Chairperson of the ANC Eastern Cape Comrade Phumulo Masualle
Members of the PEC present
Members of the ANC Women’s Leagues PEC and various other League leadership structures
Women Leaders from various fraternal organisations
Members of the Tripartite Alliance Present
Members of the Media
Comrades and Friends
I am overwhelmed by the honour extended to me to deliver the Charlotte Maxeke Memorial Lecture this evening. Comrade Maxeke was a colossal figure in the protracted liberation struggle especially on the question of women emancipation landscape inside and outside of the African National Congress (ANC). Somehow, I feel a sense of inadequacy that contemporary history has bestowed upon me the task of speaking about one of our own - the daughter of the soil, a pioneer, and a true revolutionary.
Comrades and fellow Compatriots, I am deeply humbled by this honour. And, I wish to heartily thank the organisers and all of you for being present today.
Comrade Maxeke Early Years
Comrade Maxeke was born on the 7th April 1874, in the village of Ramokgopa situated in the Limpopo Province. Historians and the ANC have agreed on the birth village being Ramokgopa in Polokwane after some confusion that she may have been born right here in the Eastern Cape. However, the South African History Online (SAHO) acknowledges that Comrade Maxeke spent her formative years in this province. The fact that she wrote in Xhosa, also reinforces this. After the discovery of diamonds, Comrade Maxeke moved to Kimberley with her family in 1885. While in Kimberley, she became a teacher.
As a dedicated churchgoer, Comrade Maxeke and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891, and toured England for two years. During this tour, Comrade 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 Comrade Maxeke is said to have attended speeches delivered by eminent feminists of the time such as Emmeline Pankhurst.
Comrade Maxeke Makes History
Although Comrade Maxeke was content with her achievements as a teacher and her role in the church, she longed for more in life. History records that she had a singular ambition to pursue her higher education studies further. It came as no surprise then that when an opportunity presented itself to take a tour to the United States of America (USA) with her church choir in 1894, after the tour, she stayed behind in the USA and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio. The university was a brain child of the famous African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). At the university, she was taught under the tutelage of the celebrated Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Du Bois, and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa. Comrade Maxeke is recorded in history as a first South African Black woman to graduate with a B.Sc. degree from the Wilberforce University.
It was at the same university that Comrade Maxeke met her husband, Comrade Marshall Maxeke, who had come to the university in 1896. They were engaged when they both returned to South Africa in 1901. To drive home the importance of education Comrade Maxeke had these wise words:
“Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by ...education; they grow there, firm as weeds among stones”.
Comrade Maxeke & AMEC in SA
Comrade Maxeke was greatly influenced by the US African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) and through her connections with the Ethiopian Church; the AMEC equivalent 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 continued, due to lack of government funding and the poverty of the local community.
After this, Comrade 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 Comrade 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 activism.
Comrade Maxeke Political Activism
It is recorded in history books that Comrade Maxeke and her husband attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in Bloemfontein in 1912, (later renamed ANC). Although her main concerns were church-linked social issues, Comrade Maxeke also wrote in Xhosa on the social and political situation occupied by women. In Umteteli wa Bantu, she addressed the ‘woman question'. As early opponent of dompas for black women, Comrade Maxeke was politically active very early in her adult life. She helped to organise 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 Workers’ Union (ICU) in 1920.
Comrade 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. Comrade 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.
The women’s struggle became more militant in the 1950s on the back of the ANC historic decision to admit women as full members in 1943. By 1948, all like-minded women activists formed the ANC Women’s League with Comrade Ida Mtwana as its first president. Three years later in 1952 thousands of Black, Coloured and Indian women took part in the Defiance Campaign, which involved the deliberate contravention of petty apartheid laws. In all these historical events Comrade Maxeke featured prominently. But, the year 1954 marked the turning point.
Comrade Maxeke & Federation of South African Women
Sixty-One years ago on the 17th April 1954 Comrade Maxeke and many visionary women of all races from across the length and breadth of our country, met in Johannesburg and founded the Federation of South African Women (FSAW). The conference adopted the first document to call for gender equality across class, ethnic and colour lines. It adopted what became known as the Women’s Charter. The Women’s Charter preceded the now famous 60 years old Freedom Charter by a year. This point to the strong leadership that is inherent in women. Comrade Maxeke and the Class of 1954 were trailblazers of note. The Charter expressed the philosophy and aims of the newly established organisation. In short, the charter was a rallying call for total emancipation of women and calling for an end to the segregation, sexism and apartheid regime. The charter recorded unambiguously the aspirations of women; in part it called for:
- The right to vote and to be elected to all State bodies, without restriction or discrimination.
