Helen Joseph, S. African activist, dies White dissident battled apartheid

December 26, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Helen Joseph, a white school teacher who became one of South Africa's earliest campaigners against apartheid and the nation's first person placed under house arrest, died here yesterday. She was 87.

The British-born Mrs. Joseph was a major figure in the anti-apartheid movement since the 1950s. She was a close friend of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, and his wife, Winnie, and a source of inspiration to generations of activists.

"Death has robbed the people of South Africa of one of their finest daughters, a committed and fearless freedom fighter," Mr. Mandela said.

Mrs. Joseph had been in a coma since suffering a stroke two weeks ago. Doctors did not expect her to live, but she did not die until shortly after about 100 friends of all races packed into a small garden in northern Johannesburg to toast "absent friends," her way of referring to enemies of apartheid who were in exile, prison or the grave.

"Today we have come with a heavy heart because the woman who initiated this is not with us," Amina Cachalia, an old friend and fellow activist of Mrs. Joseph, said during the Christmas toast. "She dedicated herself continuously to a free South Africa."

Friends say Mrs. Joseph insisted on holding a Christmas party in her garden, even when she had to stay inside the house to comply with banning orders. She began the holiday party in the early 1960s.

Usually, it was Mrs. Joseph who offered the toast to the missing --people like Mr. Mandela, who spent 27 years as a political prisoner, and Oliver Tambo, who spent 30 years in exile. Now, most of those exiled and imprisoned activists have returned home to negotiate the terms of a new South Africa.

ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus, who called Mrs. Joseph "one of the greatest fighters against apartheid that this country has ever seen," said she died at 2 p.m. Mrs. Cachalia made the toast at 12:30 p.m., the usual time.

A frail woman with a will of steel, Mrs. Joseph came to South Africa for a visit in 1931 and never left. She married a white South African, whom she later divorced, and she joined the anti-apartheid movement, which turned into her lifelong cause.

Mrs. Mandela calls her "the real mother of politics in this country," and said Mrs. Joseph was like a mother to her, supporting her during Mr. Mandela's long incarceration

and even paying school fees for the Mandela children when Mrs. Mandela was prohibited from working.

Even when both women were living under government banning orders and their movements were severely restricted, Mrs. Mandela said they found ways to communicate with each other secretly and to devise schemes to help the families of political prisoners.

"She taught me a great deal politically," Mrs. Mandela said. "She was my political mother."

When they met, Mrs. Mandela was a young girl fresh from the countryside and Mrs. Joseph was standing trial for treason, having helped draft the ANC's statement of principles, its Freedom Charter. She was acquitted in 1961 after a five-year trial.

In 1953, Mrs. Joseph helped form the Congress of Democrats, an organization of liberal whites who sympathized with the ANC but could not join it because of South Africa's segregation laws.

Three years later, she joined black and Indian women in a dramatic march against "pass laws," which required blacks to carry proof that they had permission to be in "white areas."

In 1957, she was banned -- prohibited from attending public gatherings and restricted to Johannesburg. After that came PTC more than 26 years of imprisonment, harassment, banning and house arrest, with brief periods of freedom that she always used to make speeches against apartheid and work to support political prisoners.

When President F. W. de Klerk finally lifted restrictions against her in February 1990, she said she was a little disappointed the government no longer considered her a threat.

"I didn't think I'd see this day," she said at the time. "I'm a stubborn old bag, and I wasn't expecting things to change."

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