Celebrating the spirit of Charlotte Maxeke – pioneer, activist, artist, intellectual, internationalist and visionary, Daily Maverick, by Naledi Pandor, 23 August 2021
While being the first black woman in the many spaces she operated in, Charlotte Maxeke understood that for meaningful representation of women, she needed to rally other women to amplify their voice in the struggle for gender equality.
The government has declared 2021 as the Year of Charlotte Maxeke. Annually, during the month of August, we pay tribute to the women’s generation of 1956 who marched to the Union Buildings. We also pay tribute to the pioneers of the women’s movement in South Africa dating back to the 1913 women’s march when Charlotte Maxeke led a march in Bloemfontein against the early introduction of passes.
This year we observe Women’s Month under the theme “The Year of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke: Realising Women’s Equality”. This theme underscores the constant struggle for the attainment and protection of women’s rights during the time wherein the country battles with the devastating COVID-19 global pandemic. Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke lived in a different South Africa from the one we live in today, in fact, it was not until 50 years after her death that the winds of change swept across her native land, ushering in the democratic process that would realise the rights she advocated for. We celebrate Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke as a trailblaser and a torchbearer in various sectors of society. We celebrate her as:
An artist and performer: We recognise her role as a member of the African Jubilee Choir that performed on domestic and international platforms (Europe, Canada and the US) at the turn of the 19th century. During the choir’s tour to Europe, Maxeke also performed solo for Queen Victoria.
Internationalist: She travelled to at least two continents when travelling was not easy, as it is today. This gave her an unparalleled exposure to other cultures and a broader view of the world beyond the limitations of South Africa. We recognise her as an early proponent of people-to-people mechanisms in the context of the conduct of international relations and cooperation in today’s world. Throughout the choir tour 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 between her and her audiences. She also worked with suffragists in Europe and the US during the choir tour.
Upon her return home she participated in a number of international conferences where she highlighted the plight of African women. She advocated for cooperation and understanding between the people of South Africa and friends she made through the tour and her studies abroad. For example, she used her relationship with WEB du Bois as one of her lecturers at Wilberforce University to continue to inform the world about the conditions of Africans in South Africa. This is documented in some of her letters with this outstanding Pan-Africanist.
An intellectual: She became a symbol of academic excellence and one of the first women in southern Africa to acquire a Bachelor of Science degree in 1901 from the prestigious Wilberforce University, Ohio in the US.
A torchbearer in women’s leadership: She was the only woman in the room at the founding meeting of the SANNC, now ANC, at the Methodist Church in Waaihoek in Bloemfontein on 8 January 1912. It was through the motivation of Alfred Bitini Xuma that she was given observer status at this meeting. The one thing that is unimaginable is how she sat there quietly when her participation was being discussed. The irony of the whole thing is that at the time of this meeting she was more intellectually advanced than most men in that room but her gender was a barrier for her participation.
An advocate for women’s rights: Leader of the first women’s march of 1913 held in Bloemfontein against the extension of reference books to women: Maxeke was a pioneer in one of the greatest of human causes, working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race, but against her gender. Her courage and leadership allowed her to transcend religious and cultural barriers.
A visionary: In 1918 she co-founded the Bantu Women’s League and became its first president. The league not only fought against the pass laws but aroused public opinion on another equally disgusting practice – the medical inspection of black women before they entered domestic service. In today’s world we would define her as an activist of sexual reproductive health and rights.
A teacher: She later taught at a primary and secondary school she co-founded called the Wilberforce Institute in Evaton, in the Vaal. The institute is still in existence to this day.
A social worker: Her work as social worker and native welfare officer can be argued to be the best portrayal of her strength and distinguished ability. Maxeke had, as in most instances, seen the need and taken the initiative to serve her people without funds and for no pay. Her opinions and recommendations were sought by the state and, in many cases, she succeeded in getting suspended sentences for her cases where lawyers often failed in cases of their clients.
An economic empowerment agent: Maxeke understood the intersectional identities of women who faced multiple discrimination and imbued with the spirit of service, her work included economic empowerment whereby she set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg. She also worked with young people who were in conflict with the law.
