From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
On that day in August 1956, I was already fifty-one. I often wonder just how it took me so long to find the road to what must surely be one of the highest peaks of my whole life. On that day I walked with seven other women at the head of a march of 20,000 women of all races to the Prime Minister of South Africa.
Nor were these ordinary women. They represented the oppressed people of South Africa, coming in defiant protest against the passes, which would deprive them and their children even further of freedom, justice and security. Yet they had chosen me. Helen Joseph, to be amongst their leaders on that unforgettable day.
Looking back now at the age of eighty, it seems to me that perhaps for twenty years I travelled inevitably, if unknowingly, uncaringly, along the road towards that great day and what followed after it. As a white in South Africa, I belonged to an unjust society, protected, cosseted by the colour of my skin. I had left England when I was twenty-two. It was only when in my forties, during and after the Second World War, that I began to open my eyes to the real world around me.
I was born in Sussex, England, in 1905. I grew up in an ordinary middle-class family. My early years until the 1914-18 war were remarkable only by their total unremarkability. I remember little of those times. My father. Samuel Fennell, was called up at once because he belonged to the Sussex Yeomanry, then still a mounted unit but soon to become dismounted. I remember him as a warrant officer, going first to Gallipoli, from where the British troops were evacuated: then to Egypt and to Palestine. He wrote vivid letters to his two children, enclosing pressed flowers for me from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
In England, my brother and I were growing up in a small terrace house in a London suburb. There were blackouts and air raids ”” although blackouts were not as total as in the next war. Yet as a small girl when I went to post letters for my mother, I ran quickly from lamp post to lamp post at night because below each lamp was a very small circle of light and only darkness in between.
Air raids were at first Zeppelin raids. When the sirens were heard, our neighbours, wives also of men gone to the war, used to come to our kitchen for cocoa and cake and comfort from my mother. She had held herself rather socially aloof in peacetime, but on those dark nights of barrage and bombs, the barriers went down. From the window we watched the first Zeppelin go down in flames - a fiery tailing blaze in the blackness of the night lit only by searchlights. In the mornings we would sometimes find pieces of shrapnel outside our front door. Soon there were daylight raids, with aircraft all over the sky and smoke bubbles around them from our guns.
The air raids were taken pretty much as a matter of course ”” not that we had to endure anything like the 1940 blitz ”” but it must have been a huge strain on the wives and mothers. My father came back from the Middle East in 1917 for a few weeks' leave, the first time he had been home for over three years. Then he was off again to France and Belgium until the end of the war.
By the time it was all over, I was a weekly boarder at a convent school and on Armistice Day the Reverend Mother allowed me to borrow a bicycle from a day scholar to go to my mother. I found her crying in the kitchen, just sitting crying quietly at the table. At thirteen I could not understand her tears.
After the war, we moved to Epping Town, on the edge of the forest, fifteen miles from the city. There were Christmasses with great blazing log fires in the open fireplaces of that lovely old Elizabethan house with its Georgian front, which my father had bought on his return from the war. There were lazy summer days in the old, old garden. My brother Frank and I, with only fifteen months separating us, became very close, sharing our train journeys to the city of London and the daily walks to and from the railway station.
We had been educated at private schools ”” middle-class snobbishness undoubtedly ”” Frank in a grammar school and I at convents. I remember the little chapel with the windows opening onto the garden and the lovely roses in the summer. I was a Protestant in this Roman Catholic fold, but the convent was really a place of love for me. I don't remember tensions and punishments, but even now I still remember the names and faces of the nuns I loved so much.
I felt spiritually drawn to Roman Catholicism. I wanted to become a Roman Catholic, wanted the colour and the ritual lacking in the only Anglican churches I had known. But after I left the convent, my mother arranged for me to be confirmed in the Anglican Church, her church. My father acknowledged none. It was meaningful for me at that time, there is no doubt of that, but my faith was not rooted deeply enough to hold me once I had left school.
In 1923 I started at King's College, University of London. My father could only afford to send one of us to university and had wanted my brother to go. Frank chose a business career so I was able to go instead. Commuting daily from Epping involved a walk to the station, forty minutes in the train to Liverpool Street station and a bus or tube train to the Strand. It was strenuous and I envied the more fortunate hostel students ”” they had more time to enjoy themselves than I had with three hours daily travelling. Few students' families and certainly not mine, owned cars in the 1920s and university students accepted daily travel as part of life.
For college dances, I put my dress and shoes into a briefcase and changed in the students' cloakroom, queuing up at the hand basin for a quick wash. At 10.30, when the dance ended. I put my coat over my evening clothes and made my way by bus to Liverpool Street station to meet my brother for the last train to Epping and the mile walk home.
