(Extract from a lecture on the life and times of Mama Charlotte Maxeke delivered by the Treasurer General of the ANC, Paul Mashatile at the Durban City Hall on the 7th of April 2021)

The month of April in our country and in our movement is recognized as Heroes Month.  It is a month in which we remember our fallen martyrs: Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who passed on the 2nd of April in 2018; Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu who was hanged by the apartheid regime on the 6th of April in 1979; Chris Hani who met his brutal death on the 10th of April in 1993; Oliver Tambo who passed on the 23rd of April 1993; and many other heroes and heroines.

April is also our Freedom Month. It was during this month – on the 27th of April in 1994 – that millions of South Africans voted for the first time as equal citizens in the country of their birth. By doing this they put the final nail in the coffin of institutionalized oppression, discrimination and exploitation. In one united voice they declared boldly that apartheid and separation have no future in our country. Freedom was achieved in our lifetime! As a nation we owe a great debt of gratitude to those who came before us for the freedom and democracy we enjoy today.

This year, our movement also marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mama Charlotte Maxeke. She was born on the 7th of April in 1871

We will always remember Mama Charlotte Maxeke as an outstanding leader of the people of South Africa, a visionary, a fearless freedom fighter in her own right, and a pioneer of the women’s movement and the struggle for a non-sexist South Africa.

As we reflected on the life and times of Mama Charlotte Maxeke we were reminded, once again, that as a movement and as a people we stand on the shoulders of giants. It took courageous men and women of great vision – men and women of the caliber of Mama Charlotte Maxeke – to secure freedom in our lifetime.

Like many of her generation Mama Charlotte Maxeke dared to tread where others feared. She dared to dream of what others thought was impossible. In doing this she inspired many generations of freedom fighters to take up the fight for freedom and the struggle for women emancipation.

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Mama Charlotte Maxeke’s was also a reminder of the important role that women played in the struggle for freedom and justice in our country. Often, the role of women in our struggle is relegated to the footnotes of history. They are seldom accorded the honor and respect they so richly deserve, as freedom fighters and activists in their own right. We used that special occasion to reaffirm that Mama Charlotte Maxeke was a dedicated freedom fighter in her own right.

She is counted among that rich galaxy of fearless women freedom fighters who were prepared to sacrifice all for our liberation. Along-side their male counterparts, they occupied the foremost trenches in the struggle to defeat apartheid in all its manifestations.

Mama Charlotte Maxeke’s name occupies pride of place side-by-side those of heroines such as Mama Ruth Mompati; Ray Alexander; Amina Chachalia, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Aunty Sophy de Bruin, Idah Mntwana, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and many, many others.

We will continue to honor our forebears – such as Mama Charlotte Maxeke – for they are our liberators.  They held our hands and showed us the way to freedom. When our spirits and morale are down, we will draw inspiration from their lives of selfless dedication to a higher cause – the cause of freedom. When we seem to lose our away, we will revert back to their teachings for guidance and nourishment.

Mama Charlotte Maxeke was a pioneer in many ways. She was the first black South African woman to obtain a Science degree, as well as the first black African woman to graduate from an American university. She was a delegate to the ANC’s founding Conference in 1912 and was a founder, in 1918, of the Bantu Women’s League, a forerunner to the ANC Women’s League.

She was at the forefront of organizing the first defiance campaign against the pass system, mobilizing women to burn their passes. History records that this first of its kind, militant anti-pass campaign of 1913 – led by women – inspired   many similar actions across the country.  It also became a source of great admiration and general pride within the Congress leadership; at a time when membership of the ANC was only open to men.

The mobilization of women against the pass system resulted in the formation of the Bantu Women’s League, under the leadership of Mama Charlotte Maxeke.  In her, women had a leader of national standing among the African people; one who was highly capable of dealing directly with legislators and officials.  With Mama Charlotte Maxeke at the helm of the women’s movement, women no longer had the need of interpreters or spokesmen. They could articulate their demands and make their own representations.

Mama Charlotte Maxeke also organized farm and domestic workers. She appeared and made statements on platforms of the then militant Transvaal ANC and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, which she joined in 1920.  She used those platforms to encourage women’s militancy at grassroots level.

Mama Charlotte Maxeke dedicated her entire life to the cause for liberation and improving the conditions of African women. It was therefore fitting that Dr A.B. Xuma, the President General of the ANC from 1940 to 1949, described Mama Charlotte Maxeke as; “The mother of African freedom in this country.”

The American civil rights activist William Edward Du Bois described Mama Charlotte Maxeke as having a clear mind, subtle humor and straight-forward honesty.S he did her work with a slow, quiet determination. Du Bois goes on to say; “I regard Mrs. Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest of human causes, working under extra-ordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people in the face of prejudice not only against her race but also against her […gender].”  

Mama Charlotte Maxeke was passionate about the education of the African child. After graduating in 1901 with a BSc degree from the Wilberforce University in Cleveland Ohio, in the United States of America, she returned home in 1902 with her husband Reverend Marshal Maxeke to establish the Wilberforce Institute. The Institute later became one of the leading higher schools of learning for Africans in the Transvaal.

Mama Charlotte Maxeke has left us a legacy of absolute dedication to the cause of freedom and dignity for all, gender equality and the emancipation of women. We will walk in her footsteps. We will emulate her example.  We will jealously guard and deepen her legacy.

In her honor, we rededicate ourselves to strengthening the fight against racism, patriarchy, the exploitation of workers, joblessness, poverty and inequality.  We also remind ourselves that the struggle for women’s emancipation is an integral part of the National Democratic Revolution, whose strategic objectives include the resolution of the triple oppression of women: based on their race, class and gender.

Inspired by Mama Charlotte Maxeke’s struggle and passion for gender equality, we will do everything necessary to eradicate from our society all forms of gender discrimination, femicide, as well as violence against women, children and young girls.  Ours must be the generation that banishes this scourge!

In keeping with the ideals of Mama Charlotte Maxeke, we must be unrelenting in our forward march towards building a society that cares for, respects and promotes the rights of women. Consistent with our hard earned role as the leaders of society, as the ANC, we will continue to work with communities to reclaim every part of our country from those who terrorize women, children and young girls. We will liberate our homes, streets, neighborhoods, workplaces, places of recreation and every space in our country.

Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that women can walk freely in our streets without fear of being victimized. Together, we will build a movement against gender stereotypes and patriarchal tendencies.

Our work to advance the empowerment of women must also include expanding access to educational and skill development opportunities for women and young girls.

This includes closing the digital divide between men and women in our country.   We will continue to support young girls in schools and institutions of higher learning so that they can reach their full potential.

We will also ensure that women have expanded access to entrepreneurial and other opportunities for economic empowerment.  As our country has embarked on a path towards economic reconstruction and recovery, we are determined that women will be at the forefront and be the major beneficiaries of this endeavor.

We will work hard to ensure that no one, especially women, are left behind as we build a new economy for all, following the devastation caused by the COVID-19 crisis. We know that in our country the face of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment is largely female, African and young. The new economy we are building, therefore, must help us make a permanent and decisive break with this unpleasant reality. Linked to this is the need to ensure the eradication of unequal pay for work of equal value, glass ceilings   and the juniorization of women at places of work.

We will do all of these things because in us the spirit of Mama Charlotte Maxeke lives on. We will walk in her giant footsteps. We will endeavor to be like her.



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