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.

EARLY YEARS AND EDUCATION

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.”

FROM TALKING TO TAILORING

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.

WHAT ARE THE WOMEN DOING HERE?

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’.

ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL

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.”

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Durban Street Names: Dorothy Nyembe

Who are the women that Durban’s streets are named after?
What did they do?

Today I am profiling Dorothy Nyembe, formerly Gardiner Street.
This woman was a force to be reckoned with!


 

dorothy nyembeDorothy Nomzansi Nyembe, known as “Mam D, was born on 31 December 1931, near Dundee in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and she died in Umlazi on 17 December 1998.

Dorothy attended mission schools until grade 11, and at the age of fifteen gave birth to her only child.

Growing up in rural Apartheid, she was deeply motivated to bring change to the situation of all black South Africans.

She joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1952,  and immediately took an active role in the Defiance Campaign. Dorothy was one of the organisers of the Women’s in March on 9 August 1956, and she led the Natal contingent to Pretoria where 20 000 women marched to oppose pass laws for women. 

In December of that same year, she was one of the 156 people arrested and charged with high treason for participating in the Defiance Campaign, but the charges against her were dropped.

When the pass laws continued to apply, anger among women in the Cato Manor township outside Durban took the form of campaigns against the municipal beer halls. Dorothy had already been a community leader in the protests against forced removals in Cato Manor, and now took on a key role in the beer hall protests.

Brewing traditional beer in the townships was one of the only viable sources of income for women, which led the government to make home brewing illegal as well as set up their own municipal beer halls in the city. Not only were men spending the family income in these infamous beer halls, but the revenue they generated supported the apartheid machinery. The women were outraged. 

In 1959, brutal police raids aimed at smashing up home brewing led to tremendous anger, riots and killings by the police at Cato Manor. Dorothy called for a total boycott of the beer halls. In huge demonstrations, women armed with sticks marched into the beer-halls, attacking men who were drinking, and wrecking the facilities, despite the presence of police. The drinkers fled.

One vivid account recalls that the women were very powerful. Some came half dressed (in traditional dress) with their breasts exposed, and when they got near this place the police tried to block the women. When they saw this, the women turned and pulled up their skirts. The police closed their eyes and the women passed by and went in.

dorothyIn 1961, she was recruited in Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC. She was arrested and banned for five years, yet even in her isolation she continued to defy the government, fighting for racial and gender equality.
After her release, she was again arrested in 1968 and sentenced in 15 years in jail accused of assisting and harbouring members of Umkhonto weSizwe.
Omar-Badsha-Dorothy-Nyembe-celebrating-after-been-release-from-a-15-year-prison-sentance-1984-copyThese longs years were spent in prisons for women, far from Dorothy’s family. Her work involved washing the clothes of the male convicts.
Dorothy fought for better conditions for prisoners, and went on a hunger strike to protest the abysmal treatment of women in prison.

 

When she was released in 1984, she went on to work on developing women’s leadership and education, and advocated for women’s social issues. In 1992, she was awarded the Chief Albert Luthuli Prize for her commitment to the struggle, and in 1994 she became a Member of Parliament.

 

At her funeral at Umlazi, outside Durban, shortly after Christmas, one respectful man ruefully reflected that he still carried the scar where Nyembe had hit him during the beer-hall protests. 

 

dorothy nyembe statue

Her statue was unveiled in November 2016 in Umlazi E Section, near the Glebelands Hostel.aption

Durban Street Names: Lilian Ngoyi

Who are the people that Durban’s streets are named after?
What did they do?

I didn’t have a clue about most of them, until I started researching, particularly the women whose stories I was never told.

In honour of Mother’s Day coming up this Sunday, I want to share the story of a powerful mother, a fearless leader and a global adventurer who was a force to be reckoned with – Lilian Ngoyi.

Lilian Ngoyi Road was formerly Windermere Road.


Lillian_NgoyiLilian Ngoyi

  • Mother.
  • Widow.
  • First female elected to office in the main body of the ANC.
  • President of the ANC Women’s League.
  • Stood trial under the Treason Act.
  • Spent 71 days in solitary confinement.
  • Was banned and under house arrest for eleven years after leaving prison.

Lilian Masediba Ngoyi was born in Pretoria in 1911 to a poor family of six children. She enrolled for a nurses’ training course, but she eventually took up work as a machinist in a clothing factory where she worked from 1945 to 1956.

