Johanna Catharina Cornelius

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Trade Unionist, General Secretary of the Garment Worker’s Union 

First name: 
Johanna
Last name: 
Cornelius
Date of birth: 
27 February 1912
Location of birth: 
Licthtenburg
Date of death: 
21 June 1974
Location of death: 
Johannesburg

Johanna was born in Licthtenburg on 27 February 1912 to an Afrikaner family where she grew up. Their family was very nationalistic, with both their father and grandfather fighting in the Anglo Boer War, their mother being held in a concentration camp during the war and their father joining the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion. Due to the impoverished conditions around them, Johanna was forced to go and look for work in Johannesburg in the 1920s. In November 1930 together with her sister Hester, they both began work in a clothing factory. Johanna worked as a machinist.  

At this time the white workers were busy forming the Garment Worker’s Union (GWU) with the help of Emil Solomon Sachs. Johanna quickly got involved in the Union and was arrested in 1932 during a strike. On her release she gave a speech calling on workers to demand a living wage and freedom- just as people had done with the Great Trek and with the Anglo Boer War. This shows how she joined nationalism together with the class struggle rather than with the national struggle.

The GWU strike was a failure, and workers were forced to return to work. The Union however grew stronger over the years. Many workers also got involved in the organisation of the Union. In 1933 Johanna spent a month in the Soviet Union as a trade union delegate, and in 1934 became a full time organiser. In 1935 she was elected president for a two-year period. Like her sister, Johanna also wrote a play Drie Spione (three spies) which dealt with the plight and struggle of women working in factories.

In February 1936 Johanna and Hester were sent to Cape Town to assist the GWU branch in the Cape in its struggles. Here they convened meetings and addressed workers. Despite the strike ending as a failure in March, their support infused new momentum to the cause on factory workers in the Cape.  

 In 1938 Johanna was accused of being a communist accomplice of Sachs and for spending all her time organising black people. The strong structure of the union enabled them to ward off attacks. In 1952, when Sachs was banned, Johanna became general secretary of the GWU. On November 1957 Johanna assisted in organizing a stayaway which saw 300 factories shut down for a day.

Johanna died in Johannesburg on 21 June 1974.


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

Last updated : 07-Aug-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 09-Nov-2011