- The right to full opportunities for employment with equal pay and possibilities of promotion in all spheres of work.
- Equal rights with men in relation to property, marriage and children, and for the removal of all laws and customs that deny women such equal rights.
- For the development of every child through free compulsory education for all; for the protection of mother and child through maternity homes, welfare clinics, creches and nursery schools, in countryside and towns; through proper homes for all, and through the provision of water, light, transport, sanitation, and other amenities of modern civilisation.
- For the removal of all laws that restrict free movement, that prevent or hinder the right of free association and activity in democratic organisations, and the right to participate in the work of these organisations.
Comrade Maxeke & the 1956 Women's March
By the middle of 1956 plans had been laid for what has become a historic event in the annals of South Africa’s quest for freedom, the 09th August Women’s March on Pretoria. Comrade Maxeke’s Federation of South African Women (FSAW) had written to request that the then Prime Minister JG Strijdom to meet with their leaders so they could present their point of view. The request was flatly refused.
The ANC then sent Comrade Helen Joseph and Comrade Bertha Mashaba on a tour of the main urban areas, accompanied by Comrade Robert Resha of the ANC and Norman Levy of the Congress of Democrats (COD). The plan was to consult with local leaders who would then make arrangements to send delegates to the mass gathering in August.
Women from all parts of the country arrived in Pretoria, some from as far afield as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They then flocked to the Union Buildings in a determined yet orderly manner. The estimated number is recorded by historians as 20 000 strong contingency of visionary and fearless women. Comrade Maxeke’s FSAW correctly argued that it was the biggest demonstration yet held. Women filled the entire amphitheatre in the bow of the graceful Herbert Baker building. The Women's March was indeed a spectacular success. Historian Walker describes the impressive scene:
“Many of the African women wore traditional dress, others wore the Congress colours, green, black and gold; Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers' children along with them. Throughout the demonstration the huge crowd displayed a discipline and dignity that was deeply impressive (Walker 1991:195).”
Neither the Prime Minister or any of his senior staff was there to see the women, so as they had done the previous year, the leaders left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside JG Strijdom's office door. It later transpired that they were removed before he bothered to look at them. Then at Comrade Lilian Ngoyi's suggestion, a masterful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full half-hour. Before leaving (again in exemplary fashion) the women sang ‘Nkosi sikelela i-Afrika'. Without exception, those who participated in the event described it as a moving and emotional experience. Comrade Maxeke’s FSAW declared that it was a ‘monumental achievement'. It is now a historic fact that women, the Class of 1956 led by among others Comrade Maxeke won a significant milestone in that the apartheid regime’s attempts to force women to carry dompas and permits never materialized.
Comrade Maxeke was an activist par-excellence, a lifelong student, first African women graduate in South Africa and one of the first Black South Africans to fight for freedom from exploitative and social conditions for African women.
Comrade Maxeke was a revolutionary, a pioneer, a trade unionist, a gender activist, and a deeply spiritual person who dedicated her entire life to the struggle for the liberation of her people especially women. Comrade Maxeke’s humility, compassion and humanity earned her the love and respect of the people of South Africa, Africa and the World. Her abiding vision was for a society where no woman was exploited, and/or oppressed. We can truly say without any fear of contradictions that Comrade Maxeke was a midwife of a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa that we enjoy today.
Sadly Comrade Maxeke died in Johannesburg in 1939. However, her spirit lives on among us.
As a tribute to her extraordinary contribution in service to humanity Comrade Maxeke is often honoured as ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’. During the dark years of the apartheid regime the ANC nursery school was named after her in Tanzania.
In the new democratic dispensation, we honoured this struggle hero by naming one of our largest hospitals (formerly Johannesburg General Hospital) in her honour. Today it is known as The Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. The hospital has 1,088 beds and its professional and support staff exceeds 4000 people. It is also the main teaching hospital for the University of the Witwatersrand, faculty of Health Sciences.
Together with other stalwarts of women struggles including the leaders of the 1956 Women’s March we owe a debt of gratitude to these daughters of the soil. We say to all the departed we will not fail your people. The struggle for women’s total emancipation is in the safe hands. Comrades, my parting shot tonight is an inspirational quote from Comrade Maxeke – I am convinced that it is relevant today especially in the context of our second phase of the transition, she once said:
"This work is not for yourselves - kill that spirit of self, and do not live above your people but live with them. If you can rise, bring someone with you."