Charlotte Mannya Maxeke: The Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 26, 2021

Share this article:

By Dr Vusi Shongwe

“The present generation may rewrite history, but it does not write it on a blank page” (Maurice Halbwachs).

“This work is not for yourselves. Kill that spirit of self and do not live above your people but live with them and if you can rise, bring someone with you.” Charlotte Mannya Maxeke Institute

Addressing his people, President Igo Smirnov of Transnistria, near Ukraine, once said: “we must save the heritage of our heroic senior generation. Their feat will remain for centuries as a caution for our descendants, as a lesson of courage, of selfless service to the Fatherland, of fidelity to the ideals of good and justice.”

So, similar sentiments can be expressed in relation to Charlotte Maxeke who by all measure and standards of the time was a woman of great stature. American civil rights woman activist, Fannie Lou Hammer, teaches us that there are two things we should always care about. Firstly, we should “never forget where we came from” and secondly, we should “always praise the bridges that carried us over.”

Regrettably, apathy has made it possible for South Africans to forget the “bridges” that carried them over to where they are today as a nation. There is, as it were, an apparent forgetfulness that our progress is a march that started with the fallen heroes and heroines.

As we progress, these heroes and heroines hear every footstep and misstep we make. It is against this backdrop that Maurice Halbwachs reminds us that “the present generation may rewrite history, but it does not write it on a blank page.”

So, Charlotte Maxeke is one of those bridges and also one of those heroines of our struggle for freedom whose motive to join the struggle for freedom was to improve the quality of life of the downtrodden rather than personal aggrandizement.

So, it can be gleaned from the above explication on the question of forgetfulness that many magnificent human beings who achieved so much in the past are now almost totally forgotten. Ironically, their contemporaries would have expressed astonishment at their present anonymity.

Thus, in retrospect, almost every era may be viewed as an age of giants as exemplified by the glorious history of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. It is in this regard, therefore, that Charlotte Maxeke stands out like a cathedral in a citadel. It needs to be conceded though that there is always an element of danger involved in seeing the past through the present.

Thus, although the contemporary glass through which we review the past may show us new aspects, it may also discolour or distort it. So, if we are to avoid errors, we must try to see Charlotte Maxeke in her own context within which she displayed all the qualities of a great leader.

Arguably, the fact that unlike in the case of other eminent ANC leaders, Charlotte Maxeke’s history has not spawned a virtual cottage industry of books and commentary despite the rich history she bequeathed us with has, for many years, been an indictment to the ANC as a party for its perhaps unwitting disregard of her monumental achievements.

Our recognition of this historiographical omission which, when correctly construed, should steer us towards rescuing Charlotte Maxeke from the threat of global anonymity and restore her to her deserved position in public esteem.

Indeed, the government needs to be commended for removing Charlotte Maxeke from both the periphery of the discourse of the struggle for liberation and anonymity by declaring 2021 as the year of celebrating the anniversary of 150 years of the birth of Charlotte Maxeke – an icon of the role of women in the struggle for liberation in South Africa.

She is, therefore, to be conceived of as a towering figure and extra-ordinaire black female intellectual and activist who made superhuman efforts to improve the human condition.

Who was Charlotte Mannya Maxeke?

Charlotte Maxeke was born Charlotte Mokgomo Mannya Maxeke in Botlokwa – Ga-Ramokgoba, in Limpopo (Polokwane) on the 7th of 1871.

Her mother was a teacher and her father was a foreman on road gangs. Her father was also a lay preacher in a Presbyterian Church In the 1891, Mannya and her sister, Kate, were invited to join the African Jubilee Choir and toured Britain. The choir was invited to sing to Queen Victoria.

Beautifully endowed with a mellifluous voice, Maxeke mesmerized the Queen with her solo performance. It was during her tour in England that Maxeke attended suffrage speeches by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline Pankhurts was a British political activist. She is best remembered for organizing the UK suffrage movement and helping women win the right to vote. Also, during the same tour, Manye met students from Wilberforce University.

She realised for the first time that in the United States there were opportunities for black students which were not available in South Africa. Eventually, the African Jubilee Choir toured the United States.

When the tour collapsed owing to the abscondence of its leader, an abscondence which left Manya and the other members of choir stranded and penniless. As faith would have it, Maxeke stayed in America, and she met Bishop Derrick of the A.M.E Church, who arranged for her to study at Wilberforce University. She received a scholarship from Daniel A. Payne.