Human rights activist: As a human rights activist, not only did she help with reducing sentences for juvenile delinquencies, she also had the ability to gain insight into human life and conduct by assisting with their rehabilitation and socioeconomic needs.
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 voice in the struggle for gender equality.
Based on all of these factors, we had to find a way to not only tell her story but to impart knowledge and inspire generations of women who will embody her values in a meaningful way. We wanted to ensure that she multiplies.
In paying tribute to the work of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke, the department I lead (Dirco) has developed an organic legacy initiative that will be an embodiment of her values and leadership qualities. This initiative will be anchored on South Africa’s foreign policy which is primarily Pan-Africanist in form and internationalist in content, titled, The Charlotte Maxeke African Women’s Economic Justice and Rights (AWERJ) Initiative.
The AWEJR Initiative is our contribution to the Global Acceleration Agenda for the empowerment of women and girls. It is the missing piece in our women, peace and security agenda.
Through this initiative, we have come full circle in our efforts on the full emancipation of women and girls.
This initiative is a practical expression of our diplomacy of ubuntu and it aims to strengthen South Africa’s international solidarity work. It is an affirmation and a validation of women’s economic justice rights as fundamental human rights. South Africa recognises that while more efforts have gone into civil and political rights of women, the economic rights of women and girls have been largely neglected. It is for this reason that South Africa chose to focus its efforts under the Generation Equality Forum on economic justice and rights.
In July, President Cyril Ramaphosa joined other heads of state and organisations at the Paris Forum to endorse the outcome of the multi-stakeholder process, the Global Acceleration Plan for the empowerment of women and girls across the globe. Furthermore, he outlined South Africa’s commitments for the next five years, including the Charlotte Maxeke AWEJR Initiative as one of the programmatic commitments.
Through the implementation of this initiative, South Africa seeks to mobilise the global community to support women’s leadership across all the action coalitions, particularly 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.
The Charlotte Maxeke Initiative will launch collaborative projects with targeted support for women and girls to ensure that they have increased opportunities in decision-making across political and economic spheres.
The Charlotte AWEJR Initiative has six concrete flagship programmes to be implemented gradually in the coming three to five years:
1. The Africa Future Leadership Development Programme is aimed at inculcating the values of Pan-Africanism, integrity and selflessness through mentorship and training opportunities for youth on international policy and diplomacy work. This programme will target young people from all over the continent;
2. The African Women’s Leadership Award will recognise and honour exceptional African women leaders whose achievements, mentorship, influence and contributions have advanced Africa’s development in various sectors of society;
3. The first ever Minister’s Breakfast with Women Ambassadors on gender equality initiatives. This platform will create a platform for women diplomats to share perspectives on the gender agenda and explore available opportunities to promote the empowerment of women and girls in Africa;
4. The African Women’s Leadership Training Programme on Economic Justice and Rights. This will be exclusively tailored to enable astute African women leaders’ opportunity to apply leading-edge knowledge, experience and insight on economic justice and rights. It aims to provide a networking platform for African women leaders to share best practices and practical lessons from their experience in the field;
5. The Women’s Trade Fair which will showcase African women’s products and services to markets in the continent and globally. Furthermore, it will also raise awareness about the opportunities provided through policy initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA); and
6. Last but certainly not least, the Fellowship for African Women in Diplomacy. To honour this exceptional educationalist, the department will seek partnership for an annual fellowship programme specifically targeting African women in diplomacy. This programme will provide degree and non-degree awarding opportunities to the next generation of African women in diplomacy. This is an effort to impart and mould a female public servant inspired by the values of Charlotte Maxeke, such as ethical leadership, empathy and excellence.
We have been engaged in the consultative process with many of our friends and partners with whom we would like to take this initiative forward. Nonetheless, it continues to be an open invitation for all who see an opportunity to contribute to the realisation of the economic justice and rights of women and girls in Africa.
In the words of Mama Charlotte Maxeke: “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.” DM