While apartheid is viewed as officially beginning in the year 1948 with the National Party coming into power, the idea of racial segregation had long been practiced in South Africa prior to this date. Apartheid simply formalised ‘separateness’ through a long list of laws, that were constantly being added to and amended. As a former British colony South Africa was very much a country divided, something that Charlotte Maxeke would certainly have been able to attest to.
Believed to have been born in 1871 – with no official records there is some uncertainty about the exact date – Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke (née Mannya) was something of a trailblazer for her time. According to political activist and journalist, Zubeida Jaffer, Charlotte was South Africa’s first female black graduate. Jaffer, who recently penned the book, Beauty of the Heart, The life and times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, tells of how Charlotte graduated with a BSc degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio, having been unable to register at any universities in South Africa.
Being a dedicated Christian, Charlotte was a conscientious member of her church choir, and was one of the group members who toured England and America in 1891 as a member of the African Jubilee Choir. A series of photographs from the tour have recently surfaced, some 120 years after they were taken. It is thought that the photos weren’t publicised as they weren’t in keeping with the popular perception at the time of African people being uncivilised. It was during the choir’s tour that Charlotte is said to have been first exposed to the suffragette movement, after hearing speeches by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst.
Charlotte met her husband, Marshall Maxeke, while studying in America, and after returning to South Africa the pair set out on a mission of education and evangelism. While spreading the gospel in Thembuland in the Transkei, Charlotte participated in King Sabata Dalindyebo’s court, a privilege unheard of for a woman. The couple eventually settled in Johannesburg, where they became involved in the political movement.
In 1912 the Maxekes attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which would go onto to become the ANC. In Umteteli wa Bantu Charlotte wrote in isiXhosa about the social and political problems facing women in South Africa. In particular Charlotte was concerned with the issue of passes for women, and in 1913 she helped to organise the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein, going on to form the Bantu Women’s League (BWL) of the SANNC in 1918. A march of the BWL, led by Charlotte, saw women burn their passes in front of the offices of the Prime Minister. The women were protesting against the proposed reintroduction of passes for women, low wages, as well as a list of other grievances.
Charlotte Maxeke died in Johannesburg in 1939, but not before setting up an employment agency for black South Africans, and becoming the first black woman to work as a parole officer for juvenile delinquents.
Today, on International Women’s Day we celebrate the courage and strength of Charlotte Maxeke, and all the women who came before her, and who will come after. The memory of Charlotte is honoured by way of the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (Joburg Gen), and the renaming of Beatrice Street in Durban. A life sized bronze statue of Charlotte is also included in the national heritage monument, The Long March to Freedom.
The national headquarters of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) as well as Durban Bantu Social Centre, both of which form part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route, were located on Charlotte Maxeke Street.