Address by Nelson Mandela at the funeral service of Isitwalandwe Helen Joseph, Johannesburg

7 January 1993

I am immensely honoured to speak at the funeral of my friend, my sister and comrade Helen Joseph. In the past two weeks since Helen died, I have heard people remembering her in many ways. Some spoke of her courage and her commitment to our struggle, of her humane and kind personality, her fierce battle against apartheid and her tireless campaign for the emancipation of women.

Many of her friends spoke of her influence as a very shrewd politician in various organisations. Helen had touched so many lives in the Garment Workers Union, FEDSAW, CODs, the UDF, and the ANC.

I cannot but agree that the things people remember are all true of her remarkable life.

Helen Joseph taught us many lessons and I wish to recount these to you today.

Helen believed that unity in action was the key element to our passage to liberation. She took a very broad view of the nature and the course that we should take in uniting the South African people. Her own political involvement was shaped by her experience working with Solly Sacks in the Garment Workers Union. It was here that she encountered the triple oppression suffered by South African women and the added repression that the pass laws brought to bear on the majority of Black South Africans.

Helen's response to the pass laws was that it affected African men and women directly and oppressed all South Africans who were forced either to carry a pass or to watch others being persecuted.

Together with women such as Lillian Ngoyi, Francis Baard, Ray Simons, Rahima Moosa , Amina Cachalia, Albertina Sisulu, Ruth Mompati, Dora Tamana and Ama Naidoo and many others, a Federation of South African Women was formed. FEDSAW was way ahead of the thinking of even the ANC at the time, because it brought together women of all races, classes and religious affiliation with the aim to challenge the pass laws as a united force. The slogan "You strike a woman, you strike a rock" was born out of this period. Helen Joseph was central to the strategic thinking and the action that would unite 20,000 women in a march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

She had the unique ability to pick up on the most burning issues and translate those into a programme of mass action.

Helen challenged the paternalism of our society and left a legacy that the struggle for the emancipation of women had to be side by side with the struggle to liberate the people of South Africa. She believed that the two processes were inseparable.

Helen also believed that whilst the government of South Africa relied on white people to keep it in power by denying black people the right to vote, white South Africans could not be left uncontested and that they needed to be consistently challenged to accept the responsibility of democracy and human rights, to acknowledge the equality of all the people in South Africa and to respect the inalienable right of every South African to vote for the political party of their own choice. This is a lesson that all South Africans must take with us as we go into a year which must be decisive.

She recounted to me once that Lillian Ngoyi had challenged her to organise amongst the white people and not only work with black women and their problems. She took up this challenge and intensified her involvement in the Congress of Democrats. To her apartheid was evil and her boundless energy went into fighting it.

Helen Joseph had a profound influence on the student movement in South Africa. Many NUSAS activists sought her advice and she was very pleased when SASCO finally emerged.

She transferred her skills onto others easily and recognised the contributions that young people had to make. To her a united student movement would be able to address the problems of this sector much more effectively than a splintered dismembered one.

One of the lessons I have personally learned from Helen is that her profile as an international and national leader did not detract from her commitment to maintaining contact with her grassroots constituency. She showed deep concern for her comrades as human beings and became actively involved in the struggles they encountered. Helen did not forget the political prisoners and together with others campaigned for the release of all political prisoners.

For many of us Christmas day was more special because Helen chose to celebrate it by remembering her friends in prisons throughout this country. She wrote to me once about the DPSC and her friend David Webster and their work to fight for the rights of detainees and their release. She did not have any children of her own, but there are many here today who can lay legitimate claim to being her children.

Helen had the gift of working with people she did not agree with politically. It is well known that Helen was not a committed Marxist and she was not a member of the SACP, but she worked with people who were because she was a democrat and believed in the freedom of political choice.

During the treason trial which lasted from 1956 to 1961, our speeches in court would condemn British imperialism, American neo-imperialism, Dutch French and Belgian imperialism. When Helen was cross examined and asked what she thought about British Imperialism, she answered that there was no such thing, because the British had spread out to bring civilisation to all the countries they went to. Helen was a South African revolutionary, but a lady of the British empire. A contradiction in the eyes of many, but to Helen her own reality.

She did not fear to contradict and be contradicted, she feared only the loss of her dignity as a human being and the loss of dignity forced upon others, that is why she fought apartheid so fearlessly and paid the price with banning orders and house arrests which spanned a twenty year period.

During the 1960 state of emergency our lawyers withdrew from the Treason Trial in protest and Duma Nokwe and I undertook to take the statements from the trialists, Helen answered all the questions I put to her very regally and very correctly all except one. I asked her how old she was and she immediately stiffened and asked me what that had to do with the case. I considered this a very natural question to ask, she told me that she would tell me later confidentially. I had no idea that my sister and comrade and fellow freedom fighter would not reveal her age publicly. This was Helen Joseph a woman of contrast and courage a woman we can truly regard as a figure which has helped to shape our destiny and an indelible part of our history.

She worked for a non-racial united and democratic South Africa. She died trusting that we would all deliver this to our country. I salute Isithalandwe Helen Joseph.

In closing friends I would also wish to pay tribute to Sina Mlambo Helen's close companion for the past ten years and thank her for taking care of Helen. I also wish to pass our condolences to Helen's relatives, Clive and Jeremy Fennell, who are with us today.


Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation