer, for I was startled when I was asked on which day I would be ready to address the conference and report on South Africa. I was still an inexperienced public speaker and no orator. I was white and had no real right to describe the unshared sufferings of others in my colour-ridden land, whereas these hundreds of delegates could and did speak from their own experience.
I drafted a speech for one of the organisers to consider, but she said it was too flat and I am sure it was. Then we talked about my life in South Africa and I told her, not only of our Federation, but also of the unjust conditions of life and particularly of the government plan forcibly to remove the African people of Sophiatown in the western areas of Johannesburg to another area and the growing protest against it. Since I left South Africa, news of the impending removal and the Congress Alliance protest plans had been sparse in the overseas press, but I had learnt enough to know that the government intended to go its own ruthless way. The forced move would be taking place in February and the African people would try by all peaceful means to resist that move. My thoughts turned away from Geneva and back to Sophiatown and the protest. When I had finished, I was told, "that's it! That is what you must tell the women tomorrow."
When I faced those women from all over the world, I wanted them to understand the agony of Sophiatown and the oppression of the people by their white overlords. I spoke for Lilian and Dora, I spoke for the women of our Federation and for the black women of our land, and I wanted to convey the strength of our hope for the future. When I came to the end I affirmed, "where you stand today, we shall stand tomorrow!"
Then the miracle happened. That gathering of women rose to their feet in a standing ovation, not to me as a speaker, but to the women of South Africa whose message I had brought. For me it was a tremendous moment of disbelief but also of joy and of complete unity with the women there.
I went back to London to find that Lilian and Dora had already left on their great adventure so I could not tell them about the conference. I had hoped, secretly, and vainly, that perhaps I too might have been invited to visit some other country, for there seemed to be many invitations floating around, though almost entirely to black women. However, it did not happen. I think my disabilities were that I was white and not ideologically committed.