She excelled in all field of academia. She also arranged opportunities for other African students to study at Wilberforce. At Wilberforce she also met her husband, Marshall Maxeke, who had come to the University from South Africa in 1896. She was taught under the tutelage of Pan Africanist scholar and proponent Dr WEB Du Bois and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa.

Charlotte achieved two very memorable things. She became the first black South African woman to earn a university degree (B.Sc. degree), and she was betrothed to a fellow country man and graduate Dr Marshall Maxeke.

To graduate with a B. Sc degree was no small feat, especially at a time when colonialism, oppression, racism and sexism were considered the norm was an unimaginable achievement.

Lest it be forgotten, it was the very same W.E.B. Du Bois, the Harvard University graduate who, in 1903, said in his Souls of Black Folks perhaps his most famous quote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

With hope for the future, this was said during a time where DuBois thought that this problem would be eliminated in due time. To underscore and appreciate the incredible academic achievements of Charlotte Maxeke, in 1930 Dr AB Xuma wrote an essay about Maxeke: “Charlotte Manye Maxeke: What an educated African girl can do” in order to make “an argument for higher education of our African women.”

Interestingly, the foreword to the essay was written by Du Bois who described Maxeke as someone who has a “clear mind, [a] fund of subtle humour and a straight-forward honesty [of] character”.

He further explained “I regard Mrs Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest of human races, working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race, but against her sex. To fight not simply the natural and inherent difficulties of education and social uplift, but to fight with little money and little outside aid was indeed a tremendous task”.

Shortly after her return from the USA, Maxeke helped found the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clandestinely kept contact with the USA. She also helped bring the AME to South Africa.

It was around 1902, shortly after the end of the Anglo-Boer war, that the Charlotte Maxeke, a towering and extra-ordinaire black female activist and human rights campaigner, took the first active steps in organized politics by attending the annual meeting of the SA Native Convention (SANC) or Ingqungquthela in Queenstown.

The cape-based organization was formed in 1890 and was the early manifestations of efforts to cut across tribal divides and form the South African Native National Congress (SANNC).

As pointed out by Zubeida Jaffer in her article “A woman ahead of her time: The Lesseyton moment,” Maxeke must have had some inkling that arriving at this meeting would cause controversy. On the day of the meeting Jaffer relates, Maxeke was the only woman present and said she needed clarity on the purpose of the congress and its objectives.

She also asked if it was possible to have women forming part of the congress. Shocked by Maxeke’s boldness, the congress nominated a committee to respond to Maxeke’s questions.

As patriarchally expected, the committee tabled the matter and replied by saying the time was not yet ripe for women to lead delegations let alone to take part in civil movements. It further said that it was advisable for women to form their own movements as women only.

Though she might have expected such a response from the committee, Even though no record, as explained by Jaffer, on how Maxeke reacted to the decision of the committee, there is however no doubt that Maxeke was both shocked and disappointed that she could not be part of such a serious meeting because she was a woman.

However, as related by Jaffer, there was at least one man who publicly expressed a different view to that of the committee, and this man was none other than Sol Plaatje. Plaatje was outraged the way Maxeke was treated.

In an article in Koranta ea Becona, he wrote: “what was the state of affairs at the Convention? Out of a gathering of 40 robust men, not one could boast of even a Kaffrarian degree, while Miss Charlotte, who was refused admittance on account of her sex is, besides other attainments, a BSc of an American University and in a report covering more than nine columns of the Izwi, hers was the neatest and most sensible little speech…We are great believers in classification, you know, but classifications of the right kind, not discrimination and just as strongly as we object to the line of demarcation being drawn on the basis of a person’s colour, so we abhor disqualification founded on a person’s sex.

“The Convention would surely have benefited by the experiences of one, who thought a woman, is not only their intellectual superior, but is besides leading an adventurous missionary life among the heathens of the Zoutpansberg, while they demonstrate their manliness by leisurely enjoying the sea breeze at the coast.”

The details of Charlotte Maxeke’s life trajectory are recorded in the book, Beauty of the Heart, The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, written by Zubeida Jaffer.

Historiographical Omission: A case of the Patriarchal Worldview

Wittingly or unwittingly, the historiographical omission in recording Charlotte Mannya Maxeke’s Achievements cannot go unnoticed. Thus, without being unduly systematic, one would chronicle (without being necessarily exhaustive in this regard) Charlotte Maxeke’s achievements both as a political activist and intellectual as follows:

In 1901: She was the first Black South African woman that graduated with a B Sc degree in an American University.

