Charlotte Maxeke, Remembering The Veterans
Charlotte Maxeke – Remembering the Veterans During Women’s Month by Joy Watson
Remembering our women veterans, the likes of people such as Charlotte Maxeke, upon whose backs our society is built, is a pivotal part of what women’s month is supposed to be about. The capturing of black women’s history has not been a priority for most historians. Little has been documented in ‘mainstream’ history about the many black South African women whose sacrifices and efforts for liberation constitute an important part of a rich history of activism. Many of these women, notwithstanding the limitations placed on them by their race and gender, accomplished significant things against great odds. In so doing, they played a role in shaping the course of South African history and in building our society.
Yet, sadly, many South Africans have never have heard of Charlotte Maxeke, Lillian Ngoyi, Sophia De Bruyn, Amina Cachalia or Dora Tamana. It is important to reclaim the history of black women in South Africa. Many had limited life opportunities, came from impoverished backgrounds and had little control over the life choices available to them. Yet they are the cornerstone upon which our liberation and fight for human rights is based on.
Charlotte Maxeke came to be known as the “Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa.” She was an extraordinary woman for her time. Born Charlotte Manye in 1874 in Ramokgopa in the Polokwane district, she spent her childhood in the Eastern Cape. Little is known of her childhood years. Her father was a preacher and she attended missionary schools. Christianity came to play a strong role in her life and was also the conduit for an opportunity to travel abroad.
Charlotte and her sister Katie joined the Jubilee Choir of the Presbyterian church choir in 1891. They started singing at concerts and were offered a rare opportunity to go on tour with the church choir to England. Such opportunities did not often arise for black women to travel abroad at the time. In England, the sisters performed for Queen Victoria. The trip also led to an opportunity to meet Emmeline Pankhurst, a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement.
A few years later, Charlotte was again invited to go on tour with the church choir to the USA. The tour eventually fell apart and Charlotte opted, instead of returning home, to study further. She was skilled in languages, mathematics and music and was offered a scholarship to attend a segregated college in Ohio. She graduated with a B.Sc degree from the Wilberforce University and is reputed to be the first black woman graduate in South Africa.
While in the USA, Charlotte came into contact with the ideas of prominent civil rights leaders. She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). The AME churches played a leading role in the building of black national consciousness and was at the cornerstone of calls for a more democratic society.
Charlotte met her future husband, Rev Marshall Maxeke, an AME Minister, at Wilberforce University. By the time that they returned to South Africa in the early 1900s, they were engaged to be married. Charlotte and Marshall established a school on the Witwatersrand and went on to teach in other parts of the country. In 1912, they both attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress in Bloemfontein. They eventually settled in Johannesburg. Both were active in church work and in taking up social development issues.
In 1913, women in Bloemfontein were arrested for not having passes. This led to a passive resistance campaign involving hundreds of women in surrounding towns. One of the results of this campaign was that it resulted in the establishment of the Bantu Women’s League in the ANC.
Charlotte became the first President of the Bantu Women’s League. In terms of the ANC’s stance at the time, women were not allowed to be full members. They were given the status of auxiliary membership without voting rights. Charlotte was instrumental in advocating for the abolishment of Free State pass laws. In 1918, she led a deputation to the Prime Minister, Louis Botha, to this end. In the 1920s, Charlotte also began to forge relationships with Clements Kadalie’s Industrial and Worker’s Union. She increasingly began to take up both social and political concerns.
By the 1920s, Charlotte was beginning to develop a reputation for her political activism. In 1921, she was invited by the Women’s Reform Club, a white women’s suffrage movement to address one of its meetings, an opportunity not afforded to any other black woman. She spoke about the life of African women in the towns. A report on the event noted that notwithstanding the fact that she spoke fluently, clearly and with dignity, all the white reporters present sat back and stopped taking notes when she began to talk. Yet Charlotte was to continue to call for collaboration between black and white women. In 1930, she proposed that “Joint Service Councils” be established amongst white and African women. The purpose of the councils would be to seek to address the problems faced by young black domestic workers in town.
In 1928, Charlotte gained international prominence and was invited to speak at an international platform when she represented the AME church at a conference in America. While her career as an activist was gaining significant momentum, her husband sadly passed away at around this time. Her only son moved on to the USA to study and Charlotte had to rely on her own ability to generate an income. At a time when professional opportunities for black women were few and far between, she decided to set up an employment bureau. Later, she was appointed as a probation officer to the courts by the Johannesburg municipality.
By 1930, it seems that Charlotte had retired from her job. She was still, however, in demand as a speaker. In 1930 she presented a paper on social conditions among women and girls in Fort Hare. In 1935, she addressed the All Africa Convention in Bloemfontein. She held firm in her belief that women’s organisations were an integral part of a struggle to liberate all black people from suffering under white minority rule. She felt strongly that this could only be achieved by the efforts of black people. Yet, she remained committed to the ideals of a multi-racial society. In her speech to the All African Convention in 1935, Charlotte talked about the need for unity in the country.
In 1933, the Bantu Women’s League was replaced by the National Council of African Women. Charlotte, in her sixties at this point, became its first President. The primary aim of the Council was to look after the welfare of black South Africans. Her Presidential address, which took place a year before she died, focused on the importance of a sense of community:
“I want to thank you very much and congratulate you on your deliberations. This work is not for yourselves – kill that spirit of self. Do not live above your people, but live with them. If you can, bring someone with you. Do away with that fearful animal jealousy – kill that spirit and love one another as brothers and sisters. The animal that will tear us to pieces is tribalism. I saw the shadow of it and it should cease to be. Stand by your motto – the golden rule.“
The speech is a testimony to her views on the need for a sense of social cohesion and the elimination of social conflict caused by tribalism. A year later, at the age of 65, Charlotte died on 16 October 1939 at in Kliptown. Her legacy as a woman who rose above the social limitations of her time and managed against all odds, to pursue an education, a career and a path as a social activist, lives on.
Hlatwayo T 1987 Mina Soga’s Baby: History of the NCAW. Johannesburg: Seriti ba Sechaba.
Jackson J “Charlotte Makgoma Manye Maxeke: Her legacy lives on” in Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae, April 2008, Supplement 75-89.
Walker C 1982 Women and resistance in South Africa. Cape Town David Philiip.
 Walker, 1982.
 Hlatwayo 1987: 8