While the large majority of the people viewed as heroes of the anti-apartheid movement are men, women too played a very significant role in the fight for democracy in South Africa. While for some that role was in the form of supportive mothers and wives, who made it possible for men to leave their families and devote themselves to the cause, for others the role was a far more active one. Through the renaming of our city streets, and the erection of public monuments, the names of some of these important women are finally becoming known to the general public. Two such women are Bertha Gxowa and Bertha Mkhize.
Bertha Gxowa (28 November 1934-19 November 2010) became interested in politics at an early age after becoming aware of the discriminatory pass laws that required black people to carry permits to move in and out of the location where her and her family stayed in Germiston, Johannesburg. Gwoxa focused her attention on the role of women in the fight for equality, and was one of the founding members of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), the organisation responsible for the historic 1956 anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Gwoxa was also one of the 156 accused during the 1956 Treason Trial, and in 1960 was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, a status she remained in for eleven years. Gwoxa continued to pursue an active role in politics after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, and served two terms as a member of parliament, post 1994.
Bertha Gxowa is one of the latest struggle heroes to join the Fountains Valley Long March to Freedom collection.
The story of Nhlumba Bertha Mkhize (1889-1981) is not dissimilar to that that of Bertha Gwoxa. Mkhize too actively opposed the government’s pass laws, participating in a 1925 defiance campaign that saw 500 women march through the streets of Durban. In 1954 Mkhize attended the inaugural conference of FEDSAW, of which Bertha Gwoxa was a founding member, and was elected one of the organisation’s four national vice-presidents. Two years later, while holding the title of President of the ANC Women’s League, Mkhize was arrested, and stood trial for treason, alongside Bertha Gwoxa, and dozens of other anti-apartheid activists. After four long years, all of the treason trialists were eventually found not-guilty.
In addition to being a political activist, Bertha Mkhize was also one of the first black women in KwaZulu-Natal to have her own business. Together with her brother, Mkhize ran a tailoring business in Victoria Street for close to 30 years, before the Durban City Council forced all African businesses to move out of the area in 1965. But the shops in West Street would not let a factory run by Africans make their clothes, so a white friend in the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, Mr Batty, bought the material for Mkhize and her brother. They made the clothes with the material, and then Mr Batty took the finished clothes back to the shops, leading the shop owners to believe that it was him who made the clothes.
In honour of Mkhize’s contribution to the apartheid struggle, Victoria Street, where Mkhize and her brother ran their business for so many years, has been renamed Bertha Mkhize Street. The area, which has a rich cultural and political history, is also home to a number of the sites that make up the Durban Liberation Heritage Route.