My university honours course was in English, but I doubt that I had any great aptitude for it, and certainly not for philology, to which London University attached much importance. In 1926, the General Transport Workers went out on strike and the whole country was paralysed ”” immobilised. I went to live with an aunt in Clapham, from where I could walk the four miles to Kings' College. Many of the students drove trams and buses and trains ”” which I suppose illustrates the political level of Kings' College. I didn't think of them as scabs. I thought they were pretty noble.
After four years at the university. I obtained a not very distinguished second class honours degree, but I had no professional training. It seems I would have to become a teacher, and to seek a job abroad where a teacher's training certificate would not be required. After some time I obtained a post as English teacher in the Mahbubia Girls school in Hyderabad Deccan in India. The prospect of going abroad was exciting.
I was vague indeed about what would be required of me as a school teacher, but I went back to my convent school a few times to take practice classes in English. I was very excited about going to India and my interest was mostly engaged in acquiring new dresses for the great adventure. I certainly did not foresee ”” how could I? ”” that this journey was not just a journey to India, but a journey into a new life, a life that would bring me ultimately to confrontation and imprisonment, but also a joy and comradeship that would transcend all else.
My knowledge of India was limited to Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills and the novels of one B.M. Croker; whose work I am sure has long since disappeared from library shelves. I did not, in my excitement, give any thought to reading about India or trying to know her as a country. I doubt if I even appreciated the difference between British India and the India of the Princes where I was going. That I learnt as I went along.
I went off, at twenty-two, alone, on a P & 0 liner. I was both tearful and terrified, but my father had been adamant that I could not change my mind at the last moment. The liner pulled away from the dock ”” that tearing moment of parting ”” and a strange young man at my side lent me a large handkerchief to dry my tears. I felt that life had not changed so much after all.
I learnt a little about India between Tilbury Docks and Bombay, making friends during those carefree weeks on board and feeling superior because I was not part of the "fishing fleet" ”” a derisory term used for the annual influx of marriageable girls to the India of clubs and picnics and innumerable unattached young men. Yet in a way I suppose I really was part of the fishing fleet, as I certainly hoped to get married in India. I was not cherishing any ideas about a vocation as a teacher.
I grew to love that Mahbubia School and the Indian girls and their families. Hyderabad was the largest and the richest and probably the most corrupt and oppressive of all the princely states. The Nizam of Hyderabad, supported by an enormously wealthy and powerful Moslem aristocracy, ruled tyrannically over millions of Hindus, mostly at the lowest level of subsistence. Notwithstanding all this, I absorbed very little of Indian politics in those years and became only marginally aware of the Indian National Congress and the non-violent struggle of the Indian people for independence. Nor was I aware of the stark poverty all around me. In the princely state of Hyderabad our lives were untouched by that struggle. We were encapsulated in our pleasant social life, but had I wanted to, I could then have learnt so much about the Indian fight for freedom and justice, so similar to the struggle, which was to absorb me in South Africa later.
I was in India from 1928 to 1930, a critical period when Nehru was emerging as the dominant figure and the Indian Congress had taken its stand on complete independence from the British Empire. Gandhi's defiance of the salt tax inspired 100.000 men and women to passive resistance and imprisonment on an unparalleled scale. A quarter of a million workers went on strike in Bengal, 100.000 workers in Bombay, yet in Hyderabad we went our ways, untouched by the cataclysmic events in British India.
Early one morning towards the end of my three-year contract, I rode a horse too high-spirited for me to handle. The horse bolted and together we collided with a bullock cart on a narrow road. I fell on my head and lay for two days, unconscious in hospital. I survived, but was warned that I could only do very light work for some time to come. By this time I was senior teacher at the school, involving heavy duties and responsibilities, so I did not apply to extend ay contract and instead looked around for something else. I found nothing in India and finally took myself off to South Africa to a university friend whose father was the principal of a small preparatory school for boys in Durban.
I sadly left India and the Indian people I had grown to love so much. Indian friends had warned me what to expect in South Africa ”” the colour bar, racial discrimination - but it was too late to change my mind. Just prior to leaving I had been staying in Bombay with Indian friends, a most natural thing for me, not fully comprehending that this would be forbidden in South Africa. Indeed I hoped that my stay in South Africa would not be long and that I should soon be returning to India.