In 1913: She led the first march against the Pass Laws which was the forerunner of the 1956 Women’s March against the Pass Laws.

In 1918: She founded the Bantu Women League which was the precursor of the ANCWL of 1943. In the very same year, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women.

In 1920: She participated in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU).

In 1924: She was elected President of the Women’s Missionary Society (WMS).

In 1926: She was appointed Head Teacher at Lota High School at Idutywa in the Eastern Cape.

In 1928: She attended an AME Church Conference in the USA. In the very same year, she addressed the ALL African Convention in Bloemfontein.

In 1933: She was instrumental in the formation of the National Council of African Women and she became its first National President.

In 1935: She addressed the All African Convention in Bloemfontein.

In recognising the importance of the National Council of African Women, the President General of the African National Congress of the time, Reverend Mahabane, invited Charlotte Maxeke to join an ANC deputation to Cape Town in 1939.

The overriding purpose of the trip was to interview the Minister of Native Affairs, government officials and several Members of Parliament on the socio-economic conditions of Africans. It is worth mentioning that the Council became the catalyst for articulating the struggle of women in changing the social, political and economic conditions of Africans, both rural and urban areas.

In her perspicacious closing remarks, just two months before her demise, she said something that any person who is a leader should always guard against: This work is not ourselves. Kill that spirit of “self” and do not live above your people. If you can rise, bring some with you. Circulate your work and distribute as much information as possible, because this is not your Council, but the Council of African women from here to Egypt. Do away with fearful jealousy, kill that spirit and love one another as brothers and sisters. Stand by your motto: Do unto others as ye would that they should unto you.”

Charlotte Maxeke’s extraordinary intellect and leadership led to her being invited by the South African Ministry of Education to testify before several government commissions in Johannesburg on matters concerning African education – first for an African of any gender. Her sagacity led to a number of job offers which were the first of their kind made by the white government to an African and this resulted in her being made a probation officer and was the first African woman to hold such a post.

Thus, in reference to the above explication, my view is that the neglect and overlooking of the role and contributions made by women in the struggle for liberation can be attributed to the ingrained patriarchal worldview which for many years has seen women being relegated to the margins of society. Not only did patriarchy nearly vitiate and overlook the incredible accomplishments and contributions of Maxeke, it almost consigned her into historical anonymity as exemplified by the limited reading material on her history.

Dale Spender, author of ‘Women of Ideas and what men have done to them’, argues that fundamental to patriarchy is the invisibility of women, the unreal nature of women’s experience, the absence of women as a force to be reckoned with.”

In his book, The Founders, Andre Odendaal, brilliantly captures the absence or invisibility of women in the nationalist movement when he points out that, “Women have generally been absent from South African narratives of nationalism and the nascent struggles for democracy before 1912. It has been accepted that those who started ‘the struggle’ and the ANC were men, the ‘founding fathers’ to use the language of patriarchy, and that women’s involvement in politics postdates 1912.”

Odendaal speaks of the tension regarding the nature of black women’s publicness in the 1920s and 1930s. Healy-Clancy, in her article “In a world of their Own: A history of South African Women’s Education,” postulates that “while scholars have generally characterised women as marginal to African nationalism during this period, women were in fact only marginal to the realm of male-dominated political groups in which the ANC was prominent.

Ironically, even leaders like Dr AB Xuma, who was one of the revered leaders of the SANNAC could not escape the pervasively prevailing, deeply and sub-consciously ingrained patriarchic influence. He referred to Maxeke as “an educated native girl.”

This was not surprising to Maxeke because in those days, as she mentioned in her speech in England, women were but cattle. That is how distastefully toxic the pervasive influence of patriarchy was. Indeed, Maxeke had to endure all the obstacles and challenges that were part of her daily life as an African woman living in a 19th-century colonial world which was also compounded by patriarchy.

Sadly, even in the 21st century, one still comes across patriarchal views even from internationally acclaimed and highly revered educated male scholars.

For example, in his article entitled, ’Women and the Evolution of World Politics’ 1998, Francis Fukuyama asserts that women leaders endanger our world given their incomprehension of ‘masculine’ world politics.

Some girls like Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir may play with the boys by curbing or overcoming their inherent disposition toward peace, love, and other ‘caring’ emotions. But women, as a whole, are genetically incapable of handling a world rife with testosterone-charged aggression, hierarchy and violence.

He (Fukuyama) portrays, as observed by Youba Raj Luintel’s piece Do Males Always like War, that women are ‘incapable” of venturing into the realm of politics that has been “male-friendly”: aggressive, competitive, tough and force demanding.

