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 a transport driver. He travelled from Natal to Kimberley by oxwagon before there were any roads. Her father 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 used to spend a lot of time there with him and his wife. “They thought I was their child, I believe,” she said.
When she was ninety years old, she remembered a story about Reverend Dube.
“While I was there one day — they had asked me to come — a policeman, a white man from the police station at Inanda, came down there to Ohlange and said, `Congratulations Mr Dube! Congratulations!’
Mr Dube said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Don’t you know?’ Mr Dube said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’ve been elected head of the United African National Congress.’ That was the first person who told him about that!“ Bertha 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 African tailors in Durban. He trained for his tailoring certificate in Cape Town. 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 African women must not go to Durban just when they want to. If a woman wanted to go to Durban, she had to first go to a magistrate who might be a long way away. Then the magistrate 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.
“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.”