Helen Joseph (activist)

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Helen Beatrice May Joseph (born April 8, 1905 in Easebourne , West Sussex , United Kingdom , † December 25, 1992 in Johannesburg , South Africa ; born as Helen Beatrice May Fennell ) was a South African activist against apartheid and a writer .


Helen Joseph was born in Easebourne near Midhurst, England. She graduated from King's College London with a degree in English in 1927 and then worked for three years as a teacher at a girls 'school ( Mahbubia Girls' School ) in Haiderabad , India . In 1931 she came to live with friends in South Africa to recover from an accident. For a year she taught at the Clifton Preparatory School for Boys in Durban . In South Africa she met her future husband, the dentist Billie Joseph. However, the marriage was divorced again in 1948. In 1938 and 1939 she traveled to India for a short time. Upon her return, she volunteered as the organizer of the Indian Women's Club in Durban.

During World War II , she worked in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force in Social and Information Services, a force made up of women as part of the British Royal Air Force . After her demobilization in 1946, she went to Fordsburg and ran the John Gray Community Center . This gave rise to the desire to study in this field. She enrolled at Witwatersrand University and studied social sciences .

In 1951 Joseph was employed by the South African Textile Workers' Union. She was a founding member of the Congress of Democrats and one of the leaders who presented sections of the new Freedom Charter at the 1955 Congress of the People meeting in Kliptown , Johannesburg . She played a key role in founding the Federation of South African Women and led a demonstration by that organization on August 9, 1956, in which 20,000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the 1952 tightened passport laws . This day has been celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa since 1994, National Women's Day .

In the Treason Trial in 1956, Helen Joseph appeared alongside leaders of the African National Congress , such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu , as a defendant. She was accused of high treason and banned for the first time in 1957 under the Suppression of Communism Act . It was not until 1961 that she, like the other defendants, was acquitted. On October 13, 1962, Joseph was the first person who was placed under house arrest under the Sabotage Act (German: "Sabotage Law"). In addition, she was listed as a listed person under the Riotous Assemblies and Suppression of Communism Amendment Act (1954) . There have been multiple attacks on her life. Her bedroom was shot at and a bomb was attached to her entrance. The last ban wasn't lifted until she was 80 years old.

In 1975 she graduated from the University of London with a degree in theology that she began while under house arrest. In the same year she was elected Honorary Fellow of King's College , London.

Helen Joseph had no biological children, but often took in children of political prisoners and exiles as foster children. For a long time, she looked after the daughters of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela , Zinzi and Zenani, and Bram Fischer's daughter Ilsa.

Joseph's grave in Soweto (together with Lilian Ngoyi )

Helen Joseph died on December 25, 1992 after suffering a stroke . She was buried in Avalon Cemetery in Soweto next to Lilian Ngoyi , who had also participated in the march on the Union Buildings.


  • In 1992 Helen Joseph was awarded the Isitwalandwe or Seaparankoe - German for example: "who wears the feather headdress of a rare bird" - the highest order bestowed by the ANC.
  • She received the South African Order for Meritorious Service in gold posthumously in 1999 .
  • The university hospital of the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg is called Helen Joseph Hospital .
  • A student dormitory at Rhodes University in Grahamstown bears her name.
  • A central street in the Glenwood district of Durban was also named after Helen Joseph in 2007.


  • If This Be Treason . German, 1963
  • Tomorrow's Sun - A Smuggled Journal From South Africa . Hutchinson, London 1966 and 1968
  • Side by side . Autobiography. William Morrow, 1987, ISBN 978-0-688-07103-5

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d Shelag Gastrow: Who's Who in South African politics . Ravan Press, Johannesburg 1986, pp. 126-128
  2. ^ South African History Online: Helen Joseph . at sahistory.org.za, accessed April 1, 2010, July 25, 2015
  3. List of recipients of the medal 1999 (English), accessed on August 25, 2018