Charlotte Maxeke still inspires today
A HOSPITAL in Johannesburg, a submarine, the main street in Bloemfontein Z these were all named after Charlotte Maxeke.
But who was this remarkable woman, the subject of a recent biography by ex-journalist, Zubeida Jaffer, who is currently attached to the School of Communication Science at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein?
In Beauty of the Heart: The life and times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, Jaffer explored the life of this iconic figure after having been approached by the outgoing rector of the university, Prof. Jonathan Jansen.
According to Jaffer, this was no easy task.
“When one decides to write a book such as this, one must be dedicated because the person encroaches upon your life.
“This book was difficult to write. There was no narrative to begin with.”
Frustrated because she felt the essential elements of the life of Maxeke eluded her, Jaffer set about trying to detect the small jewels of her subject’s life.
“It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” she said.
Charlotte’s life, however, served as inspiration.
“Her vision for us as people was to take control of our own lives and to rely on oneself. She went out and built schools and churches and involved herself in her community.
“This really made an impression on me, because we must come to a point where we realise nobody is going to help us. We must stop that attitude and use our resources to build our own communities.”
As a 23-year old woman, Charlotte landed in America as part of a touring company of choristers.
Thanks to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) she won a place at the Wilberforce University where she obtained a B.Sc degree in 1901 and thus became the first black woman in South Africa to get a degree.
Back on home soil, Charlotte set about converting many people in her home province of Limpopo to the Christian religion.
She married her fellow student from Wilberforce, Marshall Maxeke, after which they moved to Johannesburg.
Prior to this the couple lost a baby and did not have any other children thereafter.
In Evaton, Johannesburg, where they settled, she raised funds from all the AME churches world-wide, and used the money to build a primary and a high school as well as a teacher’s training college.
This education centre was named after her alma mater Wilberforce. Her husband Marshall became the first principal with Charlotte serving as his deputy.
Although she focused on educational and spiritual matters during this time, her political activism gradually deve-loped. When the ANC was founded in Bloemfontein in 1912 she was the only woman amongst males, but being a graduate she firmly stood her ground.
She became one of the forerunners of the Bantu Women’s League (BWL), an organisation that campaigned against the pass laws at that time because “they debased the honour of women”.
Jaffer quotes Charlotte as saying at a meeting in 1917: “It is high time that the voice of black women be heard. They must ready themselves for a struggle.”
She also wanted to know, after listening to a speech by a male person: “How can men liberate women from the pass laws if they themselves are subject to it?”
As leader of the BWL she led a delegation to the then premier, Louis Botha, to object to laws in the Orange Free State against women. She also fought against laws that denied women the right to vote.
Later in her life, following the death of her husband (in 1928), Charlotte busied herself with church and social work in a prison for women.
Jaffer writes that at the second conference of the National Council of African Women (NCAW) in 1938 in Bloemfontein, a year before her death, Charlotte said: “The work is not for oneself. Kill the spirit of ‘self’ and do not live above your people, but with them. If you rise above them, take somebody with you.”
According to Dr Thomazile April, a historian who did a doctoral research on Maxeke, Charlotte would have been appalled by the burning down of schools.
“Her pursuit and passion for education, the entire story of her life, is an inspiration from which we can draw lessons for today.
“If we had leaders of her calibre today, things could possibly have been different. I doubt it whether she would have remained silent over much of what is happening in our country.
“She would have exhorted people not to burn down schools, but rather to build them. She was a dynamic person who touched every sphere of society.”
would have been
appalled by the burning down of schools . . .