On this day in history : 8th April 1905 – The birth in Easebourne, West Sussex, of Helen Joseph – an early activist against the apartheid system in South Africa….

Helen Joseph, 1941 – Public domain

Born Helen Beatrice May Fennell, in the village of Easebourne, near to Midhurst, Helen grew up in London with her parents and brother…. She graduated from King’s College, University of London, in 1927 with a degree in English….

She travelled to India, where she taught at the Mahbubla School for Girls in Hyderabad for three years – before moving to South Africa around 1931 and settling in Durban…. Here she married Jewish dentist, Billie Joseph, 17 years her senior….

During the Second World War Helen served as an information and welfare officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force…. At the end of the War her marriage ended in divorce….

In 1951 Helen applied for the position of Secretary-Director of the Medical Aid Society of the Transvaal Clothing Society…. It was then that she was to meet Solly Sachs, the trade unionist, head of the Garment Workers Union and anti-apartheid activist….

Helen became a founder member of the Congress of Democrats – an ally of the African National Congress (ANC) – and she also became national secretary of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW)…. She was appalled at the treatment of women in South Africa…. On the 26th of June 19 she was one of the leaders to read the clauses of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, Soweto…. The meeting, involving a gathering of 3,000 people, was broken up by police on the second day – but by this time most of the Charter had already been read out…. It was a meeting from which Nelson Mandela escaped arrest by disguising himself as a milkman, as he was on a banning order at the time….

On the 9th of August 1956 some 20,000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the Pass laws, designed to segregate the population…. Helen was one of the main organisers of the Women’s March – and it was perhaps the highlight of her political career….

She was arrested and charged with high treason in December 1956 – and then banned in 1957…. Her trial dragged on for four years before she was finally acquitted in 1961…. However, despite her acquittal, on the 13th of October 1962, she became the first person to be placed under house arrest under the Sabotage Act, which had been recently introduced by the apartheid government…. She was to survive several assassination attempts, including bullets being fired through her windows and a bomb wired to her front gate…. She was also to survive cancer in 1971 – and continued to campaign for freedom and justice for all people in South Africa…. The last banning order against her was lifted when she was 80-years-old….

Helen was awarded the ANC’s highest award for her devotion to the struggle…. She died in Johannesburg on the 25th of December 1992….

Image credit : Steamhunter – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

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