Speech by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, on the occasion of a Public Lecture on, “Charlotte Maxeke: A diplomat, activist and feminist”, Wilberforce Community College, Vanderbijlpark, Gauteng Province, 8 March 2015.
Honourable Rector of Wilberforce Community College;
Staff and Management of both the College;
The Mannya and Maxeke Family Members with us this afternoon;
Your Excellencies, Female Ambassadors who have graced this event today;
The Students Representative Council, and other students’ formations;
Political Parties in particular ANCWL leaders, a movement founded by Me Maxeke
Community leaders and members;
Our generous Sponsors, Mustek Limited;
Men and Women of media;
Invited Guests; and
All protocols observed.
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to be present here today, especially on such an important day in the revolutionary history of women across the world.
Today we commemorate the international women’s day under the theme “ Make it happen”. We pay tribute to the heroines who sacrificed their lives for our won freedom. We celebrate the contribution of women of the world – past and present – in their continued efforts to make the world a better place.
Ladies and gentlemen;
I would like you to join me today in paying tribute to different generations of women, women who played a role in the realization of the freedom South Africa is now enjoying, through their activist and participation in many community development programs. These different generations have played roles in different epochs of South African history. Today, we celebrate in general the lives and contribution of our heroines Mme Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke, Mme Lillian Ngoyi, Mme Gertrude Shope, Mme Sophia De Bruyn, Mme Ruth First, Mme Ruth Mompati, Mme Rita Nzanga, Mme Winnie Mandela, Mme Albertina Sisulu, Mme Adelaide Tambo and many others who played and still play a role in the development of our people and of our country as a whole. We have however singled out a distinct individual, the great daughter of the soil who spearheaded the cause of women’s emancipation so gallantly and left us a strong legacy to carry forward this task towards realization of what she stood for and wanted for all women across the world.
An exemplary African woman from whom we must draw our courage to ensure that what she fought for is carried over for the realization of a better living environment for women in particular and society in general.
Today, we particularly honour Mama Charlotte Maxeke, a pioneer, freedom fighter, diplomat, women rights campaigner, and the founding President of the Bantu Women’s League, who led the women’s march against pass laws in 1913 in Bloemfontein.
In his speech on the occasion of the launch of women’s month by the ANC women’s league President Jacob Zuma gave a moving account of Mama Charlotte Maxeke when he said:
“Comrade Maxeke grew up in an era where there was scant respect for black people in particular, and black women in general. Black women had to bear the greatest brunt and the injustices of the colonial regime’s repressive laws”.
In her activism and rebuke for the repressive system of apartheid, subjugation, and discrimination against women, she was conscious of what women had to contend with – the triple burden of patriarchy, an oppressive regime and the exploitative economic system.
Her desire was to ensure that women are able to control their own destiny. She was determined that women, specifically in Africa, had to unite for a fight against discrimination, and weave their future in a way that they can exercise their full democratic rights.
We are gathered here today because we do not want this fighting spirit to die. Popular participation by women in their emancipation must not cease when the creation of a better life is realised. The question of women’s emancipation must continue to open the way to ever-deepening democracy in our country, and the region.
It was former President Mandela himself who said, (I quote)
”…..What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead”.
I invite you to join me in my admiration of Mama Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke’s contributions and achievements in championing women’s rights, and the promotion of women in the sphere of social welfare most especially education field.
There are many things we continue to learn from the life of Mama Charlotte Maxeke.
From her we have learned that one can be a leader and remain humble.
From her we have learned that you can be a leader and still respect others in actions and deeds regardless of their status in life.
From her we have learned that one can be educated and remain sensitive to the needs of those who are less privileged.
From her we have learned that that leadership is about sacrifice, selflessness and commitment.
As we celebrate this special day for women in honour of Mama Charlotte, we must be reminded of all these values she has instilled in us.
It is people in likes of Mama Charlotte who have taught us that unity must prevail amongst us, and indeed, the ANC. She has encouraged us to internalize the true fundamentals of leadership and Ubuntu – these are just some of the tenants of unity that she wanted us to learn.
In her interface with our people, especially women, she always urged us to uphold many values that we must internalize in our own lives, and behaviour that influences unity rather than focus on issues that divide us.
It is through her work that she cared for all – the elderly, the church, youth, the homeless, the rural poor, and ordinary folk.
Very few people can be said to have served their country and people with dedication, commitment, sacrifice, loyalty, respect, selflessness and patriotism like Mama Charlotte. Indeed, very few can hope to attract such an outpour of applause, which demonstrates that you are unique in every respect.
