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Charlotte Maxeke Memorial Lecture: “Equal Opportunities and Progress” by Ms Angie Motshekga, 04 August 2010 speeches


Programme Director

Members of Maxeke Family

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is indeed an honour to present the Charlotte Maxeke Memorial Lecture in the year in which South Africa has adopted a fitting theme for Women’s Month, “Working Together for Equal Opportunities and Progress for all women”.

The timing is brilliant. This year, the sacred grave of Charlotte Maxeke and those of two other struggle icons, Lillian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph, will be declared national heritage sites. Through this act, the South African government has elevated the struggle for gender equality and empowerment of women.

I was touched by a report in The Star newspaper, of yesterday. It related a community arrest of an ex-convict apprehended by taxi-drivers and passengers at a Limpopo taxi rank.

The serious crime of this unrepentant felon was a public assault of an ex-girlfriend he was seeing for the first time since his release “from prison after serving time for murder” (The Star, 3 August 2010, p. 3).

Taxi-drivers and passengers came to her rescue when he started beating her for refusing “to accompany him.”

I drew courage from the fact that the story was given prominence with a big colour picture showing an elderly man shoving the culprit into a car, with male bystanders in the background.

You would have been accustomed to gruesome tales of men at taxi ranks abusing innocent young women with crowds watching helplessly as the ‘public spectacle’ unfolded before their eyes.

I stand proud to say, this time around, it was different. Collectively, people took a stand in defence of their own, in keeping with the foundational principles of Ubuntu – more so, in the very province of Limpopo where Cde Maxeke was born.

Together, as members of a constitutional democracy, they defended the rights and core values enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution (of 1996), one of the best democratic constitutions in the world, with an entrenched Bill of Rights.

You could be asking yourself why this human act of kindness and fellow-feeling is so important to me to the extent of mentioning it in this lecture that looks at the life of Charlotte Maxeke from the perspective of “equal opportunities and progress for all women”.

We have dedicated the 2010 Women’s Month to “Working Together for Equal Opportunities and Progress for all.” It is for this reason that I deemed it fit to reflect briefly on Cde. Maxeke’s contribution to the struggle for equality and social justice for all. This Lecture must help us to begin to answer the question: ‘What needs to be done to achieve equal opportunities and progress for all women, in a free society?’

The daring act of human solidarity in a remote taxi rank in Modjadjiskloof near Tzaneen, shows beyond doubt what we can achieve, as men and women of this country, young and old.

It is a lesson saying to us all we can and must work together to protect, defend and promote equal rights of girls and women – your very own daughters, your gentle and loving sisters, your caring and selfless mothers, and your dearest wives and partners. It is these ideals of equal opportunities and justice for all that shaped the life of Charlotte Maxeke to whom this Memorial Lecture series is dedicated.

Most importantly, the consciousness of a caring people I have alluded to mirrors a vision of a non-sexist society we strive for both as activists supporting aspirations of the National Democratic Struggle, and as revolutionary women fighting for the ultimate emancipation and empowerment of women.

We have reason to honour and celebrate a woman of the stature of Charlotte Maxeke whose life was best summarised by one of the presidents of the African National Congress, Dr AB Xuma, in 1935, as “the mother of African Freedom.”

She was later to earn the accolade of “one of the best known figures in public life in South Africa” from Professor Jabavu (Sechaba, 1980).

It is this that makes it a privilege to stand in front of you recalling superior and admirable deeds of this ANC veteran. I am therefore truly humbled by and grateful for the invitation you have extended to me to come and deliver this year’s Charlotte Maxeke Memorial Lecture.

I thank most warmly the University of the Free State, the Free State Provincial Government and the province’s political leadership for their role in institutionalising the grand Annual Charlotte Maxeke Memorial lecture. It is an honour to have members of the Maxeke family among us.

But who was Charlotte Maxeke?

We were reminded of her formative years by Yolanda Botha who has also presented the Annual Charlotte Maxeke Memorial Lecture hosted by this University and the Free State Provincial government. She said:

“Charlotte Makgomo Manye, was born at Ramokgopa in the Polokwane district in Limpopo on April 7, 1874. She was exceptionally talented in languages, mathematics and music. She had a beautiful voice and sang in concerts in many places, including Kimberly.

