Bertha Gxowa (Mashaba)

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Biographical information

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Synopsis:

One of the leaders and organisers of the 1956 Women's Anti-Pass March.

First name: 
Bertha
Last name: 
Gxowa (Mashaba)
Date of birth: 
28 November 1934
Location of birth: 
Germiston
Date of death: 
19 November 2010
Location of death: 
Johannesburg

Bertha Gxowa was born on the 28th of November 1934, in Germiston Location where she spent her early childhood. She attended the Thokoza Primary School and then the Public Secondary School, both of which were in the location. Her father was a garment worker who had become the first Black person to work on the cutting floor - work that was previously reserved for White labourers only. Her experiences in the Germiston location triggered her interest in opposition politics due to the permits that Black people were subjected to carry in order to live and move in and out of the location. As a result, Bertha volunteered to be in one of the first groups of the Defiance Campaign that went into Krugersdorp without permits, as a means of protest. She was arrested for this and she spent ten days in prison after refusing to pay a fine.

Bertha started her working life as an office assistant for the South African Clothing Workers’ Union, where she collected subscriptions from factories and participated in wage negotiations. As a result, the Union sent Bertha to a commercial college where she studied bookkeeping and shorthand. Signing up to join the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) during the anti-Bantu education campaign strengthened her involvement in politics. However, her political activities soon turned to focus on women’s issues. She became a founding member of the Federation of South African Women, which organized the historic women’s march against pass laws in 1956. Bertha traveled the entire country with Helen Joseph, collecting petitions that were to be delivered to the Union Buildings during the march. They collected a total of 20 000 petitions.

Between 1956 and 1958, Bertha was a defendant in the Treason Trial and in 1960 she was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act for eleven years. Once her banning order was lifted, she joined the South African National Tuberculosis Association and undertook community work. She also went back to her church, the African Methodist Church, which she believed was the only church that stood for the cause of Black people.

In 1990, after the unbanning of all political parties, Bertha was called upon to re-organise the ANC’s Katlehong branch. Bertha started a women’s social club that was invited to participate in voter education during the 1994 election campaign. She became a member of parliament, serving twos term and remained actively involved with the ANC Women’s League where she rose to the position of national treasurer and chairperson of Gauteng.

Bertha’s other activities involved sitting as chairperson on the boards of two women’s skills development projects, Malibongwe and Kwazekwasa; both projects are committed to the total emancipation of women.

Bertha Gxowa was married to the late Cecil Mntukanti Gxowa and they had five children.

She passed away at the age of 76 from complications after an operation in Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg on 19 November 2010.

Last updated : 29-Jul-2018

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011