From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
In January 1957 we were back again in the Drill Hall. The cage had been removed and our seats were now numbered. I found to my dismay that I was number thirteen, but there was nothing that I could do about it. The 156 persons occupied the greater part of the Drill Hall but there was some space at the back, which, to our anger, was separated into black and white. Yet the accused were not. Our division was only into regions. Johannesburg came first with by far the largest number, 77, almost half of all the accused. We had been numbered in alphabetical order and I sat between Jack Hodgson of the Congress of Democrats and Paul Joseph of the Indian Congress. A white woman and a black man having the same surname caused some confusion from time to time, but not as great as that created by the identical twins, Norman and Leon Levy. They created havoc during identification by police witnesses.
The prosecutor completed his opening address and Vernon Berrange of our defence team replied in an historic address. Pirow had included the Freedom Charter in his accusation of treason, but Vernon asserted: The defence will contend that the ideas and beliefs which are expressed in this Charter, although repugnant to the policy of the present government, are such as are shared by the overwhelming majority of mankind of all races and all colours and also by the overwhelming majority of the citizens of this country . . .
We will endeavour to show, in other words, that what are on trial here are not just 155 [sic] individuals, but the ideas which they and thousands of others incur country have openly espoused and expressed . . . They will assert and in due course ask the Court to hold that they are the victims of political kite flying on the part of those responsible for these prosecutions. We are going to endeavour to show that the prosecutions and the manner of their presentation are for the purpose only of testing the political breezes, in order to ascertain how far the originators thereof can go in their endeavours to stifle free speech, criticism of the policies of the government and everything, in fact, that the accused believe is implicit in the definition of the oft misused word "Democracy".
They come of all races, but they hold one thing in common . . . they believe in the brotherhood of man and the desire to work for his betterment and towards his ultimate freedom . . .
We believe that, in the result, this trial will be answered in the right way by history.
Vernon Berrange had spoken for us all and set the tone for the conduct of our case. We were determined to affirm, not merely to defend, our convictions and our activities.
Our bail conditions prohibited us from addressing meetings and also required us to report to a police station once a week. That was when my regular reporting to the police really began, but it was onerous, and we were all doing it and constantly reminding each other.
Just as our trial began in January, the great Alexandra Township bus boycott also began. Alexandra Township (popularly known as "Alex") was then a crowded black freehold township, some ten miles from the city. This boycott was not the first of its kind: that had been in 1943, when 15,000 Alex people walked ten miles to work and back again because they could not and would not accept an extra penny on the fares. I was then stationed as a WAAF officer at the Union Grounds in Johannesburg, right on the road from Alex into the city. I saw the boy cotters, washerwomen with their huge bundles of washing on their heads, the factory workers who worked a fifty-hour week, and old men and children too. Alex walked for nine days, through the sun and the wind and the rain ”” and the Alexandra people won. The bus fares remained at four pence a journey, already more than ill-paid workers could afford.
A year later, Alex walked again. I saw it again, the determination that could conquer exhaustion, a people who could walk twenty miles a day for seven weeks. I marvelled at it, the passive resistance of a people who were denied any say about the conditions of life in which they worked and travelled. They lived in poverty, they worked for exploitative wages, they lived ten miles away from their jobs, because the whites would tolerate them no nearer. They travelled in grossly overcrowded buses, for which they stood for hours in queues and which already cost them eight pence a day. It was the extra two pence that brought them out in defiance. They would not pay it because their wages were too low to stand the extra shilling a week.
The boycotters won again and the busfares remained at four pence a journey until 1957. Then Alex walked once more, refusing to pay an extra penny on the fares. "Asikwelwa!" they cried, "we will not ride!" Again I was on their road, this time sitting day after day in the Drill Hall past, which the people walked, in the wind and the rain and the mud. It was in the summer months, and the storms broke in the afternoons. While we sat in the Drill Hall, with transport to hand, the boycotters walked, sometimes soaking wet, and the next day they wore the same clothes to work, still wet.
