It all started in the dusty basement of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, which houses the archives of South African court records dating back over 100 years. Here, writer and historian Richard Conyngham found – and has brought to life – the extraordinary legal struggles of working-class South African men and women who defied government and corporate oppression. Their cases were heard in the Supreme Court of Appeal (formerly known as the Appellate Division).
One was a widow and washerwoman named Helena Detody, who lived in Marabastad in the 1920s. In 1925 she attended a meeting in her community about the decision by government to stop black women from freely walking after hours in white urban areas without a pass. Some 20 years earlier an ordinance had been passed requiring ‘natives’ to carry these documents, but until 1925 the law had never applied to black women.
At the meeting in Marabastad the call was made for four women volunteers to resist the pass law. One of the hands that went up was Detody’s.
The following night she waited until after 22:00, then walked to the centre of Pretoria, where she stood outside the biggest police station in protest. She was arrested and her battle for justice ultimately landed up in the Appellate Division, where she finally won her case. Because of Detody, black women could walk freely at night in any area for the better part of the next three decades, until the apartheid regime enforced pass laws for all black people. While we know about the 1956 women’s march against pass laws for women, how many of us have heard of Helena Detody?
Detody’s story is told in a wonderful new graphic interpretation of everyday resistance in South African history called ALL RISE: Resistance and Rebellion in South Africa (1910–1948) – A Graphic History. It will be published by Jacana in South Africa, and Catalyst Press in the United States later this year.
Each of the six chapters is illustrated by a different South African artist. The cost for three of the artists to complete their illustrations for this volume was covered by the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT), with funding from Nedbank. Several funders made this project possible, including the Bertha Foundation and the National Arts Council (NAC). Funds from NAC were used by the media and publishing company Jive Media to print copies of the individual chapters, which are being distributed for free to a number of South African high schools.ALL RISE has been conceptualised as a four-volume series
covering the colonial era, the Union years, the apartheid era, and the democratic era. Conyngham explains that the concept for the series started some eight years back when he and activist Zackie Achmat visited the basement archive of the Supreme Court of Appeal.
‘You head downstairs into this basement with thousands of boxes filled with court records. They are all referenced in a handwritten old book that contains each case number and the related file.’ Conyngham ended up spending weeks there, searching through more than a century of court records to find cases of resistance and rebellion against the colonial and apartheid governments.
‘It was an incredible excavation process that began with those dusty boxes. I emerged with a selection of stories that have never been told before – of working-class women and men, black, coloured, mixed race, Indian and white, whose names and voices are lost to our collective memory but whose struggles live on in our courts and in the shaping of our society and politics. As my appreciation for these obscure histories grew, I decided I wanted to create a visual history that young people, and particularly South Africans, would be more likely to read.’
The court records provided a starting point from which Conyngham was able to further his research in archives and museums across the country.
‘Initially, I decided to focus on the “Union years” (1910–1948) because, unlike the apartheid era, this period’s everyday acts of resistance are largely neglected. The protagonists in ALL RISE are not famous people; they are not political icons about whom many books have been written. Instead, they are a diverse group of forgotten, extraordinary South African men and women who, at different times and in different contexts, engaged in brave acts of resistance that shaped our country’s history.’
Helena Detody’s story is brought to life in chapter four of the volume, entitled ‘The Widow of Marabastad’ and illustrated by Dada Khanyisa.
After Detody was arrested that night in 1925, funds were raised through donations from her community and others in support of her case. She lost her case twice in the lower courts but appealed and eventually it reached the Appellate Division in Bloemfontein, where she was in good company. In the Orange Free State between 1913 and 1917 black women had successfully resisted pass laws by refusing to carry the documents, even if it meant they were arrested.
Detody’s case was decided by five white male judges. Three ruled in her favour and two against – she won! She won by one judge’s decision and the Transvaal government then knew that if they continued to arrest black women for not carrying a pass, they would go to court and the Appellate Division had already ruled on this and set a precedent.
The volume is rich in diverse resistance cases. The opening chapter of the book is titled ‘Until the Ship Sails’ and is illustrated by Saaid Rahbeeni. ‘It recounts two parallel court battles launched in late 1910 to prevent the South African government from deporting members of the Transvaal Indian community,’ Conyngham says. ‘One case involved a group of working-class Tamil passive resisters, the other the son of a wealthy Gujarati merchant. As with other stories of migration and dislocation, disempowerment and privilege, their themes still resonate across the world today.’
For the next three volumes Conyngham knows which cases he will cover, but he first needs to raise funds to compensate the artists. ‘This first volume was a years-long passion project. The stories were too important to remain in obscurity. We had to find a way to revive them. There were quite a few moments when I felt the volume was never going to be finished but here it is, and the artists and I are excited to see how it’s received.’