Distortions persist about South Africa’s matriarch
Charlotte Maxeke advocated for clean and truthful leadership. She resented token leadership. There is no way therefore that she would want to be treated as a token. She also would not appreciate that anyone uses her name for their political or other expediency.
Anyone who had the opportunity to read Zubeida Jaffer’s book, Beauty of the Heart and Dr. Thozama April’s Doctoral thesis titled: Theorising Women: The Intellectual Contributions of Charlotte Maxeke to the Struggle for Liberation in South Africa must have felt like having woken up on another planet evoking a diversity of emotions. I read the book and the thesis over and over again and at a point had my emotions range from extreme excitement to absolute anger. In the final analysis my emotions settled on a very positive note having benefited immensely from learning such a lot from her.
From the outset let me state that two important issues need to be addressed. The works I have referred to above have resolved these two issues which could easily have been distorted. It is for this reason that these works are critical in understanding my matriarch. It is also important that further work must be done to explore even to the minutest detail possible to expose generations to this depository of knowledge and intellectual prowess.
The first of these issues is the proper characterisation of Charlotte Maxeke. Over time an impression was created that her true fame was about being the first black woman to obtain a BSc degree. This is the citation most used for her. True as it is, in a sense it is a rather watered down citation of who she was. Jaffer and April’s work give a far more in-depth description of who she was.
The second is the claim often made seeking to attach her to the African National Congress which has for all intents and purposes claimed her as their own. I would have no issue whatsoever with this claim if it was based on true and objective facts. But this is not the case. The works I have referred to above expose the true and objective facts upon which a proper and informed position on this matter can be made.
Charlotte Maxeke advocated for clean and truthful leadership. She resented token leadership. There is no way therefore that she would want to be treated as a token. She also would not appreciate that anyone uses her name for their political or other expediency. She would rather have the real truth told about her. She remains an iconic figure in our socio-political life and forms part of our history which must be written for the benefit of generations to come. When this history is written, it must be clean, truthful and undistorted.
Extensive research work has been done about her and archival material from all over the world has been gathered about her, therefore there cannot be any justification whatsoever to continue peddling a distorted record of her. Some of the prevalent ongoing distortions include the suggestion that she was a member of the South African Native College (SANC) and by extension a member of the ANC. The further suggestion is that she was the founder of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), the basis of the citation for her being awarded the Isithwalandwe, the highest honour of the ANC, awarded to those who have made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle. She is also projected as having been no more than a gender activist and an educated black woman. But as the research into her life and work shows, she was far more than this. In fact, if there was ever an opportunity for the early ANC to have had a female president, she would have been the best the ANC would ever have.
The objective facts of Maxeke tell a completely different story. It tells of the story of a prolific black leader of the people. It tells of a prolific activist, a Pan Africanist of note, a powerful and influential figure revered across the board even by her own oppressors. It tells of a servant leader, a social worker, an activist and a brave woman in the face of adversity.
She was never as a matter of fact a member of the SANC or the ANCWL. She could not have been an SANC/ANC member when women were only allowed to be members in 1943, three years after her death. The ANCWL was only formed in 1943, three years after her death.
There cannot be doubt that she may have been desirous to be a member of the SANC and associated herself with their views. However, it was the very SANC that rejected her propositions for women to participate in the SANC. It is also a distortion of facts that the ANCWL is the successor to the Bantu Women’s League. As research shows, the BWL was a wholly independent organisation. It was the decision of SANC that women form their own independent organisation, which they then did. The fact that when the ANCWL was formed some of the leaders of the BWL joined the ANCWL is no basis to claim succession.
But it is also clear from the available research that the struggle of women and their efforts towards national liberation has always been downplayed and undermined. There is evidence which points out that women mounted serious struggles against the colonial and apartheid regimes on their own. The first anti-pass protests in this country were organised and spearheaded by women. These were not just about women but about black people in general. To reduce these struggles to women struggles fits into a patriarchal narrative.
The research conducted further exposes the serious contradictions of patriarchy. Everyone without exception recognised the power of influence of this matriarch and the impact of her work even under the most trying circumstances. However, in the eyes of her male counterparts she remained but a woman. Dr A B Xuma, one of the leaders of the ANC and the first black South African to become a medical doctor, who was 19 years her junior had the audacity to call her an “an educated native girl”. A Mr Mlonzi once asked where she got the idea that a woman can lead the liberation of the people.
As the research into her life shows, she was an overall pioneer, an incisive leader. Very little is said of her role as a Christian mother and her correct interpretation of what Christians should be and do.
The greatest injustice to her legacy will be to primarily associate her with the educated and powerful political elite and forget that she was in fact a rural woman and a former domestic worker. If her legacy is properly articulated and used, one category of people who must benefit are vulnerable domestic workers. For those who want to truly celebrate her, a clean and truthful narrative will be the best way without distortions.
As the history of this country is being written to be taught in schools to our children and future generations, the distortions of the past must not form part of that history. Let the truth be told as it is in the true character of this matriarch.
The ANC owes it to the women of Maxeke’s generation to correct the historical injustice committed to them. It owes it to them to tell the true story of their struggle for the liberation of all and not confine it for their convenience. They fought a gallant fight for all of us. The fact that she was forced to form a separate organisation and treated as less than compared to the other leaders of our struggle will go down in history as a grave historical injustice committed by a liberation movement.