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Adelaide Joseph – In Memoriam

Adelaide amongst her comrades at Johannesburg’s Park Station in solidarity with a Black dock worker who was being banished to a remote part of the Transvaal c.1958. Courtesy the Joseph Family (as used in Slumboy from the Golden City, Merlin Press, 2019).

A year ago today, Adelaide Joseph, a veteran of the struggle against apartheid, died in London aged 89. She was born into a devout Christian and deeply conservative Indian family in rural South Africa. She had a sense of the injustice of Apartheid from an early age. As a young nurse in her home town of Barberton, she organised a group of nurses to sign a petition that challenged the hospital management when a Black nurse was being racially bullied by a junior White nurse. Adelaide was questioned by the hospital’s Superintendent when she and her colleagues threatened to walk out if the situation was not dealt with fairly. In the end the White nurse was dismissed. 

But it was when Adelaide met Paul Joseph in Johannesburg in 1957 that her life was completely transformed. Paul was already a prominent political activist, a leading member of the Transvaal Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party, and by then one of the 156 defendants alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, Ruth First and so many other key activists on trial for high treason. 

Indeed, Paul and Adelaide’s first “date” was him asking her to go to the Drill Hall to hear the court proceedings. Through him she started to meet other activists, engage in political discourse and activities. She, alongside Winnie Mandela, became active in the Federation of South African Women.

Adelaide Joseph, centre, alongside Winnie Mandela (wearing one of Adelaide’s saris) after Winnie had opened the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress, 1963. Courtesy the Joseph Family (as used in Slumboy from the Golden City, Merlin Press, 2019).

She and Paul married in 1958. Their life was not easy, they had twins one of whom was disabled and Paul’s increased political involvement meant he was often arrested, detained, imprisoned, placed under house arrest or working undercover for the liberation struggle. It got much worse following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC of which Paul was a founder member. Unbeknownst to Paul at the time, Adelaide was working as a courier for members of the leadership.

Adelaide and Paul Joseph, c. 1958. Courtesy of the Joseph Family.
Adelaide, far left, in a sari with her right arm in the air next to Ramnie Dinat and in the front ’Tim’ Naidoo in dark glasses and with cigarette, outside the Rivonia Trial c.1963. Photographer unknown. Getty Images.

In 1965 Adelaide managed to take their son to a specialist clinic in East Germany for what she thought was going to be a three-week trip. However, she would not be allowed to return to South Africa for 25 years. Paul had been arrested and she was persuaded by the ANC leadership to go into exile in London. She was eventually reunited with her young daughters who had been smuggled out of the country and later with Paul who made his own escape. 

Adelaide and Winnie, pictured in 2017.
Courtesy the Joseph and Mandela families.

Adelaide missed her family in South Africa terribly but she and Paul made a new life in exile. They were stalwarts of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London, campaigning ceaselessly to raise awareness, win support and fundraise for the ANC. She maintained her life-long friendship with Winne Mandela, helping to ensure Winnie was financially supported and her daughters taken care of when the Apartheid regime was doing its best to destroy the Mandela family. 

It was only after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 that Adelaide was able to return to South Africa but never returned permanently. She had spent more time in London than anywhere else and her children and grandchildren were here. She stayed and continued to fight for equality and justice; she was particularly focused on women’s rights and tackling poverty.

Adelaide Joseph, South African political activist, feminist, friend, mother – born 1 December 1932; died 20 October 2022. 

Written by Tanya Joseph, daughter of Paul and Adelaide Joseph, October 2023

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