Address by Dr GNM Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation at the Charlotte Maxeke African Women Leadership Awards, Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, 25 March 2023
Minister of Human Settlements, Mmamoloko Kubayi
Deputy Minister Alvin Botes
Deputy Minister Candith Mashego-Dlamini
Director-General of DIRCO, Zane Dangor
DIRCO Senior Officials
Members of the Mannya, Makhanya and Maxeke family
Charlotte Mannya Maxeke Institute
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Ladies and Gentlemen
Thank you for gracing us with your presence at this very important occasion ‒ an occasion at which we would like to recognise and honour exceptional African women leaders whose achievements, mentorship, influence, leadership and contributions have advanced Africa’s development in various sectors of society. Tonight’s awards will also recognise exceptional contributions to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Many of the heroes of our liberation movement are gallant women whose stories are often not told or acknowledged for their contribution. Many of the women here know the story that when we gathered in meetings internationally or on the continent, they had this favourite expression of when “the founding fathers established”, as though women were not alive at that time. So, we often don’t mention women such as Gertrude Shope, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi and Ruth Mompati. These are just some of the women upon whose shoulders we stand.
Mme Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, whose legacy we have chosen to honour each year at an awards dinner such as this inaugural one, was born 152 years ago, and is often considered the mother of black freedom and a pioneer of women’s education and emancipation. Maxeke was an iconic leader – a woman of great courage and fortitude, and a true daughter of the soil. By memorialising her life, our goal is to inspire generations of women who will embody her values in a meaningful way.
Before I elaborate on the inspiring life and achievements of Mme Maxeke, I would like to draw your attention to some of the other great African women leaders who lived around the same time her, who are often only mentioned in passing in history textbooks. European documents sometimes mention them and when we recite oral history, we may refer to them. There might be artworks from time to time in which we see their image but generally, we don’t mark them sufficiently. Some of you might recall the turbulent years following West and Central Africa’s initial contact with Europe. These years were marked by the emergence of women revered for their formidable political skills and social vision. Some of you know these women ‒ women such as Ana Nzinga, queen of Ndongo; Dona Beatriz, Kongo prophet; and Idia, queen mother of Benin.
Perhaps more well-known was the warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa – queen of the prosperous Ashanti Empire, in now modern-day Ghana. As queen, she was the official protector of the empire’s most sacred object, the Golden Stool. Made of solid gold and believed to house the soul of the nation, the stool represented the royal and divine throne of the empire. When British troops invaded in 1886 and demanded possession of the sacred object, Asantewaa refused. Instead, she led an army against them. “I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight until the last of us falls in the battlefields,” Yaa Asantewaa said.
For months, starting in 1900, Asantewaa’s troops laid siege to the British occupying forces, who almost collapsed at that attack. Only after the British brought in several thousand additional troops and pounds of artillery, were they able to defeat Asantewaa’s army. Asantewaa fought alongside her people until the very end and was captured and exiled to the Seychelles until her death in 1921. Her bravery and resistance in spite of the impossible odds have made her one of history’s most famous warrior queens to this day. And yet, where do you see her name on our streets or on our buildings?
Last year, the American feature film The Woman King premiered – which was produced right here in South Africa. The film is about the Agojie all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. Located in present-day Benin, the kingdom of Dahomey was facing French troops in the 1890s. As the French army attempted to penetrate the territory of King Behanzin, with the aim of overthrowing him, they came up against an unusual defence: the Amazons of Dahomey. On their return from war, French legionnaires, males, described the “courage and audacity” of the fearless Agojie women warriors.
Our very own Mme Maxeke did not earn her fame on the battlefield, but through her pen and political activism. She was a visionary, intellectual, an internationalist, a teacher and a fearless servant of her people. Maxeke, the internationalist, travelled to at least two continents at the turn of the 19th century when travelling abroad was both slow and difficult. This gave her an upper hand and unparalleled exposure to other cultures and a broader view of the world beyond the limitations of South Africa.
In the context of the conduct of international relations today, she is for us an early proponent of what we call people-to-people diplomacy. Through the African Jubilee Choir tour, she went on to the US, she exchanged ideas with her contemporaries, shared information, used art to bring South Africa to the world and used other aspects of culture to foster mutual understanding. Maxeke also worked with women fighting for the vote, the so-called suffragists, in Europe and the US during that time of travel.
In 1894, she stayed in the US and pursued her studies at the Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio. Her studies made it possible for her to be groomed by a very famous American sociologist, civil rights activist and a Pan-Africanist of note, WEB Du Bois, who contributed immensely in shaping her outlook of the world. In 1901, she graduated with a BSc degree, becoming the first woman in southern Africa to graduate from a university.
