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Mama Mary Fitzgerald (Posthumous)

The Order of Luthuli in

Mama Mary Fitzgerald (Posthumous) Awarded for:
Her gallant fight against injustice and inequalities enforced through racist laws. She was ahead of her time and her legacy continues to live on in downtown Johannesburg.
Profile of Mama Mary Fitzgerald

Mama Mary Fitzgerald was born in Wexford Ireland in 1882. She trained as a printer and qualified as South Africa’s first female master printer. She was the first woman to be elected to the Johannesburg City Council (JCC) at the age of 33. She later served as Deputy Mayor of Johannesburg and was appointed by the government to be its representative at an international labour conference.

When she retired from the JCC, her constituents gave her a car, making her the first woman to own and drive a car. The town council voted to name Johannesburg’s Market Square in her honour. The square is commemorated in the name of Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, Johannesburg.

She made an enormous contribution to the early history of Johannesburg, after arriving there in 1902. She became South Africa’s first trade union organiser, a rabble-rousing orator, and a strike leader and leader of women’s commandos. Fiery and fearless, she stood up to Minister of Mines, Jan Smuts, the police, local and British troops and scabs alike. She was a suffragist long before women had the vote.

She also published articles from her printing works advocating women’s enfranchisement, racially integrated trade unions and revolutionary socialism. She helped to found the Labour Party, attended its international conferences and she was active in work for children.

As a typist for the Mine Workers’ Union in Johannesburg, she was appalled by the working conditions of miners, and most of all, she was distressed by the plight of the women and children who she felt bore the brunt of the suffering.

She became involved in related industrial action. In Johannesburg, Fitzgerald became editor of a radical publication known as The Voice of Labour, which she used as a vehicle for contesting capitalist relations and worker rights in the industrialising and colonial city of gold.

As a prominent leader in the trade union movement, she established unions for women in 1907, to put them in a position to claim equal pay and opportunity with men. Her first target was the overworked waitresses; the poorest paid employees in 1907.

Fitzgerald’s leading role was during the Black Friday riots in 1913. Workman’s compensation and medical benefits were totally inadequate. On 4 July 1913, the government declared martial law after 18 000 miners had stopped work. The federation called a mass meeting in Johannesburg’s Market Square to announce the strike. The government responded by calling in 4 000 policemen and British troops to try to break up the meeting.

The police’s brutal attack on the people was driven back by a barrage of broken bottles, stones and tin cans that injured 88 of them. As the Royal Dragoons – a cavalry regiment of the British Army – charged the crowd, she stood on an oil drum and appealed to the crowd to stand fast and resist the police and soldiers.

Her women commandos surged into the cleared space to rally their menfolk who were starting to leave the square. Fitzgerald describes in her journal how she became separated from the crowd and pinned between a mounted Dragoon Commandant’s horse and a wall. She took a big hat pin from her hat and drove it into the horse, which ran away.