Fukuyama, as observed by Lily Ling in her article, “Hypermasculinity on the rise, again”, claims that feminists seek to ‘control’ men and so they should, given men’s aggressive tendencies. As if giving credit to women, the industrialized democracies, argues Fukuyama, score best with the greatest number of women in politics.

Higher numbers of female politicians, officials, bureaucrats, and the like, ensure that a ‘zone of peace’ is enjoyed by liberal democratic states only. Fukuyama cautions, though, that this feminization of politics would work if and only if the world at large were to become so.

Since this is not the case, dangerous males like ‘Mobutu, Milosevic, or Saddam’ require(d) steely masculinity, not warm and fuzzy femininity at the helm. In fact, argues Fukuyama, the feminization of politics may pose greater dangers than stability in this context.

Fukuyama continues to argue that despite the rise of women, men will continue to play a critical role, if not a dominant part in the governance of post-industrial countries, not to mention less-developed ones.

The realms of war and international politics will remain controlled by men for longer than many feminists would like. Most importantly, the task of re-socializing men to be more like women – that is, less violent – will run into limits.

What is bred in the bone, concludes Fukuyama, cannot be altered easily by changes in culture and ideology. The grasp of the intensity of the oppression of women is further articulated by Spivak G. in her piece “Can the Sulbatern Speak,” “between patriarchy and imperialism, subject – constitution and object – formation, into a figure of woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced fuguration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization.”

The negative impact of the patriarchal worldview is also articulated by Clarisa Pinkola Estes in her acclaimed book entitled “Women Who Run with the Wolves.” The book is a quintessential read for men and women which is a landmark publication on the female psyche and how through the centuries Women have proved to be resilient and strong despite the Patriarchal conventional oppression.

Fundiswa A. Koka, in his article, “A womanist exposition of Pseudo-Spirituality and the Cry of an Oppressed African Woman,” points out that South African black women, all of the those have arguably manifest three times more as they suffered triple oppression of race, class and gender, and their struggle to challenge the patriarchal culture of insubordination is still pertinent for our context today.

It is a cry for life as they have to navigate their way in a patriarchal society whose structures are designed to silence them and make them believe that they are not worthy. The subtle forms of violence women experience cannot easily be articulated as they have for centuries been eating into their psyche thus eroding their self-esteem.

Accordingly, Kobo avers, this cry for life is, however, not a cry of despair, sorrow, hopelessness or grief, but is a cry of strident witness to the persistence of life. It is a cry that denies victory to torture as ‘bodies may die, but spirit never dies. Something seems to keep the fire lit despite the circumstances.

During the liberation struggle, women continued to perform tasks long associated with their gender – cooked, washed clothing and perform sexual services for the male guerrilar. Women were generally excluded from positions of power.

As Marx and Engels declared: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”. Also, W.E.B. Du Bois puts it aptly when he says, “the meaning of the twentieth century is the freeing of the individual soul; the soul longest in slavery and still in the most disgusting and indefensible slavery is the soul of womanhood.”

Thus, argues Dy Bois, “the uplift of women is, next to the problem of the colour line and the peace movement our greatest modern cause. Indeed, too often, women, including Charlotte Maxeke’s role in the rise of black politics is limited to a secondary status in which women are perceived as a support structure of the struggle.

Thozama April points out how the gendered oral archives of the narratives of the struggle have failed to account for Maxeke’s contributions in the authorship of the narratives of the struggle.

The interviews Thozama April conducted only highlighted “the supportive role” of the women in organizing political events and various organizations associated with the struggle for liberation from the 1920s to the 1930s. The struggle narratives are constructed around male figures. In short, many narratives overlook the involvement of women in both the formative years of modern politics and the role of women in the struggle for liberation. Indeed, the so called “supportive role” smacks of the patriarchal worldview.

In these narratives, women featured as spouses who provided the much-needed support to the political prisoners. This trend continues to frame and describe the entry of women into the field of politics as mere supporters.

The question then is, asks April, “how was it then that authoritative studies of black protest politics could omit women’s theorizations of the political discourse of the twentieth century? And how could these movements have neglected their precursors in the work of intellectuals like Maxeke.

The conclusion we might draw from the survey of the scholarship of the 1980s is that oral narratives when used as a corrective measure in presenting first-hand accounts of women’s lives, experiences, achievement and struggles alone do not suffice to overcome the flaws of the nationalist meta-narratives on women.

