Bertha Gxowa (Mashaba)

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Biographical information


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

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

Lives of Courage

Bertha Gxowa was born on the 28 November 1934, in Germiston Location where she spent her early childhood. She went to school at the Thokoza primary School and then the Public Secondary School, both 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 because permits were required to live and to move in and out of the location. As a result, Bertha volunteered to be in one of the first groups of Defiance campaigners who went into Krugersdorp without permits. She was arrested for this and she spent ten days in prison after refusing to pay a fine.

Bertha started her working life, working as an office assistant for the South African Clothing Workers’ Union, where she collected subscriptions from factories and participated during wage negotiations. As a result, the union sent Bertha to a commercial college where she studied bookkeeping and shorthand. Signing up to join the ANC youth league during the anti-Bantu education campaign strengthened her involvement in politics, but her involvement was quickly shifted to focus on women’s issues. She became a founder 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, 20 000 petitions were collected.

Between 1956 and 1958, Bertha was defendant in the Treason Trial and in 1960 she was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, a status she remained in for eleven years. Once her banning order was lifted, she joined the South African National Tuberculosis Association doing community work. She also went back to her church, the African Methodist Church which as she believed that this 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 currently is a member of parliament, serving her second term and is still actively involved with the ANC Women’s League where she is national Treasurer and chairperson of the Gauteng Province.

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

Bertha Gxowa was married to the late Cecil Mntukanti Gxowa, and has five children.

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

Last updated : 20-Aug-2012

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