Durban Street Names: Bertha Mkhize

Part 3: Bertha Mkhize, formerly Victoria Street. Bertha lived in Victoria Street where she ran a clothing factory in from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. 

Nhlumba Bertha Mkhize was one of the first people to lead the struggle for women’s rights in South Africa. She was also one of the first black women in Natal to have her own business.


She was born in 1889 at Embo, near Mkhomazi, and grew up in a strong Christian family. Her father was an ox wagon driver who travelled from Natal to Kimberley by ox wagon before there were any roads. He died when she was about four or five, and the family moved to Inanda. Her mother said they must move to Inanda so that the children could go to school there.

Bertha was one of the first students to go to Inanda Seminary. She also went to the Ohlange Institute which was started by the Reverend John Dube. She was a schoolteacher until she was about thirty years old. She said, “I got fed up with teaching … always talking, talking, talking.”


So she wrote a letter to her brother who was living in Durban. He was one of the first black tailors in Durban. At about this time, during the early 1920s, most of the skilled tailors in South Africa were men from England or from Eastern Europe.

In her letter Bertha asked her brother to teach her to be a tailor too. He agreed. It was very unusual at that time for a woman to be a tailor, and it was also very, very unusual for African women to live in town during the 1920s and 1930s. But this didn’t seem to worry Bertha very much.

“I went to town and he taught me tailoring. When I first went to town, he was working under the Indians. He was cutting for the Indians in Field Street, and doing tailoring there. I worked with him there for about six months, and then he said, `Now let us go and begin our own.’ So we moved to Victoria Street, and I was working there for about 30 years.” So Bertha ran the clothing factory with her brother.

But the shops in West Street would not let a factory run by blacks make their clothes, so a friend in the ICU (the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union) who was called Mr. Batty, and who was white, bought the material for Bertha and her brother. They made the clothes with the material, and then Mr. Batty took the clothes back to the shops. He gave the money to Bertha and her brother. The people in the shops in West Street thought that Mr. Batty made the clothes. He did a lot to help the black garment workers in Natal at this time.

Bertha stayed in her factory business until 1965. That was when the Durban City Council forced African businesses to move out of the area.


Bertha never married. While she was in Durban she lived in the Thokoza hostel for women. She joined the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) to fight against no notice pay, low wages and curfews. She was also on the committee of an organisation called the African Women’s Association.

In 1925 the African Women’s Association arranged a march through Durban. The women marched because the Durban City Council said that black women must get permission from a local magistrate to visit Durban. The magistrate, who might be a long way away, then had to write to Durban to give the reasons for her visit, and to ask for permission. Then the woman had to wait for Durban to write back. “And of course, everyone would take their time — the magistrate and Durban,” said Bertha.

So the African Women’s Association arranged a march, and about 500 women marched through the streets of Durban.

“I think there were about 500 of us,” said Bertha, “and we went to West Street. And all the white people in West Street came out to see what was happening. We went to the Native Commissioner’s office, and when we came there we just sat. It was about 1 o’clock, and they had all gone to dinner. We just all sat down. I never saw women so quiet. When they all came back at 2 o’clock, the Native Commissioner thought, ‘What are the women doing here?’

At last he came down to speak to them. Bertha had to speak, so she told the Commissioner the trouble this would make for the women. “I don’t know how much I talked,” she said. But after she finished, the Commissioner said, “I understand what you are talking about, and now, from today onwards, no woman shall carry a pass.” And no woman carried a pass until the government made black women carry the dompas thirty years later.

758B83F7-3512-4E0B-ACFC-03B44D17E059“I didn’t want a pass,” she said years later. “Nothing wrong with the pass. It’s the way it’s done for Africans. If you have a pass, if anything happens to you, you are known where you come from, who you are and all that. But when you haven’t done anything, when you are just a woman in the street and someone says, `Show me your pass!’ why should you? If you find me fighting somebody, or stealing, or doing anything wrong, ask me for my pass; not just when I’m walking.”

In 1956, when she was president of the ANC’s Women’s League, she was arrested in the middle of the night. The policemen said it was for treason.

It was because she was saying that blacks and whites must be equal, and that it was wrong to force blacks to carry passes. “Well,” she said to the policemen, “do come in. Because you say I am going with you, while you are searching, I’m going to take a bath.” After they searched her house, the police took her to Smith Street Police Station.

