On the 9th August 1956 thousands of women of all races marched to Union Buildings in Pretoria. Their aim was to deliver a petition to the then Prime Minister, J.G. Strijdom, objecting to the pass laws that required black Africans to carry a range of documents, including a photograph, employment records, tax payments and criminal records, that enabled the government to further restrict the movements of non-whites. It was illegal to be without a ‘pass’, the penalty for which was arrest and jail.
Helen Joseph Road in Durban (formerly Davenport Road) is named for one of the woman instrumental in organising this historic 1956 march, where a reported twenty thousand women stood in silence for a full half hour at the steps of the Union Buildings, before leaving to the song ‘Nkosi sikeleli Afrika’. Joseph, who was born in the UK and moved to South Africa at the age of 26, regulary found herself the subject of police enquiry. Instrumental in the formation of the Federation of South African Women, Helen Joseph was one of the 156 defendants in the 1956 treason trial, that lasted until 1961, and in 1962 became the first person to be placed under house arrest in terms of the Sabotage Act. Banned in 1957, the banning order was lifted for a brief time in the ’70s when Joseph was diagnosed with cancer, but was then reinstated for two years in 1980.
Helen Joseph died on the 25 December 1992 at the age of 87, the same year that she was awarded the ANC’s highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal, for her devotion to the liberation struggle. It was also a significant day for Joseph, who from the late 1970s had hosted an open Christmas Day at her house. “Those involved in the anti-apartheid struggle had an open invitation to visit her home. All comrades brought food, and at 12 noon everyone raised their glasses to those on Robben Island…….On December 25, 1992, Joseph was in hospital and the venue moved to 11 Plantation Road, The Gardens. Robben Island’s prisoners had been released, and those present raised their glasses to Helen, who would die shortly thereafter.” (wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Joseph)