Despite the warnings, South Africa came as a shock after India. I was resentful at first, even openly, that my Indian friends were not accepted in this land of apartheid. Initially, however, I didn't meet any Indian people so I wasn't constantly reminded of the differences. I had not known any Africans before arriving in South Africa except for the isolated black student at university, and then we had little contact. In Durban I seemed to be in contact only with black domestic workers.
Within a few months I met sophisticated, charming, Billie Joseph, seventeen years older than I. I was very lonely and unable to hold out against the gay life he offered me. My longing for India faded and so did my sense of outrage at the racist society I found here. I agreed to marry Billie and to remain in South Africa.
My father disapproved of my marriage and refused to have anything to do with me for some years. Billie was Jewish, he had been divorced and he was much older than I. Nevertheless, at twenty-six. I could make my own choice; we married and moved into Durban society. I rode, played tennis and learned to play bridge. We lived in an attractive Spanish house in Durban North, high on a slope looking down to the sea and across to Durban and the Bluff headland five miles away. I loved my garden, spending much time in it.
We had no children, by design. Billie had two children from his first marriage, not even ten years my junior. He was not eager to start with babies again and for myself, I held back because I soon became aware that our marriage was not too stable. I who had never even met divorced people until my arrival in South Africa, assumed that divorce was nothing unusual. Many of my new friends were already into their second marriages. We led a very social life, as Billie was very popular. I was shy at first, perhaps because his friends were all much older than I. I did not work because Billie did not want me to and working wives did not fit into our way of life.
Our marriage gradually sank to a very low level and Billie and I more and more went each our own way. My attitude soon became that anything he could do I could do better. His physical attraction for other women was not fading and being very much younger; it was easy for me to find some sort of cheap compensation with other men. I was looking in the wrong places for what I had not found in my marriage. We did not quarrel often or openly and we managed to preserve the facade of a friendly couple. Our married life had always been very social and gay, and outwardly it remained that way.
In September 1939 war with Germany was declared and I wept openly as we listened to the radio announcements. Billie and our friends were jubilant that Hitler was to be challenged, but I could only say. "People will be killed! People will be killed!"
The war did not make much difference to our lives at first: South Africa was far from the actual conflict, whether in Europe or North Africa. Durban had a blackout because it was on the coast and petrol was eventually rationed, but there was still plenty for normal use. For the Durban July Handicap, South Africa's greatest horse race, we still had our picnic at the side of the racecourse, although beer and sausage rolls replaced champagne and caviare.
My father volunteered as a Royal Air Force reservist some months before the outbreak of war. He was then sixty-five and was duly called up when war broke out. He wrote that he was now an "erk", an aircraftsman, the lowest rank in the Air Force. "Something less than a private," was how he described himself. My brother Frank had become an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps and very soon he went to France and was evacuated at the time of Dunkirk. After a couple of years Billie decided that he must join the South African Dental Corps and went off, leaving his dental practice to his partner.
I lacked the initiative or the determination to join up myself until one day I read a press announcement, calling for university and professional women to attend an intensive training course for welfare and information officers – the female counterpart of the male information officers in the South African Army Education Service. Any women selected at the end of the course would become full-time lieutenants in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force or the Women's Auxiliary Army Services. Others could remain in the forces as privates or simply go home again.
The welfare aspect appealed to me, although I had no clear idea about what might be expected of me. I went off to Pretoria, driving there in my car on black market petrol. I slept overnight at a hotel on the way so that I could reach the WAAF camp and the end of my 400-mile journey in the morning to report for the course. I found a few other women there who, like myself, had been attracted by this novel project, but I lost sight of them during that endless day of attestation when I learnt the first lesson of army service ”” to sit and wait.
I was held up almost at the last stage of the procedure because I found a question on the attestation form about my church. I wrote "none" because I felt that I could not honestly say that I belonged to any church. Far from it, I had attended church services only a few times in the past fifteen years and even then not of my own volition, but because I had been staying with church-going friends and had not wanted to embarrass them. Yet I was no atheist and could I not really call myself an agnostic. I had never denied my God; I would not have dared to. I believed in God, but my faith was no longer strong enough to hold me in prayer and worship.
An officer instructed me brusquely to fill in my form properly and told me that I must belong to some church. When I insisted that I did not and that I could not make a false attestation. I found myself in great difficulty. I had not to realised ”” and no one explained to me ”” that all the air force was interested in was to know how to bury me. Finally the officer gave in and accepted my attestation form with no church stated. Probably she just filled it in herself afterwards since I never heard anything more about it. I suppose it was just stubbornness on my part, but I objected to being bullied into doing something which I thought was dishonest.