Written Scholarly Testimonies on Charlotte Maxeke’s Achievements

Some notable scholars have attested to the fact that Charlotte Maxeke was not only a prolific black leader, activist and a Pan Africanist who worked with all organizations of different persuasions, but was also a powerful and influential and inimitable intellectual figure who was highly revered even by her own oppressors.

She was indeed a servant leader, a social worker and a resiliently brave woman in the face of adversity as she fought for voting rights, welfare rights, women’s rights, economic rights, and above all, for a vision that would ensure the dignity of every person. Like Rosa Parks who is heralded as the mother of modern-day civil rights movement, Charlotte Maxeke is heralded as the mother of black freedom in South Africa.

Charlotte Maxeke, the 19th century African intellectual, wrote three very informative essays titled: “The progress of Native womanhood in South Africa”, “The city mission” and “social conditions amongst Bantu women and girls”.

Masola is instructive in her article, On Black Excellence: Charlotte Maxeke, when she says, “glancing at the titles alone one can only see the formidability in Maxeke’s voice and, she poignantly declares, “the silence and erasure about Maxeke’s life is a travesty”. Maxeke’s story matters.

The truth is, observes Masola, many young black girls do not know Charlotte Maxeke’s story and there is a danger in this. Masola is of the conviction that Charlotte Maxeke’s story is a reminder that as a woman she can create the reality she wants; she does not have to respond to the small space that is created for black women to occupy.

Masola further says that whenever she faces criticism for being outspoken about the black experience, she returns to Charlotte Mannya Maxeke’s words and story as a reminder that “my soul is intact (from Nina Simone’s song “young gifted and black”, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s work) and that her world is straight.

Many scholars, especially feminists, argue that Maxeke’s name is sadly overlooked in the history of South Africa probably because of her gender - a point argued by Thozama April in her groundbreaking thesis.

Indeed, Charlotte Mannya Maxeke’s stupendously remarkable story should inspire all young women to conquer all the obstacles they face in their personal and professional lives. They, including men, dare not fail her.

Charlotte Maxeke worked as a parole officer and court welfare officer in Johannesburg. She vouched for Hastings Walter Kamuzu Banda who led Malawi’s independence campaign and who in 1966 became the country’s first president of Malawi to secure a passport to enable him to journey to the United States to take up an AME church scholarship at Wilberforce University.

With the imperturbability and authority of unshakable experience, she asked the magistrate to approve Banda’s application. With her widely known and highly revered reputation, her work carried great weight and the application was unreservedly and hassle-free approved.

This was not surprising, as pointed out by former speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, in her commemoration lecture on Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, the latter was a successful facilitator of racial relations across the racial spectrum.

Mbete is of the view that Charlotte Maxeke embodies the struggle of a modern woman in her engagements with traditional structures to negotiate western modes of life into a traditional rural society.

Writing his publication “What a Girl Can Do” AB Xuma one of the past presidents of the ANC notes that Maxeke’s meaningful engagement with men in the chiefs’ council was “due to her mastery of the customs. She also, despite the challenges, during her stay in Ramokgopa village, which was replete with traditional protocols, Maxeke adroitly navigated her way and laid a strong foundation for Christianity to grow by establishing a community school in the village. It is also widely acknowledged that the chief’s progressive stance towards education was a result of her stay in the village. She was also was one of the few women whose voice was heard and who had an influence in the council of Dalindyebo, Paramount Chief of the abaThembu at Idutywa. Maxeke’s multiplex capabilities led to the bestowal of the honour of being the counsellor of King Sabata Dalindyebo. The ANC awarded her the Isithwalandwe, which is the highest honour of the ANC, awarded to those who made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle.

In his article entitled: Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, Advocate Modidima Mannya argues that if there was ever an opportunity for the ANC (its predecessor) to have had a female President, Maxeke would have been the best the ANC would ever have. Could it be that Advocate Mannanya is advancing this argument just because he shares the same maiden surname of Charlotte Maxeke?

Be that as it may, it cannot be gainsaid that Maxeke was on overall pioneer and an incisive leader. Professor Tinyiko Maluleke surmises that the only reason Charlotte Maxeke was not elected the first president of the African National Congress was that she was a woman, for Maxeke herself, noted in her speech in England that in those days, women were but cattle. This was a serious indictment on patriarchy.

