Very little is known about the woman who gave her name to Johannesburg General Hospital.
The first South African book that mentions Charlotte Maxeke is Call Me Woman (1985), an autobiography by Ellen Khuzwayo. It is about the struggles and achievements of black women in contemporary history. Maxeke’s accomplishments are mentioned in three sentences. The second one is Julia Wells’ We Have Done With Pleading: The Women’s 1913 AntiPass Campaign (1991). In this one, her life and times are summed up in three paragraphs.
These two books may seem stingy in their acknowledgement of a remarkable woman, and trail-blazing leader of the past two centuries; but, in retrospect, it was recognition nevertheless. Under apartheid, a comprehensive biography of Maxeke would have been impossible. And that is why this book is such a welcome literary treasure in South African biography.
It is a well-researched and finely crafted work that lifts the veil of secrecy and mystery around the life of one of the country’s remarkable activists and leaders. Dr AB Xuma, a contemporary, and president of the ANC in 1935, referred to her as “the mother of African freedom in this country”.
Contrary to popular belief that the 1956 anti-pass march to the Union Buildings by 20 000 women was the first in the history of women’s struggles in South Africa, the book reveals that Maxeke had pioneered such campaigns as early as 1913 when Lilian Ngoyi, the heroine of the 1956 march, was only two years old.
One of the mysteries around Charlotte Maxeke’s life was her date of birth. She was born in Ga-Ramokgopa, Botlokwa on April 7, 1871 – although it is more anecdotal than official. We also learn that this was the year South Africa lost its first male university graduate, Tiyo Soga, at 42. He had graduated in theology from Scotland at the age of 27 and went on to distinguish himself as an eminent South African in journalist, theologian and academic.
Maxeke herself was a formidable intellectual. She was a BSc graduate at Wilberforce University in the US in 1901 – the first black South African woman to achieve the feat, shattering the myth that girls were less academically gifted compared with their male counterparts. One of her lecturers was Web Du Bois, a prominent African-American civil rights leader and pan-Africanist. The fact that she had a Xhosa mother suggests that, even as early as the 19th century, Africans fell in love and married across ethnic and geographic lines – a fact that has been eloquently articulated by famous writer, Solomon Plaatje.
In a world when the main mode of transport was an ox-wagon, it is difficult to imagine the worlds of the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape and the Batlokwa in the northern part of the country coming together. But Charlotte Maxeke straddled these worlds and, more remarkably, traversed the seas.
Another noteworthy gem in the book is that she was a pupil of Reverend Isaiah Wauchope, the tragic hero of the sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917 during World War I. In short, this book answers all the questions about her life – ancestry, parentage, siblings, teachers, friends, romance and, of course, life as an activist. She was instrumental in the formation of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918 – the forerunner of the ANC Women’s League.
Through her life of selfless service, she showed how it was possible to restore moral and ethical leadership in public life. The text is a reminder that long before crass materialism and leadership for monetary benefits, there were people who dedicated themselves unconditionally to the noble cause of freedom.
Charlotte Maxeke is one of the shining beacons in this regard. The title is an apt reference to her generosity of spirit. It speaks to her unbending social activism and caring attitude. Although it is safe to regard this pioneering work as a biography, it is also a history of a different and distant time when freedom seemed like a faraway star.
Reading this exceptional life story about a remarkable South African leader, one gets a clear perspective how the past shapes the present. Indeed, the current South Africa and the freedoms we are enjoying today are thanks to the selfless leadership of one Charlotte Maxeke.
Congratulations to author Zubeida Jaffer for restoring this heroine to South African history and popular consciousness.