10 Things You Need to Know About Helen Joseph

Celebrating one of South Africa’s greatest freedom fighters

By Africa Media Online

Treason Trial (1956-01-01)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

Helen Joseph – an inspirational icon

Helen Joseph is one of South Africa’s greatest anti-apartheid freedom fighters and women's rights advocates. She devoted her life to fearlessly campaign for democracy, equal rights, and uniting the people of South Africa. At her funeral in 1993, her close friend Nelson Mandela described her as “a figure which has helped to shape our destiny and an indelible part of our history.” Here are 10 things you need to know about Helen Joseph.  

1. She was born in Britain
Born April 8, 1905, Helen Beatrice May Fennel grew up in Sussex with her brother and parents. In 1927, she graduated from King College in London with a degree in English.

2. She taught english in India
After graduating and at the age of 22, Helen moved to Hyderabad where she taught english for three years at Mahbubia Girls School.

By Grey VilletLIFE Photo Collection

3. She moved to South Africa
In 1931, Helen arrived in the picturesque seaside city Durban to continue her teaching job. Here she fell in love with dentist Billie Joseph whom she later married.

LIFE Photo Collection

4. She found her calling in life during WW2
During WW2, Helen moved to Pretoria where she worked as an information and welfare officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She taught women about the South African government system, and was exposed to the country's inequality. The harsh reality inspired her to become a social worker and passionately devote herself to campaign for women's and people rights.

Women's March - 1956 (1956-09-09)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

5. She joined the Garment Worker's Union
Being a social worker in Cape Town, Helen joined the Garment Worker's Union which was spearheaded by fellow anti-apartheid activist Solly Sachs.

Helen became one of the founding members of the Congress of Democrats, which worked with the ANC to demolish the apartheid. In 1955 Helen read out the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People in Kliptown on June 26, 1955.

Women's March - 1956 (1956-09-09)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

6. She was one of the founders of the Federation of South African Women
Helen was one of the founders of the Federation of South African Women along Lillian Ngoyi, Francis Baard, Ray Simons, Rahima Moosa, Amina Cachalia, Albertina Sisulu, Ruth Mompati, Dora Tamana, and Ama Naidoo.

On 9 August 1956, Helen lead 20,000 women of all races to march against the government's pass laws under the slogan: "You strike a woman, you strike a rock." The pivotal moment and day has since been celebrated as Women's Day in South Africa.

Treason Trial Halts (1958-11)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

7. She was accused of high treason at the Treason Trial
Helen was one of the accused in the Treason Trial which was the South African apartheid government's response to the adoption of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People. The trial lasted until 1961 when all the accused were found not-guilty.

Women's March - 1956 (1956-09-09)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

8. She was the first person to be placed under house arrest in South Africa
In 1962, Helen became the first person to be placed under house arrest for her opposition against the government. A ban which was lifted when she was 80 years old.

9. She celebrated her fellow anti-apartheid fighters
On Christmas Day each year, Helen would invite her comrades to join her at her house for a celebration of all the anti-apartheid fighters. At noon they would raise their glasses to the prisoners at Robben Island.

10. We still honour her lasting legacy today
In 1992, Helen was given the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankwe Medal by the ANC, and the Order of Simon of Cyrene by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Several roads and buildings are named after her, including the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg.

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