Helen Joseph

Helen Joseph

Helen Joseph Road was formerly Davenport Road, Glenwood.

Helen Joseph was a South African anti-apartheid activist, born on 8 April 1905 in Sussex, England and died 25 December 1992.


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She graduated from King’s College, in 1927 and soon after that, she left for India. She worked as a teacherat a school for girls in Hyderbad for three years, then she came to South Africa in 1931. She settled in Durban where she met and married dentist Billie Joseph

She served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II as an information and welfare officer, and later became a social worker.


In 1951 Helen took a job with the Garment Workers Union, led by Solly Sachs. She was a founder member of the Congress of Democrats, and one of the leaders who read out 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 spearheaded a march of 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against pass laws on August 9, 1956.

Helen, Lilian and their fellow activists holding thousands of signatures.

Joseph’s opposition to the State had not gone unnoticed, she was a defendant at the 1956 Treason Trial. She was arrested on a charge of high treason in December 1956 then banned in 1957.


On the 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.

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.

She was also fond of quoting an item that appeared in a political “gossip” column in 1970. Writer, Joel Mervis, described an imaginary meeting of Nationalist Party supporters, in which a speaker thundered:

“We have the finest army in the world, the finest navy, the finest airforce – what do we have to be afraid of?
A voice at the back: “HELEN JOSEPH!”

One of Helen’s many endearing qualities was that there was no separation between her public and private life. The loyalty and devotion she gave to the struggle was the same as that she gave to her many friends who became her family.

She had no natural children, but took into her care, as her own, the children of those who were sent to prison or into exile: Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s Zinzi and Zenani; Bram and Molly Fischer’s Ilsa; Eli and Violet Wienberg’s Sheila.

There were so many aspects to Helen’s personality. She was deeply spiritual – her religion was a private and personal strength.

Helen Joseph breaking her banning order on Christmas Day

She was also a gregarious person with a wonderful sense of humour. She loved a party. Her two favourite days in the year were her birthday, April 8, and Christmas Day. On both days her home would be filled, not only with friends and colleagues, but with the tributes, flowers and fond greetings from every corner of the world.

In the early 1960s Helen started a tradition of remembering all those in exile, in prison and those that have died in the struggle, every Christmas day at noon. 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).

Even during the years of house arrest and bans, this commemoration continued. At times it was only possible for her friends and families of prisoners to file past her gate one at a time, but Helen was always there to greet and encourage them.

Helen Joseph was awarded the ANC’s highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal for her devotion to the liberation struggle as a symbol of defiance, integrity and courage. At 85 years of age, Joseph passed away in Johannesburg on Christmas Day in 1992. She is buried in Avalon Cemetery near Soweto, which had been opened in 1972 as a graveyeard for blacks. Her grave is a National Heritage Site.


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