Paul Joseph's story also recounts a history of Johannesburg, its racial enclaves, its various suburbs, its structural features, the stages of its modernisation, says the writer. Picture: SUPPLIED
Paul Joseph's story also recounts a history of Johannesburg, its racial enclaves, its various suburbs, its structural features, the stages of its modernisation, says the writer. Picture: SUPPLIED

One of the more interesting developments in our post-apartheid age has been the slew of biographies of those involved in the struggle against a regime that forbade even the mention of liberation movements.

Paul Joseph’s autobiography adds to this trend, but differs from it in being a colourful example of social history rather than the account of one man’s life.

Joseph tells stories of the many communities that touched his life: those of Fordsburg, Ferreirastown, of the organisations battling the state, of people from different races living side by side, sometimes coming together to mount campaigns against apartheid policies. In doing so, he gives us a valuable account of how lives were lived in the decades that preceded apartheid’s demise.

His story also recounts a history of Johannesburg, its racial enclaves, its suburbs, its structural features, the stages of its modernisation.

Joseph was born in Malay Camp in Ferreirastown, from which his family were evicted when he was 11 to make way for the construction of the new magistrate’s courts. He grew up near the Indian Market, where his family of nine rented one room and a kitchen. Most people had access to just one tap and toilet, outdoors, and shared by many tenants.

Working-class whites lived in Mayfair and, nearby, in Fordsburg, from which they gradually moved, their vacant houses snapped up by Indian, Coloured and African tenants. A Catholic at the time, Joseph describes the not-quite-melting pot of Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths sharing the same space. At the Catholic, Anglican and Maronite churches, Indians and coloureds sat at the back, while Africans had to stand behind them. This eventually disabused him of his faith.

But many whites also belonged to the struggle community, and the book reflects an age in which, despite vicissitudes, races mixed almost casually — until apartheid slowly imposed its clinical untangling and racial ghettoes. 

There were some tensions in the area, and race baiting frequently led to clashes. But there were friendships too, and Joseph warmed to his Venda neighbour, a herbalist and nyanga. Joseph’s childhood was spent playing in the sand dunes of the mine dumps, making his way there through alleyways, past Chinese-owned gambling dens, Muslim butcheries and Lebanese shebeens.

He reveals much detail of everyday life, how people cooked, what they ate, where they slept, what languages they spoke, how cinemas came about, how people negotiated rents with slumlords, some of whom were not unkind. Not many owned cars (Joseph never learned to drive) or houses, or even radios.

One of the more distressing themes is the absolute viciousness of large sections of the white population: apartheid was not simply a political system, it turned an entire section of the population into a mob policing the status quo. When Joseph and his friends break the chains on a locked merry-go-round in an unused white park, the park keeper and his cohorts drive around Fordsburg, vigilante-style, in search of the vandals.

But many whites also belonged to the struggle community, and the book reflects an age in which, despite vicissitudes, races mixed almost casually — until apartheid slowly imposed its clinical untangling and racial ghettoes. 

The book paints a rich picture of the struggle community, which began to emerge especially as World War 2 played out. The network of people, in and out of prison, relied on each other for food, jobs, legal and medical help — doctors and lawyers helped the poor in a manner unthinkable today. It was a coming together of black, white and everything in between, strangely the exact kind of community apartheid was meant to prevent, and which has since failed to come into existence.

Without a hint of schadenfreude, Joseph also reveals the tensions inevitable in any community, with personal prejudices sometimes morphing into allegations that so-and-so was a spy, or a sellout.

Joseph was born in 1930, a date he does not even mention, I had to look this up. By age 13 he gets involved in political activities, distributing leaflets, selling and reading left-wing newspapers such as New Age (edited by Ruth First). Later he joined the Communist Party of SA, and was among the first batch of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), planting bombs and sabotaging infrastructure used to administer racist policies.

He recounts the roles and personalities of scores of activists, from First and Joe Slovo to Winnie and Nelson Mandela and Mac Maharaj, and the many families ranged against state oppression — the Naidoos, Firsts, Asvats and Cachalias.  Families tended to be significant units of struggle politics, many joining their activist siblings, their children often doing the same. Joseph’s was one such family, his brothers Peter and Daso also becoming heavily involved.

Joseph makes frequent reference to lawyers, who were indispensable allies of politicos and often themselves activists, and he knew many of them, from Slovo and Joel Joffe to Vernon Berrange and Bram Fischer. Joseph was one of the Treason Trialists and played a support role in the Rivonia Trial, but he also helped ordinary people when they were charged for petty apartheid offences, putting them in touch with sympathetic lawyers.

Of course, the book isn’t only about politics. He falls in love with and marries a beautiful woman, Adelaide. He works as a waiter at the grand Orange Grove Hotel, and reveals that he often resorted to the classic waiters’ revenge: snot in the puddings of rude patrons, for whom every Indian was “Sammy”. A waiter friend wreaked just such a revenge on apartheid architect Eben Dönges and justice minister Charles Roberts “Blackie” Swart at the Grand National Hotel in central Joburg.

Later Joseph works in a business owned by Julius First, father of Ruth, who ran a furniture factory as if it was a tiny social democratic state, hiring politicos who couldn’t find jobs and continuing to pay the wages of employees even when they were detained.

Joseph himself was eventually detained and banned and in 1965 he escaped into exile, making his way through Botswana and settling in England, where he worked for Joffe. In exile, he worked with other ANC comrades, and became involved with the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Defence and Aid Fund.

His is the most self-effacing of autobiographies, telling more of the people around him than of his “own” life. He presents himself as a conduit, taking messages from one leader to another, reluctant to style himself as a leader. In fact Joseph played significant roles in MK, ANC politics (even though “non-Africans” were not accepted as members), the exile movement and the AAM in London. But he rushes over his more active moments, quickly passing the focus on to others.

There is something in this besides humility. Joseph, who never finished schooling because he had to work to support his family, was nevertheless an educated being: an avid reader, he gobbled up newspapers and frequented bookshops that gave him permission to read books he didn’t have to buy. But the struggle ranks were not untouched by a ranking order, based on education, influence and even wealth, and Joseph was poor and unassuming.

His is in itself an interesting story, the tale of a “slumboy” who never quite made good, but his eye for detail and the manner in which his life intersects with others makes his book fascinating.

Joseph’s humility enables him to be a historian rather than a self-proclaimed member of the struggle aristocracy, the function of many recent biographies.