From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
One of the special joys of being unbanned was that although banned people could still not communicate with me, listed people could. This brought some old friends of the Congress of Democrats back into contact with me. Ilse, Bram Fischer's youngest daughter, was one. The very night that the bans were lifted she visited me in the hospital.
Since Brain's imprisonment, tragedy had struck his family again. Paul, his only son died suddenly in Cape Town. He had lived his young life to the fullest, despite his delicate health, but his hold on life had always been precarious. He was dead at twenty-three and Bram had to bear his sorrow in prison, alone in his cell.
Not long after Paul's death, Ilse moved in with me and we spent three happy months together before she married and life began again for her. She wanted to be married in Bram's presence in the gaol. They asked very little, Tim and Ilse, only that a priest might be there, just for ten minutes to marry them where Bram could watch, even through the small perspex window that shuts the prisoner away from any physical contact with his visitor. But a priest was not allowed to come, even for this.
While Use was living with me, I went to visit Bram in gaol. It was a great privilege. I had half an hour with him on two occasions, talking of course through the perspex with three warders listening. At first it is a shock to see only the head and shoulders of someone you know, because that is all you can see through the window. Yet Bram was so natural, so much like himself, the same friendly, loving Bram, that the strangeness soon wore off. He asked about my Christmas Day parties ”” had the last one before my house arrest been in December 1961? Then he smiled and said confidently, "I'll be there again some day." This, from a man serving a life sentence, was almost too much for me.
Half an hour isn't long even when you can only speak of family and general affairs and not of the things that matter to you both. Yet those two short half-hour visits are among my most precious memories. I went twice to visit another political prisoner in the same gaol, Jack Tarshish, serving twelve years. On the one occasion Jack asked me, apparently inconsequentially, about visits to the moon. I asked one of the listening warders, "can I tell him that the Americans have got to the moon?" He shouted angrily, "No!" He was too late for Jack was laughing; he had heard what he wanted to know. After that I was never allowed to visit my prisoner friends again. The next time I applied for permission to visit Jack, I was told, "You are not allowed into the gaols!!"
Before the end of 1974, distressing news had come from the Pretoria gaol. Bram Fischer had terminal cancer and was rapidly growing weaker and weaker. Appeals were made to the Minister of Justice to let Bram go to his daughter Ilse in Johannesburg for the last few weeks of his life. He was a dying man. Must he die in gaol? Must the end of a life sentence be the gaol hospital bed?
The minister appeared implacable. He would not commit himself, even at this very late stage. He even referred publicly to my own case. Helen Joseph had had cancer and the government had shown compassion towards her and released her from house arrest and other restrictions. Now she was speaking on public platforms. I was deeply grieved and angry for it implied that it was my conduct that was keeping Bram in gaol during the last weeks of his life.
Bram lingered for only a short time. It was only near the end that this dying man was allowed to leave the gaol and even then not allowed to be with Ilse in Johannesburg, but only in Bloemfontein, 300 miles away, with his brother. Presumably the minister thought that there he would be preserved from all political contact, but even so he was subjected to tight control of his visitors by the security police.
Even after this death the iron hand of the Prisons Department was not lifted. Bram's daughters were informed that his ashes would remain the property of the Prisons Department, but his family could apply for them if they so wished. Ilse and Ruth refused to accept this humiliating concession and Bram's ashes remain in the custody of the prison.
So passed a great and loving man, who had sacrificed his own freedom for the freedom of others. At his memorial meeting in Johannesburg, I paid my final tribute to the man I had known and admired so much, in the last words of Julius Fucik, a Czech political martyr, "People, I have loved you." Bram had had the gift of love.
June 1976 became another ugly anniversary for South Africa to add to its calendar of shame, another Sharpeville. This time it was the Soweto school children who marched in protest and were met with police gun fire. They had been objecting for several weeks to being taught some subjects in Afrikaans ”” for them the language of the hated oppressor. The core of the protest, however, was against the whole basis of separate Bantu education. I thought of 1955, when Bantu education was first introduced, and of the boycott by the children then, when their parents had kept them out of school for more than twelve months. This time the scene was different. The children organised themselves, going from school to school in their mass protest on 16 June, 15,000 of them. No one had listened to them. Now they expected no one to listen to them. They marched, singing, determined, bearing defiant placards. Armed police met them along the road and a young boy was shot dead.
That boy was twelve-year-old Hector Peterson. The photograph of his dying body in the arms of another boy, his sister running screaming in terror beside him, went around the world. He was the first of over 600 black people to die within the next few weeks. Most of them were schoolchildren and students. The defiance spread from place to place and so did police retaliation. Soweto was soon on fire as arson spread and the horrifying reports came through. It was a night of horror, of violence. Thirty-one adults and two children were dead, shot by the police; 220 were injured. Other such nights were to follow.
A tragic photograph was published, of one man, an ordinary man of Soweto. Josiah Mlangeni had been called to the police station one morning and told that his son was dead. He was given a bundle of bloodstained clothes and he was photographed as he came out of the police station, a man in mute agony, clutching the bloodied clothes that were all that was left for him of his young son. The inquest finding was that no one was to blame. There were 575 such inquests and always "no one was to blame". No one?
The Wits University students came out in protest at the police shootings, proclaiming their solidarity with the Soweto children. A protest meeting was called on 17 June, the day after it all started. Bishop Desmond Tutu and I both spoke at the meeting. "The white man is stronger than you think," the Minister of Justice had blustered in Parliament. "The black man must not push us around." That was the reply of the government to the black children's demand for equal and effective education.
The Wits students marched out into the streets in protest. There they were joined by many black city workers, so that their protest became a mass multiracial procession blocking the streets. One of the student speakers had said, "Let us get onto the streets and if it brings a truckload of police to stop us then that will be one truckload less for Soweto!" It was in fact very soon stopped by police action.
When I reached home, I was telephoned by an Afrikaans press reporter saying he was coming to get a copy of my speech so that his editor could report it in full because I had incited the students to go onto the streets in an illegal procession, and as a white woman I ought to be ashamed of myself. I reminded him curtly that no one could publish any speech of mine.
The unrest continued and the death toll mounted. More and more young black students were being detained. Trouble was flaring up in other parts of South Africa, in black schools, universities and townships. White South Africa, as usual, reacted by parading a show of military and civil might, stockpiling food and buying guns.
Waves of unrest continued throughout the country for several months, in varying degrees of intensity. By the end of the year, the number of deaths rose to over 500, almost 4,000 had been injured and 6,000 people had been arrested and held in gaol. Of those hundreds of dead, 400 had been shot by the police. The black townships slowly became quiet again, battered into a sullen peace which was no peace at all, for the deep causes, the anger and frustration at injustice and racism, were all still there.
At the end of 1976 there was a renewal of that ugly dimension in my life ”” the telephone abuse and threats. Since the bomb at my gate and the hoaxes in 1969 and 1971, I had been almost free from this kind of thing, beyond occasional rock throwing on my roof. Since it is a tin roof, the noise was quite frightening but did no damage. Other friends in my neighbourhood had the same kind of thing, but more seriously, with broken windows. My windows were small and much less exposed and there were more sheltering trees and shrubs in the garden. I always padlocked my gates at night and I now had Kwacha, a German Shepherd bitch. I think all this helped to protect me to some extent from this obviously white urban violence.
On Christmas Day that year, there was no party at my house. We fell into a period of mourning for the hundreds of young dead. That night my telephone rang and a man's voice asked for me. "I'm coming tonight to kill you," he said. That was all. I put the phone down, not quite believing that it had really started again, after nearly six years.
It did not disturb me greatly then. My chief reaction was one of disgust that this could happen on Christmas night ”” the day of peace and goodwill to all men. However, it has continued sporadically ever since.
In the midst of all this, my sister-in-law, Lilian Fennell, came out from England to visit me. She met my friends and was welcomed by them but I think she found it difficult to comprehend all the implications of the South African scene. She had endured the blitz in England during the war years, while my brother was serving overseas. She had met it all with quiet steady courage, but this did not prepare her for the realities of the struggle for freedom in South Africa, nor for my involvement in it. Yet I think she enjoyed her visit.
When she flew back to England, she was the only passenger to be called out from the boarding queue for an intensive search of her handbag and luggage. It must have come as a great shock to her, to keep a jumbo-load of passengers waiting for the plane to take off while she was still being cleared by the security police; presumably only because she had stayed with her sister-in-law, Helen Joseph.
I went to court for the day of sentence in the trial of nine members of the South African Students' Organisation, a black consciousness organisation. They were on trial for conspiring to commit acts capable of endangering the maintenance of law and order and were sentenced to five and six years" imprisonment. Their young wives and their little children were all in court that day and the public area in front of the dock looked almost like a park. The children toddled and scampered around, scattering sweet papers, even fruit pips and peel as they played, unconscious of the agony of their mothers on one side of the barrier, and their fathers on the other, waiting to hear the sentences.
When the sentences had been passed and the judge had left the court, the police stood shoulder to shoulder in the narrow no-man's-land between the convicted men and their families. The little children were lifted high up in the air and passed over the heads of the motionless policemen, into their fathers' outstretched arms for that goodbye kiss to last for so many years. The children were passed back again to their mothers and the young men went down to the cells, singing and smiling, to the years ahead.
In 1977, another glaring example of the white man's inhumanity to the black man had come to the forefront of public attention. This was the "squatter problem" (as the whites called it) of possibly a million homeless black people. Forced out of the rural areas and into the urban areas by unemployment and the need to survive, they tried to make for themselves the homes, which were not there for them in the towns and cities. White industrialists needed their labour. White urban dwellers rejected them as human beings with families, accepting their men only as rightless sojourners, to be accommodated in dehumanizing single-sex hostels.
Human nature is very strong and the women followed their men, brought their children out of the rural poverty to start family life again, somehow, in the cities. They built makeshift structures to protect the family from the sun and the rain, to provide privacy. It was an old phenomenon, not new. It had been going on for hundreds of years; a peasant family revolt against the evil system of migrant labour.
Squatter huts grew and multiplied every year. Large areas became squatter settlements, lacking solid houses and amenities. The squatters lived in depressed communities yet their spirit was strong enough for them to stand together and demand proper homes in the areas where their labour was needed. In some areas, especially outside Cape Town, the pressure became not so much a demand for non-existent homes, as a demand simply to be allowed to stay where they were, a protest against the inhuman bulldozing of their shacks. There was no place for the families to move to, unless back to the rural areas and starvation and separation from their men.
There were already 15,000 people in Crossroads, outside Cape Town; in nearby Modderdam Road, there were 7,000. They had constructed their shanties with whatever rough building materials they could collect. It was true that they occupied the ground illegally, for they had no official permits to be anywhere. Yet in these areas they had become communities, self-controlling, self-respecting communities. The South African government had declared these squatter dwellings to be health hazards, unlawful and, because they were increasing, they had to go. There was no answer to the question, "Go where?" Then, because the squatters did not move from Modderdam Road, the authorities sent bulldozers to smash the homes into the ground.
I knew, of course, that there were also squatter areas outside Johannesburg, as elsewhere. I went to see these for myself. I was ashamed and shocked, ashamed that I had not been there before, that I had been content to read the reports of others, shocked at what I saw, at realising how little we know of how blacks live.
The river in Kliptown doesn't flood every year when the heavy rains come. When there are no floods, Kliptown squatters are not news. They just go on waiting for houses, too long denied. There are people there who have been waiting for thirty years already.
Cosmos is a flower, which has seeded itself over many parts of South Africa and which grows high after rain, with delicate pink and white and crimson blooms. They were in bloom along the side of the road the day I went to Kliptown. The river had flooded after the heavy rains and the water had subsided, leaving sodden, mud-ringed, broken shacks. People still lived there and the washing danced gaily on the lines stretched between the houses, the defiant banners of the people who would still be living there when the river flooded again, because there are no proper houses for them. Since that day, the beauty of the cosmos has become obscene for me.
The students of Cape Town University had taken up this shameful issue, working actively amongst squatter families, protesting publicly. I went to Cape Town in April to speak at a meeting there. Kliptown was still on my mind when I addressed the meeting, for although the squatters' conditions were different in Cape Town, the agony was the same, the agony of insecurity and of no permanent home, not even the little matchbox houses of municipal African townships. Wherever the agony occurred it had been preventable: bulldozing was not the remedy. There is only one answer to the squatter problem and that is houses; houses which the state's coffers can afford ”” if it didn't spend so many millions on the defence of an indefensible society; an indefensible way of life for the few, dependent on the exploitation of the many.
It was good to be in Cape Town again, to be with these eager concerned young people who had organised this meeting, intent on exposing the evils around them, clamouring for redress. Part of the root of my hope for the future of South Africa lies in the thinking, questioning university students. They are not many, I know, compared to the whole campus. There never will be many in these radical groups, but they renew themselves year after year. It is true that when they go out from the university into the material competitive world, the flame dies down. It is small wonder that this society for which the university itself has been training them, conditioning them, engulfs all of them. Nor is there as yet any political home for this minority of radically thinking young people, where they can share their revolt against the perpetuation of this discriminating and unjust society.
Monday, 16 May 1977, was like any other Monday for me until a press friend telephoned at midday to tell me that Winnie Mandela had been banished to Brandfort, a small town in the Orange Free State. Her sixteen-year-old daughter Zindzi had gone with her. My first thought was that we must find her at once. Barbara Waite, a friend from the Cathedral, agreed to go with me to Brandfort. Father Leo Rakale, a black priest of the Community of the Resurrection and a friend of Nelson and Winnie, offered to take us by car.
We left the next morning soon after dawn for the 270-mile drive. When we reached Brandfort, Leo left us in the main street and drove off to look for Winnie in the black location. After an hour he returned to tell us that he had found them in a tiny three-roomed house with neither ceilings nor inside doors, with no water laid on and, for sewerage, only an outside privy.
We parked in the Brandfort main street until Winnie's car drew up on the other side of the road. Zindzi crossed over to be with Leo and me, while Barbara went to sit with Winnie in her car. It was a bizarre arrangement but Winnie could not be with more than one person for that would constitute a "gathering" and she could not communicate with me, as I was a listed person.
All the restrictive conditions of Winnie's house arrest and bans remained. Only the place had changed. She could not leave that forbidding little house, surrounded by bare unfenced ground, at night or at the weekends. She could not receive visitors at her house, she must report daily to the police station ”” and all of this in a barren dehumanised cluster of 700 identical minute houses, a mile from Brandfort town, guarded by the superintendent's office at the entrance to the location.
We were not the only visitors to Brandfort; there was Winnie's family and the black friends who could visit Zindzi, though transport and the long distance made such visits rare. During those first months, however, I think that Ilona Kleinschmidt and Jackie Bosman were the only other whites who went there, except for journalists. Jackie and Ilona had been close friends of Winnie for several years. They were the first to be seriously harassed by the security police, when they were taken to the Brandfort police station to be questioned on their reasons for being in Brandfort. I do not know the details of that confrontation, beyond the fact that they both refused to answer any questions or make any statement because to do so might lead to their being called as state witnesses in some attempt by the police to bring Winnie to court on an alleged violation of her banning order. She was being continually harassed by the security police in their attempts to secure a conviction against her.
Under the Criminal Laws Amendment Act, any person who refuses to answer questions put by the police about an alleged offence by some other person can be brought before a magistrate. Failure to answer satisfactorily results in a gaol sentence. Jackie and Ilona were duly summonsed to appear before a Bloemfontein magistrate. They maintained their total silence, determined that there was no way in which they could be coerced into becoming state witnesses against Winnie. They received gaol sentences of twelve months each. They did not go to gaol then, but appealed to the Supreme Court against their conviction and sentence, remaining out of gaol on bail, pending the result of their appeal.
For Barbara and me this sounded ominous. Would the police try to do the same to us? We had been to Brandfort a few times already, but always taking care that we separated ourselves into two cars so that I could simply be visiting Zindzi and not Winnie. We completely endorsed the stand of Ilona and Jackie, agreeing that for us, too, there could never be any thought of replying to questions, making any statements to the police or appearing as state witnesses against our friends. We agreed, too, that we must not let ourselves be intimidated into staying away from Brandfort, for Winnie would need our visits more than ever.
On the morning of 27 September 1977, Barbara and I set out for Brandfort for a surprise visit on Winnie's birthday. We travelled through rain almost all the way. In Brandfort we parked outside a caravan ground to wait for Winnie and Zindzi. Zindzi had been a party to the plan about which she was supposed to tell Winnie that morning. After waiting in vain for over two hours we hit on the idea of Barbara sending a telegram to Winnie to say that she was waiting for her. The post office assured us that the telegram would be delivered in less than half an hour. We sat in the car gradually losing hope of seeing anyone until at last Winnie's plum-coloured Volkswagen came hurtling through the rain.
Winnie had come alone, for Zindzi had reached home only very late the previous night and was still sleeping. Winnie knew nothing of our visit, nor of the birthday surprise. She had come in reply to the telegram. After the birthday presents and cake had been unpacked, Winnie stood on the pavement, with her back to a hedge, talking to Barbara from the shelter of an umbrella. I sat in the car and saw, through the thin hedge, a comic little figure under a large umbrella, covered by a leather jacket, almost down to the nobbly knees atop the stockinged legs. It did not occur to me that it was Detective Sergeant Prinsloo until I saw his face, peering through the hedge, framed in leaves. It was rather like a cartoonist's caricature of a policeman doing his so-called duty.
I shouted, "There's Prinsloo!" as he scrambled through the hedge. He told Winnie she was violating her restrictions and instructed Barbara and I to drive at once to the police station. It was Jackie and Ilona all over again. We refused to say anything at all and were told by the station commander that we would be summonsed to appear before a magistrate, where we would be compelled to answer questions put to us. I replied loftily that he was mistaken as it would still be my decision as to whether I answered questions or not. For that I received a scowl and was told to go.
Winnie was waiting outside, anxious for us, furious with Prinsloo. We did not want to say goodbye outside the police station and drove down the main street, there to be hailed joyously by Bishop Desmond Tutu on his way back to Johannesburg from Lesotho. Brandfort was treated, not for the first time, to the sight of whites and blacks hugging and kissing each other in the middle of the town. I was happy that we could leave Winnie with a friend just at the moment of our going.
Barbara and I set out on our long wet journey to Johannesburg. I felt personally antagonistic towards the rain which seemed to have deceived us into thinking that there were no security branch men around, when in fact there was Sergeant Prinsloo.
We were completely at one on our stand of silence, yet it was clear that our personal situations and our obligations differed sharply. Barbara's husband was not in sympathy with her militant stand, and her children, one matriculating, the other soon to be called up for military service, were at a vulnerable age. I did not have such responsibilities and I was very conscious of this. We knew that we could expect twelve months in gaol if we persisted with our silence and there was no certainty that any appeal to a higher court would succeed in saving us from all or part of our sentences.
On the way back, we discussed it very seriously but I know that not for one moment did either of us feel that any course was open to us other than silence. Barbara had to face the ordeal of telling her family at once of the possible consequences. She is a very beautiful woman but the classic serenity other face was gone that night. Yet she still had her courage.