Whites tried to help, as they had before, with car lifts, but this was hampered by traffic policemen pulling surplus passengers out of cars, threatening and sometimes carrying out prosecutions. The passengers were harassed for passes, taken off to police stations and even cyclists giving lifts had the valves of their tyres removed by the police. My "Congress Connie" was a little small for this job, but she could just squeeze in three portly ladies and I insisted that she was for women only ”” for the "aunties". I realised more fully now that the bus boycott had significance deeper than the refusal to pay the extra penny a ride. It was the only weapon available to the people of Alex, the weapon of sacrifice and determination, of undiminished fortitude, against which neither the bus company nor their allies, the police, could prevail.
The treason trial continued in 1957, taking up most of the working time of all the accused but, as best we could, we continued defiantly with our political activities and made the most of the Congress leadership being together. Fourteen of our leading Federation women were amongst the accused. Five of us were from Johannesburg. We could and did continue with our Federation programme for the Transvaal, organising women's conferences against passes for women, in Pretoria and on the East and the West Rand and collecting pledges of opposition against the Group Areas Act. We were also busy promoting and popularising the Freedom Charter, despite the attacks on it in the trial.
We had a full programme and it meant a lot of weekend organising for Bertha and me. Sometimes Lilian or other ANC Women's League organisers used to come with us. I could now go only rarely at night, because 1 was working at my offices during the evenings to make up for time spent at the trial. None of us, not Bertha, Lilian or I, could attend the conferences we organised because our bail conditions prevented us from attending political gatherings, nor could we address gatherings of any sort. Although we missed the actual conferences, we received very encouraging reports from these gatherings of African. Indian and coloured women, even a few whites. The spirit of the Federation was as strong as ever, despite the threat of the treason trial hovering over the leaders.
On 23 April, I was met on arrival at court by two special security branch detectives who handed me two banning orders, one prohibiting me from attending any gatherings, except purely social ones, and the other preventing me from leaving the magisterial areas of Johannesburg ”” and all this for five years.
I don't think I paid much attention that day to what was going on in our trial. Shocked and angry, I looked at those banning orders and tried to figure out lust what they were going to mean to me, to my life. 1 wasn't banned from any organisations, but the prohibition on gatherings was more stringent than the hail terms. It seemed that holding me for months on end on a charge of high treason was not enough for the Minister of Justice, Charles Robbertse Swart, who eventually became the State President of South Africa. He did not know, of course, and nor did I, that in the end the trial would take up four years of the period of the ban.
Confinement to Johannesburg was frustrating, for I could no longer go to Pretoria, to the East and West Rand. or even to the further Transvaal areas. It meant the end of the precious organising expeditions with Bertha and Robert and the contact with the women.
I looked at the orders several times before I realised that the confinement to Johannesburg would take effect only after seven days. In the trial interval that morning, Robert and Bertha and I planned a hectic week of farewell visits, though we knew of course that I would meet the women again after five years. We went to the various areas every night that week. I decided that my office working hours could be made up afterwards. This last week was too precious to lose. So, night after night, while I still could, we went off to small gatherings of women in little houses in many different places. We drank tea and ate cakes to make these meetings into social gatherings. On the last night, after we had dropped Bertha in Germiston. Robert and I drove back rather silently and I thought dismally of the five years ahead.
I did not think then of how fortunate I was in that I had already had a few years of intense political activity, nor of the fortunate fact that I was in the treason trial where I could daily meet so many friends and colleagues in court. But I knew that others had been banned before me and others would be banned after me. I was only one amongst many.
We all drew close to each other in the first year of the treason trial, the preparatory examination in which we played no personal part. The prosecution would lead their evidence and then it would be for the magistrate to decide whether, on that evidence, he should commit us for trial in a higher court ”” or let us go.
The passing weeks brought sunshine and shadow. We began to realise that this part of the trial would go on for a long time. The prosecution was putting in masses of documents, found in police raids, literally hundreds of longhand reports of our speeches, taken down by semi-literate security branch detectives. These were astounding, incomprehensible, yet claiming to be verbatim reports. Vernon Berrange exposed them for what they were ”” gibberish. Bertha raged one day, almost audibly, "that is NOT the way Helen speaks'" But it went on and on and the court record grew longer and longer.