Given the colossally greatness of Maxeke, it is rather unfortunate that there is a dearth of scholarly work on the history of Charlotte Maxeke. There are, however, two substantive works on Charlotte Maxeke. The thesis of Thozama April-Maduma and the biography of Charlotte Maxeke by Zubeida Jaffer.

Thozama April-Maduna’s ground-breaking thesis, “Theorising Women: The Intellectual Contribution of Charlotte Maxeke to the Struggle for liberation in South Africa” examines the incorporation of Maxeke’s legacy of active intellectual engagement as an integral part of gender politics in the activities of the Women’s section of the African National Congress.

Indeed, Dr Thozama April-Maduna and Zubeida Jaffer should be extolled for their engrossing, riveting and pioneering works on Maxeke. Having read these two meticulously well researched and elegantly written works on Maxeke, one can attest without any shadow of doubt that Maxeke stands out as an international pedestal alongside her global contemporaries.

April sees Maxeke as the embodiment of the intellectual contributions of women in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. It is regrettable, though, as April points out, that only prominent male intellectuals are often cited as central to the intellectual core of the liberation movement.

April points out that the Intellectual tradition of the 19th and the 20th centuries respectively in South Africa not only flagrantly ignores Maxeke but neglects Women intellectuals altogether.

A good example of this is a book by Mcebisi Ndletyana entitled African Intellectuals in 19th and 20th Century South Africa. This book in its surveying of the intellectual tradition of 19th and 20th century South Africa not only ignores Maxeke but neglects women intellectuals altogether.

Instead of acknowledging their pivotal role in the struggle, women are only acknowledged for their reproductive abilities. Charlotte would have been proud of the women of the Algerian society, who, according to Frantz Fanon in his book: The year of revolution in Algeria, in their fight for liberation, in their sacrifices that they were willing to make in order to liberate themselves from colonialism, and, probably from patriarchy as well, renewed themselves and developed new values governing sexual relations.

The women ceased to be a complement of men. They literally forged a new place for themselves with their sheer strength, resilience and unrelenting determination. In a nutshell, Maxeke unfolded a discourse that was in sharp contrast to the documentary trends of the nationalist narratives of the struggle for liberation. Her discourse also contrasted sharply with that of the state. But this fissure has unfortunately been omitted in the historiography of the liberation struggle.

Charlotte Maxeke – the ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa passed away, joining her husband and her God, on 16 October 1939 at the age of 65. At her funeral at Kliptown, in the Johannesburg’s eastern periphery, her eulogy ended with the words “She was everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy.”

It bears repeating, therefore, that to sustain her abiding legacy, a submarine, S102, is named after Charlotte Maxeke, and the former Johannesburg Hospital in Parktown was renamed Dr Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. A statue has been erected of the woman who has come to be called the ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’ and this is in Pretoria’s Garden of Remembrance.


It is unfortunate that most members of the public remain ignorant of Charlotte Maxeke’s significance in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Hopefully, the celebration of her one hundred and fifty (150) years anniversary will help remove Maxeke from the periphery of the political discourse and place her in the epicentre of the scheme of things because that is where she belongs.

Known for her moral consistency, independence of judgement and the courage to express it, Charlotte Maxeke spoke from her soul with great feeling for all, and everyone listened. It could be easily said she cared deeply for all humankind.

As Zubeida Jaffer puts it in her article, “Heraldine heroine: Why is Charlotte Maxeke’s Life such a blurry memory for South Africa,” many will know that Charlotte Maxeke is the name of a Heroine -class submarine. And a heroine she was.

Jaffer says Maxeke has bequeathed a legacy that should no longer be absent from school and university curricula. The English Historian, Paul Johnson, reminds us " . . . From the heroes of the past we learn . . . and what they teach, by the example of their lives and words, has the special quality of truth by personal example. Thus, the good hero lives on, in our minds, if we are imaginative, and in our actions, if we are wise."

I close by paraphrasing a line from William Butler Yeats’ poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited: "Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say our glory was we had such a friend." This was what Charlotte Mannya Maxeke was, to her family, comrades, congregants and the world at large, a dear friend. Charlotte Maxeke left us her rich legacy for which South Africa is enduringly grateful.

Dr Vusi Shongwe is the former head of the Department of the Royal Household and Chief Director for Heritage in the Office of the Premier. He is currently the head of the Heritage Resource Service in the Department of Arts and Culture. He writes in his personality capacity.

NB: The piece is dedicated to my late parents, great granny Sinah Nokufa (nee Mayisela) Nkosi and my mother-in-law. May their souls rest in eternal peace.

Share this article: