A pioneer from the onset, Mary Mkhwanazi, sought to rise above her circumstances and challenge prevailing oppression. Born in 1932, in rural Mbongolwane, KwaZulu-Natal, Mary completed her primary school education with ease and moved on to attend high school, a rarity at a time when a standard two education was deemed sufficient.
In 1960 she moved to Durban. It was here, at her new workplace, that she realised the power of activism. Unhappy with the decrepit mattress she was given and aware of the abundance of adequate beds in her employer’s household, she demanded better treatment for herself and other employees. The incident made her realise that changes to her condition could be negotiated, but that such negotiation was dependent on her challenging her oppression in the first place.
It was through her fight for her own basic human rights as a domestic worker that she paved the way for others to also gain access to justice. In 1980 Mkhwanazi went on to lead the South African Domestic Workers’ Association (SADWA). SADWA’s activities eventually led to the establishment of the South African Domestic Workers’ Union (SADWU) in 1986. Their objective was met in 1997, when the formal recognition of domestic labourers as workers was legally guaranteed.
Now almost 82 years old, Mkhwanazi, has dedicated 50 years of her life to human rights and democracy. She has been honoured by the Steve Biko Foundation and the Legal Resources Centre for her extended commitment to liberty and equality. She is still an advisor and mentor to a list of professionals and also serves as a member of the ANC’s veteran’s league.