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, spear-headed 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 African 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. On the 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 window and a bomb wired to her front gate. Her last banning order was lifted when she was 80.
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.
A road, formerly known as Davenport Road, in Glenwood, Durban has now been named after Helen Joseph under the recent Road Name Change Act which was initiated by the South African government in 2007 to rename streets which have names linked to pre-1994 colonialism.
Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg and a student residence at Rhodes University [Grahamstown, South Africa] is named after her.
Books by Helen Joseph
If This Be Treason - Tomorrow's Sun - Side by Side
South African revolutionary to be honoured 17 years after her death
20 May 2010
A woman born in Easebourne who became a national heroine in South Africa and was described by Nelson Mandela as a 'South African revolutionary and a lady of the British Empire' is to be honoured 17 years after her death.
The grave of Helen Joseph in Soweto is to become a National Heritage Site and now the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) is trying to trace her relatives in West Sussex to inform them of the dedication ceremony.
At the same time there are moves to put up commemorative plaques in Easebourne recognising her birthplace.
Jane Haycock has lived in her former family home, Crescent Lodge, since l982.
"I knew nothing about her until last year when I went to a talk about her in Midhurst. Hers is a fascinating story. I hope we can do something as a memorial here in Easebourne at the same time as the dedication ceremony takes place in South Africa."
Associate Lecturer in History at the University of Chichester, David Rang, has extensively researched and written her life story. He said the dedication plans in South Africa were a fitting tribute to her memory.
"She campaigned against the evil of apartheid and demanded full equality for all races. She fought apartheid, not out of a political ideology but because of her clear sense of right and wrong."
Helen moved to South Africa in 1931 where she became a close friend of Nelson Mandela. She was put on trial alongside Mandela. She was also the first person in the country to be placed under house arrest. She inspired a South African national holiday – August 9 is Women's Day because of the mass demonstration that she led on the same day in 1956. It is on August 9 this year that the dedication ceremony will take place.
After her death in 1992, her funeral was conducted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Her eulogy was delivered by Nelson Mandela.
Mr Mandela also made reference to two of her relatives – Clive and Jeremy Fennell – who were present at her funeral 7 January 1993.
However, attempts to track them down have so far been unsuccessful.
Anyone with information about her relatives is asked to contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Helen Joseph, 1941
Helen Joseph, 1964
Helen Joseph, 1990
Memorial, Avalon Cemetery
Speech by Nelson Mandela at funeral