A week later we received the summonses to appear before the magistrate in Bloemfontein on 13 October. Barbara flew down and Leo Rakale drove the attorney and I to meet her there. I knew that we should have an opportunity to explain our refusal and I prepared my own brief statement, trying to make my decision clear to the magistrate and also to the public. Ironically, I could be quoted on this occasion in the press. This had not been possible for me for thirteen years. I had had to be brought to a court of law for it to happen.
During a court recess, the prosecutor informed my attorney that he could bring me back to court "again and again and again". I was aware that this extraordinary process could be repeated almost ad infinitum if I persisted in my silence. At the end of the legal argument, I formally refused to answer any questions and was allowed to make my statement in explanation.
Fifteen years ago today, on October 13th 1962,1 was placed under house arrest. I know what it is like to be lonely, cut off from human society. I lived under such restrictions for nine years and what kept me sane was contact with my friends. They were my lifeline.
I find it impossible to answer any questions from the prosecutor or to make any statement, which might be, used against any house-arrested person who is now suffering as I once suffered. Or indeed against any of my friends.
Winnie Mandela and her family are very near to me. Winnie herself is as dear to me as the daughter I never had. For me to make any statement which might lead to my becoming a state witness against her would be like a mother giving evidence against her own child.
I cannot do it.
I cannot participate in any way in this unremitting persecution of Mrs Mandela during her banishment.
I believe that God has guided me to this decision and I believe that He will give me strength to bear its consequences.
So I can only say with Luther, "Here I stand. So help me, God, I can no other."
The magistrate withdrew to consider his judgement and on his return commented on my ''dignity" and also that I was a sincere Christian. He added, nevertheless, that my offence was serious and he must pass a sentence, which, despite my age and health, must act as a deterrent to others. He then sentenced me to four months' imprisonment. When Barbara's case was heard, she, like Ilona and Jackie, was sentenced to twelve months in gaol. We, too, appealed to the Supreme Court against our conviction and sentences, and did not have to go to gaol immediately.
The difference between my sentence of four months and the twelve months for the other three was very painful for me. I could find no comfort in the facts of my age and my heart condition. I did not want to be better off than the others. We had all taken the same decision and the cost to each of us ought to have been the same. I could only hope that on appeal we would all be acquitted or have our sentences suspended, or if we lost, at least have the sentences levelled out.
Appeals to higher courts of law can take many months in South Africa before they are heard. We had to settle down to a long period of waiting, not knowing for how long.
The simmering unrest in Soweto and the boycott of black schools in many areas had persisted into 1977. The spirit of the students and the schoolchildren had not been broken by the horrors of 1976, the hundreds of dead, imprisoned, injured, detained. Throughout the year, the long boycott continued and spread, deepening in intensity. Some 500 African school teachers and principals resigned their teaching posts in support of the students' stand. "A headmaster without pupils is irrelevant," said one principal.
The thrust of the boycott was against the whole system of Bantu education, against the separate and inferior education of black pupils. There was still arson, stoning, shooting by the police, arrests and violence of all kinds, despite the uneasy peace at the end of the previous year. Soweto secondary schools were taken over by the state and the pupils refused to apply for readmission. For these thousands of students, boycott, in addition to the unrest of the previous year, would cost them two years of their school education, yet most secondary schools stood empty, not only in Soweto and the Cape Province, but in many other areas too.
Detaining the leaders for six months in 1976 had not helped to subdue the unrest. Even police violence and intimidation could not force the children into the schools. The boycott was spreading both ways, upwards into the black universities and downwards into primary schools. Small children knew about "boycott" even if they didn't always understand what it was all about. My small black godson would refuse to put on his shoes, saying, "Boycott. No school today, mum." He was five years old.
The boycotts went on until the year closed with a half-hearted kind of truce between the authorities and the school principals, and a promise that Bantu education be scrapped. It was too early to judge whether this was in fact a victory for the boycotters. Ministers had given promises before.