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Helen Joseph was born in Easebourne near Midhurst, West Sussex, England and graduated from King's College London, in 1927. After working as a teacher in India for three years, Helen came to South Africa in 1931, where she met and married a dentist, Billie Joseph. She served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II as an information and welfare officer. After the war and her divorce she trained as a social worker and started working in a community centre in a Coloured (mixed race) area of Cape Town.
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 was pivotal in the formation of the Federation of South African Women and with the organisation's leadership, spearheaded a march of 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against pass laws on August 9, 1956. This day is still celebrated as South Africa's Women's Day.
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. The treason trial dragged on for four years but she was acquitted in 1961. In spite of her acquittal, in 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.
Helen had no children of her own, but frequently stood in loco parentis for the children of comrades in prison or in exile. Among the children who spent time in her care were Winnie and Nelson Mandela's daughters Zinzi and Zenani and Bram Fischer's daughter Ilsa.
Helen Joseph died on the 25 December 1992 at the age of 87.
Places named for her include the former Davenport Road in Glenwood, Durban, the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg, a student residence at Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa), and a road in Rustenberg. The Road Name Change Act was initiated by the South African government in 2007 to rename streets, such as Davenport Road, that have names linked to pre-1994 colonialism.
Books by Helen Joseph
- If This Be Treason (1963) Andre Deutsch, London
- Tomorrow's Sun (1967) John Day Company, New York
- Side by Side (1987) autobiography, William Morrow & Co, New York ISBN 0688071031