Charlotte Maxeke never let the traditional restrictions that overwhelmed her peers in the Cape define her path as she trailblazed to become the first woman of colour to hold a graduate degree in apartheid South Africa.
Just how did this woman become one of the greatest icons in South African history?
The African Femnist Forum describes Maxeke’s every action as “expressive of her extraordinary intellect, determination, courage, principles and love of God. Yet because of her gender, her name is sadly overlooked in the history of South Africa.”
Charlotte Makgomo Mannya was born in Ramokgopa in the Polokwane (Pietersburg) District on April 7 1874. Like many Africans of her time, Charlotte received a missionary education as there were little options and missionaries took it as their mission to “civilise” Africans.
Several historical texts cite that she was an exceptional learner who excelled at the main curriculum languages such as mathematics, languages and music. She is esteemed for being exceptional at English and Mathematics, the main languages of the Cape Colony masters.
At the time that Maxeke was in school, the classes were made of learners of various ages. Often, older pupils who had gone late to school would be in the same class with younger pupils. Maxeke is known to have outclassed most of her older counterparts and helped them with extra classes in subjects they struggled with.
Music was later to open the doors for her to make the trek to Port Elizabeth to study at the Edward Memorial School. As before, she excelled and completed her secondary school education in record time, achieving the highest possible grades and outshining her older classmates.
During this period, her family moved to Kimberley in quest of employment. This was just after the discovery of diamonds in the town.
In Kimberley, found employment as a tutor. She taught the fundamentals of indigenous languages to expatriate claim holders and basic English to African ‘boss-boys.’ A boss boy was an African placed in charge of a group of African workers, and thus needed to be able to communicate in both English and indigenous languages.
Kimberly was to open more doors for Charlotte, and her passion for music was instrumental in her rise and the opportunities that came before her.
As a dedicated churchgoer, Maxeke and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891. Her singing talent caught the attention of a Mr K. V. Bam, a local choirmaster who was organizing an African choir to tour Europe. Charlotte’s rousing success after her first solo performance in the Kimberley Town Hall immediately resulted in her appointment to the Europe-bound choir operation of which was taken over from Mr Bam by a European.
During the choir’s tour of Europe, Maxeke performed for Queen Victoria, allegedly in Victorian costume. Sources state that the sisters were uncomfortable with being treated as novelties in London and during this time Maxeke is said to have attended suffragette speeches by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst.
Unlike most of her peers at the time, Maxeke knew that a teaching job and being the envy of her fellow Africans was not the epitome of success. Her next tour to the United States in 1894 was to be inspired by her hopes of furthering her education.
The tour did not go as rosy as planned for them. At the completion of the tour, the European organizer, without paying a single member of the choir, deserted it with all the funds and travel tickets, and could not be found. Charlotte Manye and the other choir members were left stranded and penniless on the streets of New York City.
When the church choir’s tour collapsed, Americans were to come to the rescue of the stranded group after a newspaper article appeared in US newspapers. Maxeke stayed on a scholarship and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, which was run by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). One of her faculty members and professors was the visionary and revered Pan-Africanist W. E. B. Du Bois.
Maxeke’s received an education that focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa.
She graduated with a B.Sc degree and also met her husband, Marshall Maxeke, who had come to the university in 1896. They were engaged when they both returned to South Africa in 1901, Maxeke as one of South Africa’s first Black woman graduates.
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This one only the beginning of firsts for Maxele as upon their return to South Africa, she took up a post as the first African teacher at Pietersburg in the Transvaal, while opening the local missionary field for the AME church.
Maxeke was greatly influenced by AMEC and through her connections with the Ethiopian Church, the AMEC was founded in South Africa. She became the organizer of the Women’s Mite Missionary Society in Johannesburg and then moved to the Polokwane (then Pietersburg) area. Here she joined her family in Dwaars River, under Chief Ramakgopa, who gave her money to start a school. However, the school could not be completed, due to lack of government funding and the poverty of the local community.
In 1912, both Maxekes attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) (fore-runner of the ANC) in Bloemfontein. She went on to found the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC in 1918. She authored a lot of the ANC’s earliest literature and her uplifting speeches on behalf of African liberty were described as ‘electrifying, passionate and fiery, yet not inflammatory.
Although her main concerns were church-linked social issues, Charlotte also wrote in Xhosa on the social and political situation occupied by women. In the Umteteli wa Bantu newspaper, she addressed the ‘woman question’. An early opponent of passes for black women, she helped organized the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913.
As the leader of the Bantu Women`s League, the forerunner to the ANC’s Women’s League, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha in 1918 to discuss the issue of passes for women, and this was followed up by a protest the following year. She was also involved in protests on the Witwatersrand about low wages and participated in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union (ICU) in 1920.
As her prominence increased within the movement and her voice became more significant she became a leading voice in African matters. This led Charlotte to respond to a call by the South African Ministry of Education to testify before several government commissions in Johannesburg on matters concerning African education. This was unheard of from any African, it was another first for Africans. Her clear brilliance and eloquence were to result in a number of job offers, again the first of their kind made by the white government to an African.
Not only was Maxeke leading on the African front, but she became a leading voice within other multiracial movements. She addressed the Women’s Reform Club in Pretoria, which was an organization for the voting rights of women, and joined the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus. Maxeke was also elected as president of the Women’s Missionary Society.
During her years in Johannesburg, Maxeke co-founded with her husband the Widow’s Home and the Foreign Missionary Society. Along with the AME Church’s Widow’s Mite Society, these two groups were responsible for funding and educating thousands of young Africans, many in the United States and Britain, and also for caring for sick and indigent Africans at home.
After the passing of her husband, Maxeke accepted the dual role of a probation officer and court welfare officer to Johannesburg’s juvenile magistrate. It was in her role as the probation officer that she was to encounter one of the future leaders of Africa, Walter Kamuzu Banda—later the leader of Malawi. She was to be instrumental in the court’s decision to allow Banda to go and pursue studies on a scholarship at her alma mater. Widely known and highly respected by Africans and Europeans alike, Maxeke’s word carried great weight and the application was thus approved.
The ANC’s history archives in her honour describe Maxeke as someone who championed the potential of African people, especially women, to stand up and take control of their own affairs. Her work was an important turning point for women’s organizing in South Africa.”
The Bantu Women’s League was founded as a result of the women’s deep understanding of the challenges facing women in South Africa, in particular, black women.
Charlotte Manye Maxeke passed away in Johannesburg on 16 October 1939 at 65. At her funeral at Klipstown, her eulogy ended with the words ‘She was everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy.’