As a widow with two children at the time, also supporting her elderly mother, she was working as a seamstress when she joined the Garment Workers Union (GWU) and she soon became one of its leaders. Impressed by the spirit of African National Congress (ANC) volunteers, she joined the ANC during the 1950 Defiance Campaign and was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for white people. Her energy and her gift as a public speaker won her rapid recognition, and within a year of joining the ANC she was elected as president of the ANC Women’s League.

 

1954

Lilian took to the stage of the inaugural conference of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and stated to the gathered group of multiracial delegates:
“Let us be brave: we have heard of men shaking in their trousers, but who ever heard of a woman shaking in her skirt?”
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As the cheers, applause and laughter subsided, she concluded her speech in typical fashion: with the declaration that all South African women, regardless of their race or background, should be willing to die for the future of their children.

In her words and actions Lilian Ngoyi combined her identities as an African, woman, mother and worker to mobilize South African women in the fight against apartheid. For Ngoyi, the restrictions and limitations that apartheid laws placed on black women were at the heart of the system of white supremacy. Therefore, it was only natural that black women be in the vanguard of anti-apartheid resistance.

She highlighted how the pass laws, Bantu Education, forced removals and other state sanctions, hit African women the hardest and were deliberately designed to erode the African family and deny a future for African children.

Ngoyi dedicated her life to struggling against these oppressive measures and to securing a better future for her children and the children of South Africa. She mobilized a brand of militant motherhood that laid bare the oppressive nature of apartheid and allowed her to simultaneously address the specific plight of women in South Africa and the broader racial struggles against apartheid.

1955

downloadIn 1955, Lilian embarked on an audacious (and highly illegal) journey to Lausanne, Switzerland to participate in the World Congress of Mothers held by the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Accompanied by her fellow activist Dora Tamana she embarked on a journey that would see an attempt to stow away on a boat leaving Cape Town under “white names”, defy (with the help of a sympathetic pilot) segregated seating on a plane bound for London and gain entry to Britain under the pretext of completing her course in bible studies.

She visited England, Germany, Switzerland, Romania, China and Russia, meeting women leaders often engaged in left wing politics, before arriving back in South Africa as a “wanted woman”.

At Lausanne, Lilian presided over the 2nd session of the conference, giving its opening address. Standing in front of assembled women and mothers from almost every continent, she detailed the hardships faced by South African women to a global audience and appealed for support in bringing freedom and democracy to the nation in the name of the women’s international peace movement.

The travels of Lilian and Dora were made all the more remarkable when, back in South Africa, efforts were continually being made to monitor and strictly control African movement and mobility. As a result, the trip effectively asserted Ngoyi’s right, as a black woman, to travel and move freely. By escaping the hold of the pass laws and making illegal border crossings these two black women struck at the heart of the doctrine of apartheid.

As she traversed Europe, passing from London, through the iron curtain to the eastern bloc, Ngoyi observed that the women she met were not black, white or coloured, but mothers, stating: “I was a woman and a mother, my colour was not my problem.” 

1956

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On the 9th of August 1956, she led the women’s anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, one of the largest demonstrations staged in South African history. Holding thousands of petitions in one hand, Lilian was the one who knocked on Prime Minister Strijdom’s door to hand over the petitions. women_march11

Lilian was known as a strong orator and a fiery inspiration to many of her colleagues in the ANC. In December 1956, Ngoyi was arrested for high treason along with 156 other leading figures, and stood trial until 1961 as one of the accused in the four–year-long Treason Trial. While the trial was still on and the accused out on bail, Lilian was imprisoned for five months under the 1960 state of emergency. She spent 71 days in solitary confinement. 

As a result of her defiance and anti-apartheid organising Lilian was issued with her first banning order in October 1962. It lasted for 10 years and was renewed again in 1975 for a further 5 year period. In this time she was not allowed to leave Orlando, she was forbidden to attend any gatherings and she couldn’t meet more than one person at a time (including family members).

ZZZlILIANShe was constantly monitored by the police and no news of her was allowed to appear in the press. Lilian’s physical isolation took an inevitable toll on her political activities and she struggled to earn a living using her skills as seamstress. Despite this, she remained outspoken both on African and women’s rights until her death in 1980.

Affectionately known as ‘Ma Ngoyi’, she suffered heart trouble and died on the 13th of March 1980 at the age of 69.

Reflecting on her life in 1972 she chose to look to her own mother to articulate the growing militancy of black women in South Africa that she herself represented:

“My mother firmly believed our tears shall be wiped away in the next world. I believed we should start enjoying life here.”