Women’s month

Celebrating women in history and those making history


Helen Beatrice Joseph (née Fennell) (8 April 1905 – 25 December 1992) was a South African anti-apartheid activist. Born in Sussex, England. Helen graduated with a degree in English from the University of London in 1927, and then departed for India where she taught for three years at Mahbubia School, a school for girls in Hyderabad. In about 1930 she left India for South Africa. She settled in Durban where she met and married dentist Billie Joseph.

In 1951 Helen first met Solly Sachs, when she applied for the job of Secretary-Director of the Medical Aid Society of the Transvaal Clothing Society. At the time Solly Sachs was the head of the Garment Workers’ Union.

She was a founder member of the Congress of Democrats, and one of the leaders who read out the clauses of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955. Appalled by the plight of black women, she played a pivotal role along with Lillian Ngoyi in the formation of the Federation of South African Women and with the organisation’s leadership, spearheaded march of 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against pass laws on August 9, 1956. This day is still celebrated as South Africa’s Women’s Day.

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The treason trial and house arrest

Joseph’s opposition to the State had not gone unnoticed, she was a defendant at the 1956 Treason Trial. Justice Rumpff stated: “On all the evidence presented to this court and on our findings of fact, it is impossible for this court to come to the conclusion that the African National Congress has acquired or adopted a policy to overthrow the state by violence, that is, in the sense that the masses had to be prepared or conditioned to commit direct acts of violence against the state.”

Although Joseph was arrested on a charge of high treason in December 1956, then banned in 1957. The treason trial dragged on for four years and she was acquitted in 1961. In spite of her acquittal, on 13 October 1962, Helen became the first person to be placed under house arrest under the Sabotage Act that had just been introduced by the apartheid government. She narrowly escaped death more than once, surviving bullets shot through her bedroom and a bomb wired to her front gate. Her last banning order was lifted when she was 80 years old.

In his submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, secret service operative Paul Erasmus stated that from about 1978 till late in the 1980s he and his colleagues on many occasions damaged the property of Mrs Joseph by throwing stones through the windows of her house, made telephone threats, fired shots at the house but did not intend to injure any person, ordered and caused unwanted supplies to be delivered at her house, poured paint remover over her motor car as well as a motor car of Ann Hughes when the latter visited her. The apartheid state’s fear of her was puzzling:

“How a weary old girl, an ou tannie like me can be a threat to state security only they can say.” Joseph is quoted. From the late 1970’s Christmas Day was “Open Day” at Helen Joseph’s house. Those involved in the anti-apartheid struggle had an open invitation to visit her home. All comrades brought food, and at 12 noon everyone raised their glasses to those on Robben Island (and apparently the Robben Islanders were aware of the ritual). On December 25, 1992, Joseph was in hospital and the venue moved to 11 Plantation Road, The Gardens. Robben Island’s prisoners had been released, and those present raised their glasses to Helen, who would die shortly thereafter.

She was admitted to the Order of Simon of Cyrene in 1992, this is the highest honour the Anglican Church of Southern Africa bestows on its lay members of the church who have provided outstanding service.

Places named after her include the former Davenport Road in Glenwood, KwaZulu-Natal, the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg, a student residence at Rhodes University,Grahamstown and a road in Rustenberg. The Road Name Change Act was initiated by the South African government in 2007 to rename streets, such as Davenport Road, that have names linked to pre-1994 colonialism.

Helen Joseph died on the 25 December 1992 at the age of 87.


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