Hester Elizabeth Cornelius

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Trade Unionist, Garment Worker’s Union, Playright

First name: 
Hester
Middle name: 
Elizabeth
Last name: 
Cornelius
Date of birth: 
5 April 1907
Location of birth: 
Lichtenburg
Date of death: 
15 August 1978
Location of death: 
Honeydew, Johannesburg

Hester Elizabeth Cornelius was born on 5 April 1907 in Lichtenburg Western Transvaal to an Afrikaner family. Her family was very nationalistic, with both her father and grandfather fighting in the Anglo Boer War. In addition her mother was held in a concentration camp during the war and her father joined the Afrikaner Rebellion in 1914. Hester’s sister Johanna with she became closely associated in her trade union activities was born in 1912. Due to poor living conditions and lack of opportunities, in 1920 Hester together with her sister Johanna were forced to go and look for work in Johannesburg.

In November 1930 Hester together with her sister began work in a clothing factory. Hester worked as a table hand while her sister worked as machinist. During this period, white workers were in the process of forming the Garment Worker’s Union (GWU) with the help of Emil Solomon Sachs. Impressed by Solly’s work in fighting for worker’s rights, Hester joined the union and became an active member. She spent her time defending the union by organising cultural events using Afrikaner symbols and plays to communicate the plight of workers and ideological premise of the working class. For instance she staged a number of plays among them was Die Offerande (The Sacrifice). The play portrayed the conflict between the rich and poor which urged workers to overthrow the capitalist system. Another play by Hester was Eendrag (unity) which dealt with the struggles of women working in factories.

Hester was elected to the Union’s executive in 1934 and when the Union opened an office in Germiston and Hester was tasked with managing the office. In February 1936 Hester and Johanna her sister were sent to Cape Town to assist the GWU branch in the Cape in its struggles. Here they convened meetings and addressed workers. Hester was arrested and released three times during the strike. Despite the strike ending as a failure in March, their support infused new momentum to the cause on factory workers in the Cape.

Hester became the national organiser of the GWU in the 1960s. These were difficult times with wages dropping and more black workers entering the clothing factories. Black workers were allowed to be part of the GWU, but as a separate branch as the government did not allow racially mixed unions. This undermined wage negotiations and brought criticism from the left-wing unions such as the South African Congress of the Trade Unions (SACTU).

Hester resigned from the union in 1974. She passed away on 15 August 1978 in Johannesburg.


References:
• Verwey, E.J, (1995), New Dictionary of South African biography, Volume 1, (Pretoria), pp.50-53

Last updated : 07-Aug-2017

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