“She later joined a group of singers which toured England,... Canada and the United States. She entered the Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, a university that was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, in 1896.”

For me, two things stand out during her stay at Wilberforce. First, she married Reverend Marshall Maxeke and thus took on the name she came to be popularly known by – Charlotte Maxeke.

Secondly, “she graduated with a BSc in the early 1900s,” and as Yolanda Botha puts it, “is believed to be the first African woman from South Africa to earn a bachelors degree in science.”

Many within and beyond our borders have presented brilliant accounts of the life and times of this legendary daughter of the South African struggle.

Uppermost in the collective consciousness of those who stand for the broader emancipation and empowerment of women is the shared view that she gave her entire life to the service of her people, women in particular. Thus, this University has correctly suggested that “her most profound legacy is her enormous contribution to women’s empowerment in the home and in society at large.”

This is a view I also identify with given the common experiences we share with her in the arena of the women’s struggle for equality. I speak with reverence for her because she was instrumental in the founding of the Bantu Women’s League, the forerunner of the ANC Women’s League. She like us who now carry the baton led a progressive women’s movement for many years.

The foundations she laid with other women leaders of this country prepared the ground for the historic women’s march to the Union Buildings against the pass laws on 9 August 1956.

We are therefore truly grateful to the organisers and every sister and brother who have made this august occasion possible, particularly during Women’s Month, less than 5 days before National Women’s Day, 9 August.

As we well know, the ground-breaking march of 9 August is the actual reason behind the celebration of Women’s Day – a day in which we remember heroic struggles of women and pay tribute to our leaders and heroines.

The Free State Charlotte Maxeke Annual Memorial Lecture series presents the best moment to pay tribute to women leaders and heroines.

In this regard, we recall Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophy Williams, Rahima Moosa, Madi Hall-Xuma, Dorothy Nyembe, Adelaide Tambo, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela and all the finest daughters of the South African revolution who fought for equal opportunities and progress for all women.

The National Women’s Day, which I invite you to support, will be held at the Buffalo City Municipality in the Eastern Cape on 9 August. It will be attended also by the president of the African National Congress and President of the Republic of South Africa, President Jacob Zuma.

Defining qualities of Charlotte Maxeke were summarised by Yvonne Mokgoro who has rightly contented that:

“Charlotte Maxeke was a woman who, in every aspect of her life, was expressive of her extraordinary intellect, her diligence, competence, her audacity, assertiveness, patriotism, determination, courage and dedication to the highest ideals.”

Out of these qualities and attributes of a time and tested leader of her stature, is discernable the values that make us a proud people aspiring to build a united African State.

‘How best then are we to honour the life of a leader of her calibre?’

The central question that must seize our minds must be: ‘What is it that we have to do better to honour the memory of Charlotte Maxeke who like a loving mother patiently rekindled the flame of liberation, even through the long, bitter and dark nights of apartheid and colonialism?’

My starting point would be that until the day women of the world would know peace, the struggle for a better life for all, including women and girls, must be sustained. A Jamaican legend once said the world will know no peace until Africa is free.

Today as we talk about the legacy of Charlotte Maxeke we are bound to say that Africa and the world will not know peace and prosperity until women are free – free from cultural and patriarchal domination, free from violence and abuse and free from all forms of discrimination be it at home, in the workplace or in the marketplace of ideas.

To preserve her greatness as part of our rich African heritage, we must keep her undying spirit burning bright in our hearts and minds like the eyes of a tigress if not a “tiger burning bright in the forests of the night” (The Tiger, William Blake).

Remembering her spirit and great struggles presents a compelling case to sustain and intensify the struggle for gender equality. Although much still needs to be done, our country has made marked progress in transforming material conditions of women. Landmarks include the following:

Our Constitution, through an entrenched Bill of Rights, has extended to all our people, the right to Equality before the law, the right to Human Dignity, the inalienable right to Life and the right to Freedom and Security;

The ANC has adopted the principle of 50/50 gender parity;

Representation of women in the legislature has risen to 44% after the 2009 elections;

The number of women in the Cabinet stands at 40%; and

The ANC-led government has introduced income support programmes for women.

Be that as it may, challenges still abound as shown by research studies and the recent annual Employment Equity Report, showing underrepresentation of women in the workplace. For instance, at top management level, African women are at less than 3% while Coloured and Indian women stand at 1%.