The accused read, slept and even knitted if they were not in the front row. I was, but I still brought some of my Medical Aid Society work to court and signed hundreds of sick pay cheques, which our messenger brought each morning. The court orderly then brought them to me. I suppose it was actually contempt of court, but the magistrate sensibly turned a blind eye, for how could we retain an alert interest for hours, days and weeks on end, especially when we could hardly hear what most of the witnesses were saying?
I think, too, that the magistrate was, understandably, somewhat apprehensive about how he would handle so many of us if we became difficult. It almost happened once, when one of us, Joe Slovo, an advocate himself, clashed with the magistrate who then committed him for contempt of court. The magistrate had to face 155 furious persons, who had risen in a body and were advancing towards his rostrum. He certainly blanched and seemed uncertain of what to do, but it was Chief Luthuli who rushed to the front and called upon us to resume our seats. All except a few did so and the few were committed for contempt of court as well, but there were no serious consequences.
We laughed a lot too, at the comic placards, "soup with meat", "soup without meat", seized by police at the Congress of the People as they overturned the pots of food in their search. Now these placards appeared in court as evidence ”” of what? Treason? Or treason soup? We laughed at the motorcycle and sidecar solemnly rolled into court with a detective seated on it to write down what Vernon Berrange read to him slowly and clearly, with an interpreter, in order to show that his six-line report of a thirty- minute speech, taken down while on his motorbike was rubbish. We laughed at the figure he cut when Vernon read to the magistrate the garbled nonsense, which was all that this detective-turned-reporter had been able to write down of what Vernon read out.
We did not laugh at the financial ruin of so many of the accused, especially those who came from other areas, leaving jobs, professions, to face weeks and months of unemployment. Even for those who lived in and around Johannesburg, there was no possibility of work: the court proceedings filled our days and not more than a dozen of us had managed to hold onto our jobs by working at night.
On 26 June 1957, the second anniversary of the Congress of the People, we stood in silent prayer during the morning break. More than half the industrial workers in Johannesburg stayed at home that day, answering the Congress call. In the Eastern Cape and elsewhere there were mass meetings and torchlight processions. It was one of the Congress's finest demonstrations. On the day that twenty-two African men were hanged for the killing of five policemen in a dagga (cannabis) raid in Bergville, we came to the court in mourning. I sat through the trial that day thinking of twenty-two living men executed on one morning.
We led a life within a life and became ever more firmly bound to our organisations and to our common struggle. The effort to turn us from our path had resulted only in a stronger determination to follow it, as almost the whole of the Congress leadership, from all over South Africa, sat together, discussed together, planned together for the future.
On 31 December 1956 I had moved into my little cottage with the tall trees, delighted to have a home of my own, pushing aside any intrusive doubts of how long I might be able to live in it. Many friends urged me not to go on with the purchase arrangements when I was arrested, but I would not listen. It was in some way a demonstration of my own faith in the future.
The year moved slowly on, with endless relays of detectives giving evidence, handing in our documents, until we came to Professor Andrew Murray, from Cape Town University, an expert on communism. He fared badly at Vernon's skilful hands, exposing himself in so many ways to our barely suppressed laughter and ridicule. We could not see his evidence as formidable.
At the end of September, the court adjourned until the beginning of 1958. The prosecution had at last come to the end of its case, and the magistrate needed time to arrive at his finding on the mass of evidence before him. I often wondered how much of it he actually managed to read. The accused from the other areas went back to their homes: the few of us still in our jobs welcomed the break, and many others, dependent on help from the Treason Trial Defence Fund, sought, but mostly did not find, temporary jobs. Yet it was a relief to all of us to be out of that Drill Hall, not to have to sit on those hard chairs for so many hours every day, not to have to listen to those relays of witnesses and all those documents being read into the record.
The Federation of South African Women had been active throughout most of the year, despite the immobilisation of fourteen of its leaders at this preparatory examination and my banning orders. Our special anniversary, 9 August, had been celebrated with anti-pass demonstrations and we had printed and sold thousands of "Women's Day" badges ”” a black mother with her child upon her back.
