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Remarkable odyssey of anti-apartheid activist

Black activist Paul Joseph’s book about growing up in apartheid South Africa is an inspiring tale, says Peter Gruner

14 January, 2019 — By Peter Gruner

Paul Joseph and his comrades released from prison following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. From left: “Fats”, a member of the ANC; Alfred Nzo, later Secretary General of the ANC; JB Marks, President of the Transvaal ANC and chairman of the African Mineworkers Union; Lionel Morrison, Coloured People’s Congress, and Paul Joseph, Transvaal Indian Congress

PAUL Joseph began his campaign of defiance against the former apartheid regime in South Africa by simply refusing to move from a bus seat from which he, as an Indian, was barred because it was reserved for “whites only”.

Today, more than 60 years later, the veteran north London activist, who was a close associate and friend of Nelson Mandela, has written a fascinating account of his life, entitled Slumboy from the Golden City.

Joseph, who is 88, grew up in poverty in the Transvaal in 1930s. His story begins in Fordsburg, then a slum outside Johannesburg. He charts his years of protest and then imprisonment before fleeing as a political refugee to the UK.

Although racial segregation was rife before, apartheid was formerly introduced by the National Party in 1948 and ended some 46 years later in 1994 when Mandela came to power.

As a young boy Joseph refused to accept that whites should be given preferential treatment in almost all aspects of life, including schools. Even in the local Catholic church Indians and “Coloureds” had to sit at the back of the congregation, with Africans standing behind them. There were whites-only public libraries and parks where only whites could sit on the benches. “Imagine a park where you were able to walk through but not sit down,” he said this week. “It’s unbelievable today.”

In the cinema, censors determined what people watched. Joseph writes: “Scenes were cut which might show white nudity or blacks and whites fraternising. There was one film in which Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr did a dance routine. That was cut, as was a poster showing Sinatra and Davis holding hands.”

Paul Joseph and wife Adelaide with Nelson Mandela (who was celebrating 90th birthday) in London in 2008

Attacks by whites on Africans, Asians, and coloureds, were regular and without provocation. One day Joseph was out hiking with young friends when a car hurtled towards them. Joseph was hit by one of the white passengers brandishing a pole from inside the car window. It left him with bruises and lasting bitterness against white people.

Later, working as a young bellboy in a smart hotel, Joseph discovered how staff often dealt with racist and abusive guests who would click their fingers to demand attention.

“Some really nasty guests were given the laxative powder treatment,” Joseph said. The substance was sprinkled surreptitiously on food. “The victim would be seen leaving the table, returning, leaving and later running…”

Indians in South Africa were the next most discriminated against people after the Africans. They were prohibited from certain occupations and actually barred from working in the Orange Free State.

When Joseph boarded a bus or tramcar and sat in a section set aside for whites, bus conductors would often warn him that it was not prosecution that he need worry about but the possibility of being killed by angry whites.

His political awakening and activism began aged 15 and he participated in political campaigns including the Gandhi-inspired passive resistance of the 1940s.

Joseph became a close friend and political ally of Mandela and was among 156 co-defendants in the 1956 “Treason Trial” alongside Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Lilian Ngoyi and Ruth First. It was an attempt by the white government to lock up its political opponents.

In 1964 Joseph was put under house arrest. It stopped him from working or giving talks. It would last for five years. He also spent time in solitary confinement.

He describes the cramped and insanitary conditions that he and his wife Adelaide endured at home. The couple, whose family included their disabled son, Anand, who later died, shared an outside toilet and tap with numerous other residents, while a few miles away whites enjoyed proper facilities.

Today Joseph and Adelaide, who once ran the north London branch of the African National Congress, live in Mill Hill.

In the book Joseph, whose parents were originally from South India, adds a special dedication to Adelaide, herself a formidable campaigner, who stood by him from the beginning. They have three daughters, Zoya, Tanya and Nadia, and grandchildren Shura, Catriona and Arjuna.

Slumboy from the Golden City. By Paul Joseph, Merlin Pres, £15.99

• Paul Joseph will be talking about his book Slumboy from the Golden City on Thursday January 24 from 6.30pm at the New Beacon Bookshop , 76 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park. 

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