To answer the question ‘What needs to be done together to deliver equal opportunities and progress for all women?’, I wish to leave you with the following thoughts and proposals:

Provision of education for girls particularly in scarce skills and in those areas historically the preserve of men must be high on our human resources development agenda. It is for this reason that the ANC-led administration has identified education as an apex priority.

Informing this proposal is the fact that Maxeke has set an important example for us in this regard by obtaining a science degree – an extraordinary achievement at the time for an African woman, from rural Limpopo.

When we go out on the all-out national effort to improve the quality of education for all our people, both in our schools and institutions of higher learning like the University of the Free State, notwithstanding its challenges, we must do so conscious of the premium Charlotte Maxeke placed on education.

Not only did she espouse the view that education is a precondition for progress, as her life and accomplishments show. Cde Maxeke was very “active in the field of education”; she set up several educational institutions with her husband and was involved in community development (Yolanda Botha).

Improving the quality of education in a social partnership would be one of the best ways of honouring the life and legacy of Charlotte Maxeke.

Partnerships in this regard would be very essential particularly given the correctness of the principle and approach that says ‘education is a societal responsibility’.

We can only succeed to open the doors of learning and culture as required of us by the Freedom Charter with the support and active participation of parents and all stakeholders.

In a nutshell, this Lecture therefore presents an occasion to appeal earnestly to all stakeholders, as well as beneficiaries, to work together with government in delivering better and quality education effectively and efficiently to deal with the challenges of the 21st Century.

I believe this to be the best way to honour the life of this dedicated teacher, social worker, church leader and journalist.

The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign has to be sustained, around 365 days of the year. As you know by now, this is the campaign of the South African Government informed by the United Nations Campaign for no Violence against Women.

As reported by government in the National 16/365 Days Campaign Handover Report:

“The international campaign was derived from a 1981 Feminist Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean. This conference of feminist civil society formations declared the 25th of November the International Day for No Violence against Women, in commemoration of the murder of the Mirabal sisters by the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1960.

“This development signalled the beginning of a global protest for the reduction of violence on women. The United Nations officially recognized this initiative in 1999 and declared the 25th of November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the start of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children.”

At a social level, with no simplification intended, the life-saving act of taxi drivers and passengers in Limpopo prevented what could have been another tragedy on the eve of Women’s Month by contributing to “the reduction of violence on women.”

South Africa, Africa and the world, do not require only a “reduction of violence on women”. This would only address the “minimum demands” (Fanon, 1967: 27) of women.

“If I were to borrow a phrase from Frantz Fanon’s critique of the colonial enterprise, The Wretched of the Earth (1967: 27), I would say, to address “violence on women”, to end all forms of abuse against women and girls, to achieve gender equality, and to realise the goal of equal opportunities and progress for all women:

“The proof of success lies in a whole social structure being changed from the bottom up. The extraordinary importance of this change is that it is willed, called for, [and] demanded.”

Different from Fanon whose concern was with the relationship of the colonised and the colonising nations, in the case of the gender question in South Africa, “the possibility of this change” is not only experienced on racial lines – as a duet between the discursive “coloniser” and the “colonised”.

The possibility of ending violence against women is experienced and must be felt in the consciousness of all men and women, regardless of race, gender and class divide!

As Maxeke put it in Social Conditions of African Women and Girls (1930), we will know that we have succeeded “to lift women and children up in the social life” of the African when even men benefit, “and thus the whole community, both White and Black”.

In keeping with the teachings of this ANC veteran and stalwart of the struggle, Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke, we “must put all our energies into this task [of uplifting women and children] if we would succeed” (Maxeke, 1930) in realising the goal of equal opportunities and progress for all women.

In closing, I wish to remind you as did Yvonne Mokgoro in her 2006 Memorial Lecture on Charlotte Maxeke, that, I quote:

“Maxeke was a remarkable woman of many talents. She was an outstanding overall leader on a number of fronts and by many standards. We owe it to ourselves to continue to cherish her legacy and honour her in more substantial and permanent ways.”

Beyond this Memorial Lecture, let us make it our duty to act consciously to extend equal opportunities, freedom and justice to all women like the taxi drivers and passengers did at the Limpopo taxi rank.

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Written By: Pat Bulling
Date Posted: 1/19/2011
Number of Views: 6479

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