There were about thirty other people there who they had also arrested. Early in the morning the police took them all to the airport to fly to Johannesburg. It was Bertha’s first time in an aeroplane. “Nobody was nervous, there was nothing to be nervous about. I thought I was going to be nervous, but no. It was even better than the car that runs on the road,” she said. The court case lasted four years, and in the end they were all found ‘not guilty’.


While Bertha was working in Durban she helped to start many different projects to help women, such as creches, sewing groups and literacy classes.

One day she met a young boy called Malkop, the son of a friend of hers. He told her about the Bahai religion which says that all people are equal — it doesn’t matter whether they are black or white, Hindu or Muslim, Catholic or Anglican or Jewish. Everybody shares the same God. She did a lot of work for the Bahais. She set up centres all over Zululand and translated their books into Zulu.

After the Durban City Council closed down African businesses in Durban in 1965, she moved back to Inanda. She thought of trying to build a creche in Inanda. “So,” she said, “when I came home I thought children now cannot go to school until they are seven years old and used to roaming about. They will not like school anymore, they will hate school. So I thought we’ll try to build a creche here.” So Bertha Mkhize and Mrs Gumede started collecting money from people in the area. As soon as they’d collected 70 pounds, they started the creche in the Inanda Centenary Hall. She also collected money from whites she knew from meetings in Durban. She went to Killie Campbell, who was born at Inanda, and she and her sister gave money every month until they died.

Bertha Mkhize died in 1981 at Inanda when she was ninety-two years old. Before she died, she was trying very hard to start an old age home in Inanda. She tried to help old people as well as children.

Until the end of her life, Bertha believed that it is important for people to talk.

“Talk, just talk. Talk again until things come out right. Because I believe there will be a time when everything will come together, and whether you are black or white or yellow or brown doesn’t matter, as long as you are made by God.”


Why I Love My Stomach Rolls

Last week at yoga, I was effectively forced to stare at pools of sweat gathering in my stomach rolls.

The pose had me sitting down, folded over, head hanging into my lap, looking at my belly. I don’t what this yoga pose is actually called. Probably Folded Moon or Curled Up Squirrel or something like that.

It was pretty gross.

Exercise – or “sportsing” as I like to call it – has never really been my jam. I’ve had my gym contract cancelled twice for not using it often enough, despite the free parking ticket you get when you do. I felt no shame walking into the gym, swiping that card and walking straight out. Honestly, gyms are like nightclubs except the lights are on and everyone is sober. When I actually went to gym, it was just to use the sauna. I like the sauna.

I’ve tried running, but I’ve realised that the only thing that can make me run is if someone is chasing me. When I used to try jogging around the neighbourhood, I would only run if I saw a car. Not because I thought someone would chase me, but because it might be someone who knew me, so I would step it up and prance along sprightly so it would look like I’m a super fresh runner lady. I’m not a super fresh runner lady.

My husband on the other hand is one of those kettle-belling, cross-fitting, trail-running types. He has more shoes than I do, because all of the above require different footwear. He also likes to eat kale and chia seeds, which I’m still convinced is not-real-food. To give him some credit, he does make a killer smoothie that tastes so good I don’t even know that the afore-mentioned not-real-food is in it. He also has a smoking hot body, which personally I don’t have any objections to.

The problem with my non sportsing life is that after two little kids and too many rusks, I don’t like the way my body feels anymore. I don’t like how breathless I get after playing three minutes of soccer with my boys. I don’t like how my four year old can outrun me on the beach, which is problematic when he’s running away from you stark naked, throwing his head back laughing and won’t come back no matter how much you shout. True story.

I especially don’t like it when I’m waving at another mom in the school parking lot and all I can feel is my chicken-wing arm-flab flapping around.

I need to exercise.

And so, I’ve started doing yoga. I LOVE yoga. There is no pumping dance music telling me to put my hands in the hair or push, push, push. Instead there is a strong, beautiful woman telling me to breathe, and who never shouts at me when I randomly fall over. I love not wearing exercise footwear that costs more than my kids’ school fees. I love that it’s a class so you have actually go at specific times and people watch you so you don’t just lie in the corner and have a nap which is what I would rather do (although I do think there’s a market there for some entrepreneur – a napping centre disguised as a gym). I love that there is always someone in the class who is more bendier than me, and also someone who falls over before me. I am not the worst, which is a refreshing change from the other sportsing I’ve done.


Because you know, mindfulness.

But there is something else yoga has given me that I love even more. As I bent over into the Wilted Flower pose or whatever that was that had me navel-gazing, I looked at my folded, wrinkled body, squishing over itself and dripping sweat, and do you know what I realized?


My belly made those babies.

I love my squishy belly. This belly held the two most beautiful gifts in my life. It brought both of my gorgeous, energetic, hilarious boys into the world. This belly isn’t hard, flat or ripped but you know what? I’ve eaten a lot of really, really good food. I’ve done more than just survive life. I have relished delicious meals with fantastic people. I’ve laughed until my stomach aches in kitchens, around dinner tables, and over braais.

Yoga has given me gratitude. I’m grateful for exercise and my health. I’m grateful for food and family. Yoga even made me grateful for my sweaty stomach.

I’m basically a yogi now, guys.


Say Something

I have big feet. Like, size 8 big feet. I seldom paint my toenails bright colours because there is just SO MUCH surface area. On a normal woman, pink toenails look sweet and summery. On me, it looks like I spilled paint on my feet.

I call them Roadmaps. Because of the veins, you know?

I call them Roadmaps.
Because of the veins, you know?

This, however, is not my primary problem. My main defect is how often I put my large foot in my even larger mouth. I’ll say something I’m not supposed to, or blurt out what everyone is thinking but has the good sense to keep quiet. I’ve spent many a dinner party getting kicked under the table by my husband who is basically telling me to STOP TALKING. I’ll ask someone who is buyer for a major clothing range if they really get their clothes from sweatshops, or talk about how women get paid 28% less then men for doing the same job.
As you can imagine, these conversations are about as fun as the mall the week before Christmas.

Knowing what to say and when to say it is quite the art, I am learning.
I recently had a lesson in this life skill, but not the way you may think.

You know they're good when you have tell people that they're good.

You know they’re good when you have tell people that they’re good.

Last weekend, I went to a baby shower. I know. You already feel sorry for me, but this one wasn’t that bad. There were no eat-melted-chocolates-out-of-nappies games, and the glowing mama-to-be didn’t have to guess what was inside every gift.
I even made choc chip cookies for the special event.
With an oven.
And ingredients.
From scratch.

I know. Who even is this amazing woman?

Anyway, at one point I was chatting to one of the few women there who did not have children. This isn’t by choice, and she has had some heart-breaking miscarriages. Despite risking putting one of my Big Feet into my notoriously Big Mouth, I decided to go with my gut instinct and I asked her, “How are these things for you?”

She told me that she only went to baby showers of people she really loved, as they were hard mornings. She told me how she didn’t want to be excluded from something important in their lives. But then, she turned to me with big eyes, and said, “You know, Jess, you are the first person who has ever asked me how I feel at baby showers. Thank you!”

I was quite surprised that it meant so much to her, and she told me more. Like when she had her miscarriage there were people who deliberately avoided her. When they saw her coming, they walked the other way. When she lost a baby, there were people who knew about it but never, ever mentioned the experience.

A few days later, I had almost the exact conversation when I dropped my son off at school. His teacher’s son tragically died a few weeks ago, and she shared with me how her daughter’s closest friends have just shut her out. They don’t phone, they don’t message, and this young girl is hurting so much more than necessary.

As I looked at the hurt and disappointment in this teacher’s eyes, I remembered the same look from my friend. It just hit me.

Say Something.

When someone you know has lost a loved one, or faces an exceptionally overwhelming situation, say Something. Please don’t pretend like you don’t know. Please don’t ignore the most real thing that is happening to them.

Just say Something. Even if it’s, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I don’t know what to else to say.”

Send a message, cook a meal, pop in for a visit.

They’ve already lost something, now they lose a friendship or a connection that brings joy and love into their lives? They’ve already had an experience that makes them feel different from you, now you’re adding distance in your relationship? Grief is a lonely experience, and if you don’t know what it feels like, don’t pretend like you do. But for goodness sake, don’t ignore them. They need you more than ever before.

I’ve heard Foot in Mouth Disease is highly contagious. And perhaps, like me, you won’t always get the timing right or the exact words when you open your mouth to say Something. You may even miss the mark completely and get a kick from someone under the table. But, honestly, I think that in most cases, Something is better than Nothing.

So say Something.

Counselling and Support
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