As the course progressed, I came to understand what it was all about. If we were accepted, our mandate would be to inculcate a "liberal, tolerant attitude of mind" in the women serving in the forces. Truly an astounding mission to the white women of the WAAF; born and bred in a society which denied human rights to others on grounds of colour and race. For our task, we must be (and in my case become) politically well informed ourselves and able to inform others in our weekly lectures to them.
I was among those selected. A nightmare fortnight followed of practical induction into air force camp conditions and procedures, even parade ground drill. We trainee officers were separated from each other and allocated to large huts, where we were expected to make contact with the lower ranks of WAAFs.
My group were artisans, tough young women doing quite heavy mechanical work in the aircraft hangars. They were totally disinterested in the stranger in the corner of their hut whom they knew was about to become an officer. I tried to hide this fact by keeping my officer's barathea uniform in my car, in which I could change when I went out of camp. Otherwise I remained in the very unbecoming regulation khaki drill shirt and skirt issued to me on arrival. No one spoke to me, though sometimes I knew they were speaking of me in Afrikaans. Finally I achieved social contact by dispensing sweets and cigarettes, feeling no shame about my purchased popularity, only wishing that I had thought of it earlier. The welfare and information officers were then sent about their various duties on different airstations. I set off apprehensively for Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, wondering how it was all going to turn out. Billie had had enough of the Dental Corps and had managed to be boarded out on medical grounds, returning to his dental practice in Durban. So he was out and I was in.
It was a strange experience for I was in a totally new environment and I had to do a great deal of study for the background of the lectures. We had been given a schedule of the areas we were supposed to cover. These included local and central government, health and education services, women's problems and disabilities, socialism, communism, liberalism, trade unionism, "native" affairs and Indian and coloured affairs ”” and then a free hand for any other topics that might arise. It seemed a formidable assignment. I realised that I should set about educating myself before I could do anything about educating others.
A new world was opening up for me, a new vision and new knowledge. I began to view the South African scene with new and better-informed eyes. As I studied the conditions in which black children struggled for education and opportunity, and compared them to how most whites lived. I began to feel ashamed of my own position as a white. Talking about democracy brought home to me that the black people did not share it with me. I had a parliamentary vote and they did not. As I spelt it out to the WAAFs, so I spelt it out to myself, questioning my own values as never before. I did not turn immediately into a socialist, far from it, but I began to see people as human beings, regardless of colour, began to have some idea of how the other half of the South African world lived. To some extent I was still fumbling, the ties to my comfortable civilian way of life were still strong and I could not really see myself living any other way.
We also lectured on the war, of course, presenting it as the struggle for a better world, for democracy, for human rights. When I talked about the national income I saw the figures, so unevenly distributed amongst the different racial groups. When I talked about education, I saw how much was spent on white schoolchildren and how little on blacks. When I talked about agriculture and the land. I saw that only 13 per cent was available for black people, yet they formed over 85 per cent of the population. I wondered what sort of South Africa we were fighting for. There was no one for me to talk to about all this, so it lay fallow in my mind. But the seeds were there.
A few months before the war ended, I was undecided what I should do when it was over. Dancing one night in camp with an air force colonel, he asked me what I thought of doing when I was demobilised and when I said I was thinking about returning to England, he said. "Oh no, people like you will be needed in South Africa." Years later, when I had been tried for high treason, house-arrested and banned, I wondered if he ever remembered saying that.
Billie had returned to Durban four years earlier, and whereas in the first ten years of marriage, he had not been constant to any woman, let alone me, now there was one who seemed to be settled in his life.
When an exciting post as acting director of a community health centre in Johannesburg was offered to me. I accepted it. I told Billie I should not be returning and suggested divorce, but he refused to consider it and I was not particularly interested in it either. I was only relieved that I need not go back to the strain of a marriage in name only. Nor did I wish to resume the kind of life I had known before, seeking compensation wherever I could find it. I had no bitter feelings about Billie. He had been good to me and it was the fault of neither of us that we could not satisfy each other in marriage. It would be better for us to part while we could still be friendly towards each other.
Very soon after I had started work at the centre. I realised that the academic background I had was inadequate to direct the activities of this bustling community health centre, with its scientific analytic approach to health. I often wondered why I had been offered the job. When I learnt that there was a diploma course in sociology and social work at the Witwatersrand University, was immediately interested, especially as it was intended for people like me who had obtained their university degrees before there were any faculties of social science. I enrolled gladly, with the help of a demobilisation bursary to cover my fees and books, and managed to fit in the lecture times without affecting my centre work.