Collectively, we must cherish these values our daily struggles towards creating a better future for the people of this country.
In his opening address at an occasion marking our country’s celebration of women’s day on 09 August 2014, President Jacob Zuma made a poignant reminder that:
“In South Africa, women have for decades, played a critical role in the struggle for liberation. They have also contributed immensely in the process of building a united, democratic, non- racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa”.
The foundation of the women’s struggle for a better life, better work prospect, and better society is built on the legacy of sound contributions and commitments by gallant women leaders and many others who were in the forefront of our struggle for liberation.
Our presence here today exemplifies the legacy they have left for us. The story of their political struggle must remain a reference point for those who will come after us.
Ladies and gentlemen;
The early days of Mama Charlotte we characterised by a strong passion for education and the empowerment of women. Born Charlotte Makgomo Mannya in Botlokwa Ga-Ramokgopa, in Polokwane (Pietersburg) District on April 7 1874, she received a missionary education at Edwards Memorial School in the Eastern Cape in the early 1880s.
She later graduated with a B.Sc. degree from Wilberforce University. It is here where she also met her husband, Marshall Maxeke, who had come to the university in 1896. They were engaged when they both returned to South Africa in 1901.
She made history when she became South Africa's first Black woman graduate. To many who knew her, this did not come as a surprise since education became a priority for her at an early age.
Driven by her passion for the education of a black child, Mama Charlotte together with her husband established this very institution – then known as the Wilberforce Institute for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1908.
After their final settlement in Johannesburg, Mama Charlotte became involved in political movements.
Both her and her husband attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in Bloemfontein in 1912. Although her main concerns were church-linked social issues, Charlotte also wrote in Xhosa on the social and political situation occupied by women. In Umteteli wa Bantu, she addressed the ‘woman question'.
Ladies and gentlemen;
It was Mama Charlotte Maxeke who helped organize the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913, and founded the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC in 1918 later known as ANCWL and ANC respectively. As a leader of this organization, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women.
She was later appointed as a probation officer, the first African woman to hold such a post. Her work at the courts brought her into contact with the effects of the breakdown of family life and the problems caused by the migrant labour system.
In 1928, Mama Charlotte was sent to America as a delegate to the African Methodist Episcopal Church Conference. During the 1930s she continued to address meetings such as the 1935 All African Convention at Bloemfontein where she played a leading role in the establishment of the National Council of African Women.
Mama Charlotte was often honoured as ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’, and had an ANC in exile nursery school named after her in Tanzania.
It is by no means a surprise that Mama Maxeke’s had an unrelenting drive to acquire education at the Wilberforce University in United States, and later disseminated and modelled it here at this Institute that she founded on the practical attainments of Booker T. Washington.
This absolute determination to acquire education in America had a profound effect on her younger New African colleague Alfred B Xuma, who followed her to that country.
It was at this Institute that Mama Charlotte absorbed the Pan African political philosophy of her great mentor W. E. B. Du Bois. This philosophy was to serve her well in the ideological struggles within the ANC. While still a student in America, she established links between her uncle, Mangane Maake Mokone, the founder of Ethiopianism in South Africa and Bishop Henry Turner, the great Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Professor D. D. T. Jabavu, then the leading New African academic scholar, also made the following pertinent observation,
"Throughout all her life, she has been engaged in efforts of a patriotic character on behalf of the aboriginal races of Africa, these efforts entailing herculean tasks every time. Her social line has been the redemption of our womanhood as well as humanity in general. The League of Bantu Women which she was responsible for starting, was a wonderful movement that stirred the imagination of our people and unmistakably infused a widened public spirit among our women-folk throughout South Africa with results still traceable right to the present time".
It quite clear that, not only was Mama Charlotte Maxeke held in high esteem by eminent Pan African intellectuals, she was remembered with great fondness by the one of the greatest African American intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois, approximately forty years after leaving his classroom. This is what he had to say:
"I have known Charlotte Manye Maxeke since 1894, when I went to Wilberforce University as a teacher. She was one of the three or four students from South Africa, and was the only woman. She was especially the friend of Nina Gomer, the student who afterwards became my wife.
I regard Mrs Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest of human causes, working in extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race but against her sex. . . . I think that what Mrs Maxeke has accomplished should encourage all men, especially those of African descent".
Prof ZK Matthews, one of our leaders in the 1950s, also gave an account of Mama Charlotte Maxeke when he said:
"She was an eloquent speaker and a fearless denouncer of the disabilities under which her people laboured. Soon she came to be recognised as an authority, especially in matters affecting women and juveniles. In this capacity, she often appeared before Government Commissions to give evidence on public questions affecting African women and children.”
Ladies and gentlemen;
From her passion and stern position in advancing issues affecting African women and children, we can be sure that Mama Charlotte Maxeke was amongst the foremost founders of feminism in South Africa. Many of those who had an opportunity to work with her rightly viewed her as the founder of feminism in South Africa.
Among an array of her achievements, perhaps the most important organization of her creation was the Bantu Women's League for the protection of African Women's rights. As its president, the League succeeded in many petitions drawn up to defend the black women's rights.
Most important of these petitions was that against the diabolical system of requiring black women to carry passes or papers of identification to be shown on demand of certain white officials.
To this day, Mama Charlotte Maxeke remains an argument for the education of African girls to lead exemplary lives and as leaders for a better life. She was also active in the political organisations of the African people. She encouraged women to enter into the political arena and in the new outlawed A. N. C.
But the most important lesson for us that we have learned from Mama Charlotte is that, no matter what the odds, no matter under what difficulties you have had to struggle, there can be no surrender.
Each time we give an account of the contributions and influence of Mama Charlotte Maxeke, it becomes even clearer that she was also our country’s torchbearer in far flung countries. She was the first black South African woman to obtain a BSc degree in the USA.
She lived a life of a woman criss-crossing the world in search of answers to the question of women and children. In her travels, she derived high level papers on this subject. She met, worked and shared intellectually stimulating ideas with many people from all walks of life. She left no stone unturned, engaging with like-minded activists in search of solutions to the challenges faced by women in this country.
Without doubt, Mama Charlotte Maxeke embraced and epitomised the true spirit of a diplomat.
Ladies and gentlemen;
The present day foreign policy of our country is inspired and influenced by the true spirit of selflessness – a value inspired by the life of Mama Charlotte Maxeke.
To this day, our country’s foreign policy remains the foreign policy of our people, and subscribes to the spirit of UBUNTU (I am because you are).
Our foreign policy is a product of our peoples struggle and international solidarity.
The celebration of our foreign policy is our celebration of the freedom and democracy brought by gallants like Mama Charlotte Maxeke.
It is clear today that it is Mama Charlotte Maxeke, amongst others, who underscored the great importance of preserving South Africa’s integrity before nations of the world by sharply raising the question of women and children in South Africa
Ours is to take on the baton, carry on her legacy, be a responsible citizenry and ensure that we double our efforts in strengthening our commitment to finding solutions to the question of women and children.
The woman we celebrate here today is the one who, despite her modest recognition as a central figure in the fight for women’s emancipation, was always quick to caution that she was not personally responsible for the gradual progress and recognition of human rights as women’s rights too. Very few leaders would resist the temptation to celebrate their accomplishments – Mama Charlotte Maxeke was one of them.
As I conclude, I believe that through the selfless work of Mama Charlotte Maxeke, we must realise that each and every one of us can make a meaningful contribution to society. Many of us have witnessed the exceptional work she has done – the establishment of Wilberforce College is just but one of her gifts to humanity.
Before I can conclude, please allow me to express our sincere appreciation and gratitude to Mustek Limited for their generous gesture of donating computers to this college. Mustek Limited remains one amongst the largest assemblers and suppliers of personal computers in South Africa.
I urge all of our students to use these computers wisely and efficiently in order to enhance their knowledge and skills. This will allow them to become better citizens who can contribute to the development of a skilled human resource for this country.
It is this generous gesture from Mustek Limited which will support the college to continue making a difference to many of our people who were denied access to education by the repressive regime of apartheid. This college has produced gallant leaders, academics of our present day society. It is this College that continues to restore and reshape the dignity and integrity of those who are in constant search of education.
The hundreds of thousands of people who have benefited from Wilberforce College over the years can bear testimony to cherished values of Ubuntu - ‘I am because we are’.
Through her work, Mama Charlotte Maxeke has taught us that human spirit can move barriers of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
As we welcome back the remains of the two expatriated heroes of our liberation Mr J B Marks and Mr Moses Kotane from Russia, We observe the fact that they too shared same vision and sentiments Mma Maxeke held. This is the reason we believe that Mr Moses Kotane embodied the actions of Mama Maxeke when he said this about education,
“The right kind of education enables a man to see what the world has been, what it is and how it can change to suit him or his way of living”
We are all truly inspired by the work of Mme Challote Mmakgomo Maxeke. Our task is to also inspire many amongst our ranks to do more
In her honour, let us continue our struggle against deprivation of basic human rights for women and children. As the United Nations Theme says “ Make it Happen” , Let us take it upon ourselves to make it happen.
I thank you.
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