Charlotte Maxeke – ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’

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Charlotte Maxeke was born at Ramokgopa in the Polokwane (then Pietersburg) district in Limpopo on April 7, 1874. She received a missionary education at Edwards Memorial School in the Eastern Cape in the early 1880s. After the discovery of diamonds, Maxeke moved to Kimberley with her family in 1885. Maxeke was talented in languages, mathematics and music. She sang in concerts in many places, including Kimberly. As a dedicated churchgoer, Maxeke and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891, and toured England for two years. During this tour, Maxeke performed for Queen Victoria. After the success of her first tour Maxeke went on a second tour to the United States of America (USA) in 1894. When the tour collapsed, Maxeke stayed in the USA and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, which was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). At the university, she was taught under Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Du Bois, and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa. She graduated with a B.Sc degree from Wilberforce University, where she also met her husband, Marshall Maxeke, a fellow South African who had come to the university in 1896. They were engaged when they both returned to South Africa in 1905, Maxeke as South Africa’s first Black woman graduate. Maxeke is said to have been 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 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 continued, due to lack of government funding and the poverty of the local community. After this, Maxeke and her husband established a school at Evaton on the Witwatersrand. The Maxekes went on to teach and evangelise in other places, including Thembuland in the Transkei under King Sabata Dalindyebo. It was here that Maxeke participated in the king’s court, a privilege unheard of for a woman. However, they finally settled in Johannesburg, where they became involved in political movements. Both Maxeke and her husband attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in Bloemfontein in 1912, and although her main concerns were church-linked social issues. Charlotte also wrote in Xhosa on the social and political situation occupied by women. In Umthetheli wa Bantu, she addressed the ‘woman question’. As an early opponent of passes for black women, Maxeke was politically active throughout her adult life. She helped organized the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913 and founded the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC in 1918. As leader of this organization, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha 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. Maxeke was also involved in 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. In 1928, she attended a conference in the USA, and became increasingly concerned about the welfare of Africans. She set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and was the first black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents.
Maxeke was often honoured as ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’, and had an ANC nursery school named after her in Tanzania. She died in Johannesburg in 1939.

– By SABC Research