I learnt a great deal in the social work and social legislation classes, which brought home to me even more strongly the glaring disparities between white and black in every field. I loved my work at the centre, identifying with these white people at a low economic level, struggling against poverty and unemployment. I enjoyed watching the children's playgroups and their lively concerts, rising far above their squalid surroundings.
My job was to co-ordinate the work that was going on, rather than to introduce new features, for the director, overseas for two years' study leave, had laid the foundations and I must build on them, not restructure the centre in anyway. I was interested in the analysis and measurement of what we were doing and modelled my reports faithfully on the director's initial comprehensive survey. Most of all I enjoyed the adult education activities, especially the talks and debates. Here, for the first time, I met educated Africans, invited occasionally to take part in a symposium or debate. But beyond polite cups of tea, there was no inter-racial social contact and I suspect that, if it had been introduced, there would have been acute tension at the low socio-economic level of" the white centre membership, who saw black people as a threat to themselves, their security, their employment and to the security of their children.
I was becoming aware that the need for help, for social service, was even greater amongst the coloured and African people than amongst the poorest of the whites. It was hard for me to accept all this because I loved the centre, its staff, its work and above all its members. My work there had become a way of life for me and I was making new friends amongst like-minded people. Nevertheless, when the National War Memorial Health Foundation advertised for a supervisor of community centres for the coloured people in the Western Cape. I applied for the post.
The Foundation came into being at the end of the war, when the soldiers "up north" had themselves decided that they did not wish for masses of stone and mortar as monuments to their dead comrades. They wanted living memorials to represent the freedoms for which they had fought, particularly freedom from want. Each soldier gave a day's pay and the funds were entrusted to the Foundation to inaugurate and maintain promotive health projects in the fields of nutrition, education, recreation and social services. All these were to be established in community health centres. I was engaged for this post and went to live in the Cape.
My work lay in the sandy barren Cape Flats in Elsie's River, where many coloured people lived. Once again my work made heavy inroads into my life. I discovered on arrival that the title "supervisor" was not strictly accurate. I should first have to create the community centres before I could supervise them.
For two happy years I worked closely with the coloured people. They accepted me and loved me in a way that I had not known before. We worked together. The Foundation provided the funds but we created the centres ourselves, starting from small beginnings that they grew with the needs and the goodwill of the neighbourhood. From one very small centre we grew to a larger one and then to a third, still larger, always repeating our pattern of promotive health activities, a crèche, children's groups, adult groups, co-operative vegetable clubs and grocery clubs, sewing groups. We brought health promotion right into the lives of these underprivileged people. I found them outgoing, warm, lovable and supportive as we laughed and stormed our way through all our troubles. I believed then, as I still do, that these living community health centres were the finest memorials to the dead, whose graves are scattered over the battlefields of North Africa and Italy. South Africa has kept faith with her dead sons.
It was my work in Elsie's River that finally brought me to the realisation that all our social services were only alleviating the existing evils, not eradicating them. Whatever and however much we achieved, the basic poverty, the injustice, the affront to human dignity, all these were still there. Our little islands of concern were not affecting the total situation. Yet I realised, too, that misery has to be alleviated. Obviously these new and deepening insights would not have taken me very far in any political activity, since the Foundation staff were not permitted any political involvement. So many of its projects depended on government subsidies. Then a friend telephoned me to say that the Medical Aid Society of the Transvaal Clothing Industry was looking for a new Secretary-Director. If I were interested I could fly up for an interview with Solly Sachs, famous General Secretary of the Garment Workers" Union. The clothing industry employed thousands of coloured and African workers, as well as whites and Indians, and since the militant and radical trade union was so political itself, there could be no obstacle to any political activity for me. I accepted the post.
I returned to Elsie's River, to tell everyone what I had done, feeling that I had betrayed them, but the centre staff and members accepted my decision with compassion and understanding, assuring me that they would bring up our child, the centre, even if they had to do it without me and I should still be proud of it. They did ”” and I was.
In a couple of months I was gone, back in Johannesburg by March 1951 with a sad heart and yet feeling that I could not have done otherwise. I had to move onwards and outwards.
Billie eventually asked for a divorce and I had agreed. The worst aspect of it for me was not the ending of the marriage but the trauma of the divorce court. Despite my oath to tell the truth, I had told a lie in court, when I had said that Billie had refused to make a home for me after the war. It was I who had refused to return to him. My lawyers had insisted that I must divorce Billie and not let him divorce me and he had agreed. The thought of that lie spoken on oath haunted me for a very long time and I believed that sooner or later God would punish me for it. In a bizarre way, this was the nearest I had come to God for many years.