Helen Joseph; Early White Foe of S. Africa Apartheid


Helen Joseph, one of South Africa's earliest white campaigners against apartheid, a longtime confidant of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and the first person placed under house arrest in this divided country, died here Friday at age 87.

Mrs. Joseph, a militant former labor leader, battled successive white-minority governments for more than 40 years and suffered some of Pretoria's most onerous restrictions.

Besides being the first opponent of the South African government to be placed under house arrest in 1962, for 26 years she also was a "listed person," meaning she could not be quoted in South African newspapers.

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

Mrs. Joseph's restrictions cost her a job as executive director of the garment workers union, and she went to work as a part-time bookkeeper in the 1960s. Despite the restrictions, she managed to make her voice heard and passed along her wisdom to generation after generation of anti-apartheid activists.

"Being restricted just makes you work harder is all," she once told The Times.

At a birthday celebration for Mrs. Joseph a few years ago, Winnie Mandela said: "She taught us that we all belong to the family of man, and that we are all one beneath the color of our skin. She educated us, politically."

Winnie Mandela, whose own mother died when she was young, often referred to Mrs. Joseph as "my Mama." And, during Winnie Mandela's long stretches in prison in the 1960s and 1970s, she would leave her two daughters in Mrs. Joseph's care.

"People say I've accomplished things in my life, but I can't seem to get them pinned down on what I've accomplished," Mrs. Joseph told The Times in a recent interview at her Johannesburg home, reflecting her belief that the liberation struggle was bigger than any single person.

"I've held a point of view without changing it," she said. "I've tried to give an example. But part of it is what someone once said to me: 'You stayed here. You didn't have to stay, but you stayed.' That's saying a lot."

A founding member of the Federation of South African Women, Mrs. Joseph led 20,000 women in a 1956 march to the seat of government in Pretoria to protest the extension of the notorious pass laws to black women. The pass laws restricted the movement of blacks. Mrs. Joseph was charged with treason that same year, but she was acquitted after a five-year trial. She later spent five months in prison.

In 1986, the South African government refused to give her a passport that would have allowed her to travel to Houston to accept a civil rights award.

Mrs. Joseph was born in England and immigrated to South Africa in 1946. She came to South Africa as a teacher, intending to stay just a year. But she married a South African and, even after her divorce a few years later, decided to stay.

"I hated what was going on in this country," she recalled recently. "But I had so many friends that I just fell in love and stayed. I fell in love with the land."

Battling failing health in recent years, Joseph still received frequent visits from anti-apartheid leaders who valued her counsel. In recent months, she had been concerned about the talk of amnesty for government agents who committed crimes against anti-apartheid activists. And, as she had all her life, she adopted a hard line.

"I don't go for this idea of 'put it all behind us,' " she said. "We have to remember. We must remember. We should be reminded, as white people, that we are still guilty."

Noting her own British background, she added: "I'm more guilty because I have colonial guilt on my shoulders."

Several years ago she established a tradition of having a Christmas Day garden party for friends and supporters at which a toast would be drunk to opponents of the South African government who had been sent to prison or into exile.

Two hours after her death from the complications of a stroke the tradition was continued.

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