Passes for African women were, however, being issued in many areas in spite of the efforts of the ANC Women's League and the Federation in campaigns and protests. Then African nurses were called upon to supply identity numbers for registration with the Nursing Council. This aroused indignation amongst nurses, because an identity number could only be obtained by taking the reference book ”” the hated pass. Groups of black nurses in the Transvaal were holding angry protest meetings and nurses declared. "Our mothers were washerwomen and they educated us. We will go back to the washtubs but we will not carry passes."
These were brave words and the Federation took its stand alongside the nurses. We organised a demonstration of women, the mothers of the African nurses, to demand an interview with the matron of the huge black hospital in Johannesburg, the Baragwanath hospital, to protest against the requirement of identity numbers which would compel their daughters to take passes.
I think it was because of our famous protests to Pretoria that we drew such publicity, even before the demonstration. Baragwanath seemed to have panicked over this demonstration of women, although it was widely known that the purpose of the mothers was simply to bring their protest to the matron of this great hospital, requesting support for their stand.
It was to be on a Saturday morning and I drove out to watch. I could not get close because of my banning order, but even to get near I had to skirt a couple of police road blocks. All traffic, which passed the hospital, was being diverted to other roads. We learned afterwards that all walking patients had been sent home for the weekend and all except absolutely essential medical personnel had been told to stay at home that Saturday morning.
As I drew near, I saw the hospital surrounded by police, armed as usual. Facing them, on the other side of the road, were a few hundred African women, obviously the mothers of nurses and there to protest on behalf of their daughters. It was a hot morning and the umbrellas were up against the sun. Perhaps the police thought the umbrellas concealed secret weapons. It looked a little comic from where I stood, as there seemed to be more policemen than protesters. Then I saw four Federation women in their green blouses, one of each race as usual, walk across the road to the hospital gates. I held my breath for a moment ”” would the police interfere with them'.' However, they were let in and they explained that they wished to see the matron. They were ushered into her office, where they were courteously received. They held a long discussion with the matron who agreed to forward their request to the Nursing Council that identity numbers should not be required for the registration of nurses.
It was all very peaceful and polite and it made the hordes of policemen look silly and superfluous. We heard later that there had been tear-gas canisters hidden behind the hospital hedges. For whom? A few hundred mothers who had walked a mile across the rough grass from Soweto? The press and the public laughed. Yet the women had been very serious and very dignified and they had succeeded. Soon afterwards the Nursing Council rather hastily withdrew their demand for identity numbers.
We had always known that at the end of the preparatory examination, a son of pre-trial run. we might or might not be committed for trial in a higher court, but even that seemed far off. Early in 1958, we learned that the charges against sixty-five of us were withdrawn. This number included even the President General of the ANC. Chief Luthuli. I was amongst those who remained on trial.
The rest of us were committed for trial on a charge of high treason because we had "conspired with hostile intention against Her Majesty's government by committing hostile acts or inciting others to do so". Had it really taken more than a year to get to this point? I think that most of the time the actual idea of treason had faded from our minds as any sort of reality. I know it had from mine. But now it was real and we went through the ritual of the renewal of bail bonds. now for the Supreme Court, before we scattered again, now only ninety-one accused.
We waited for a new date for the proceedings to continue and for a new venue. No longer would we come daily to the Drill Hall, which had become so familiar to us that we felt the apprehension of the unknown in contemplating a trial in a more formal setting ”” where? For more than a year we had been on trial while the prosecution scraped the barrel, desperately trying to find evidence of treason. The Defiance Campaign, the Congress of the People, even the women's protests to Pretoria had all been dragged in. Yet these had all been peaceful, non-violent campaigns of protest ”” how could they be treason? Was it treason to ask for higher wages, for houses, for bread? Or to protest against passes, against banning without trial? Could the Freedom Charter be treason? A hostile act against Her Majesty's government?
I thought bitterly how right Vernon had been when he said that the trial was simply to see how far the government could go with its stifling of free speech, of democracy itself. I felt that we were trapped in some unbelievable situation. Did the future hold nothing but gaol for me? Yet in the midst of all this, I knew that I was totally and unalterably committed to the struggle for the liberation of the people of South Africa. I belonged now to the highest company in the land and wherever their road would take them. I must go too. There could be no turning back.