Maxeke, upon having graduated, returned to our country, her home, to educate her people and became somewhat of a weapon for empowerment. Learning from her own experience abroad, she dedicated her life to the upliftment of others as well as the struggle for liberation of black South Africans. She was a fierce opponent of the dompas for black women and men and helped to organise the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein. In 1913, Maxeke led the first women’s march in Bloemfontein against the extension of the odious passbook for women and led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women.
What was intriguing about her, at that time, was that she was not afraid to enter traditional male spaces and challenge the status quo. She was the only woman in the room at the founding meeting of the South African Native National Congress, (now the African National Congress) at the Methodist Church in Waaihoek in Bloemfontein on 8 January 1912. She sat there quietly while the men discussed whether she could remain in the meeting, despite being more intellectually advanced than most men in that room.
In 1918, she co-founded the Bantu Women’s League and became its first President, later creating much noise of public opinion against the disgusting practice of medical inspection of black women before entering domestic service. She was also involved in protests on the Witwatersrand about low wages for women and participated in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union in 1920.
All of us believe we work very hard and at the end of the day, we are really exhausted, but we don’t form trade unions, we don’t fight for women’s rights, we don’t march in the streets, we don’t uplift others, and yet, we work really hard and we are really tired.
Maxeke saw education for Africans as a vehicle to liberation. She was asked by the then Ministry of Education, the Colonial Ministry of South Africa, to testify before several government commissions in Johannesburg on matters concerning African education. So, even those who were antagonistic towards her, recognised her qualities and sought her intellectual contribution. She taught at a primary and secondary school she co-founded, called Wilberforce Institute in Evaton, in the Vaal, which still exists today. For us in DIRCO and many in South Africa, Maxeke is the embodiment of what an empowered woman can achieve for her people, and an excellent example of what education can do for a girl child in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Maxeke was a social worker and a welfare officer and served her people without funds, and often for no pay. Her opinions and recommendations were often sought by the Government and, in many cases, she fought for young black offenders and succeeded in getting them suspended sentences and access to schooling. She eventually set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and worked with young people who were in conflict with the law to obtain education and skills.
While being the first black woman in the many spaces she operated in, she understood that for meaningful representation of women, she needed to rally other women to amplify their voices in the struggle for gender equality. We salute the ethos that Charlotte Maxeke stood for of human solidarity, compassion and sacrifice for the common good, as well as a people-centred approach to development and self-reliance.
To honour the legacy of this trailblazer, as DIRCO, we have developed a bold, transformative and concrete programme that will anchor South Africa’s contribution to the UN Women Global Accelerated Plan for Gender Equality. Our programme is called the Charlotte Maxeke African Women’s Economic Justice and Rights Initiative, which was launched in 2021. Our initiative is being implemented through six flagship programmes, aimed at making a real impact on gender equality and women’s empowerment.
We recognise that while more efforts have gone towards safeguarding the civil and political rights of women, the economic rights of women and girls have largely been neglected. Through the implementation of this initiative, South Africa seeks to mobilise the global community to support women’s leadership across all the action coalitions of the UN Generation Equality Forum. The focus, we have chosen, is on economic justice and rights through education, training and mentorship for women and youth, as well as creating opportunities in economic participation, networking, diplomacy and trade.
One programme of the DIRCO initiative is the training of women leaders from various sectors of society on Conflict Resolution, Mediation and Negotiation. The graduates of this programme then join the Gertrude Shope Women Mediators Network. Moving from the premise that peace is a precursor to development, we believe it is pivotal that DIRCO complements its implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda with a programme aimed at the economic empowerment of women.
We don’t want to say women should only be involved in peace negotiations and reconstruction. We believe women must be economically empowered.
We can all learn important lessons from the life of Charlotte Maxeke, and I would like us to remember her wise words when she said to her compatriots, women who were working close with her:
“This work is not for yourself, kill that spirit of self, and do not live above your people but live with them. If you rise, bring someone with you”
Let us also recall the words of another great woman who strived after her, Mme Albertina Sisulu, one of the most wonderful, humble and dignified leaders we have ever had in our country, who said,
“We are each required to walk our own road and then stop, assess what we have learnt and share it with others. It is only in this way that the next generation can learn from those who have walked before them. We can do no more than tell our story. Then it is up to them to make of it what they will.”
I encourage each of our award recipients tonight to share their story with the next generation, so that they can be inspired by your accomplishments and strive to be women of excellence, which is what we believe you are and which is the reason why we honour you today in the name of Charlotte Maxeke.
ISSUED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AND COOPERATION
OR Tambo Building
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