Charlotte Maxeke Residence (formerly Lebombo)

Activist, pioneering black woman academic, visionary
Birthplace: Limpopo Province

Maxeke fought on two fronts – politics and education.

“I’ve never regarded women as, in any way, less competent than men,” wrote Nelson Mandela, in a letter to Advocate Felicity Kentridge, from his prison cell in Robben Island.

Charlotte Maxeke – already a towering political figure in the year of Mandela’s birth – may certainly have been among the fine female figures who influenced his equitable attitude towards women.

A principled, fearless leader, Maxeke was a talented academic and one of South Africa’s first black women graduates.

From humble early education at a missionary school in the Eastern Cape, she went on to complete her schooling in Kimberley before qualifying as a teacher.

Breaking new ground

Her musical talent led Maxeke to the United States as part of a church choir – and it was here that she enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree at Wilberforce University, which cites her as the first black South African woman to obtain a degree.

After meeting her future husband Marshall Maxeke in the US, Maxeke returned to South Africa, where she started teaching – and nurtured a role in political activism.

A member of the African National Congress (ANC), Maxeke co-founded the Bantu Women’s League, which later became the ANC Women’s League.

“Maxeke was an early opponent of passes for black women,” writes Shamiya Densmore of Maxeke’s alma mater, Wilberforce University.

“In June, 1913, she led the first anti-pass campaign against the (then) union government … she and 700 women … burned their passes.

“She (also) wrote in Xhosa on social and political situations (affecting) women. In 1918, Maxeke founded the Bantu Women’s League of SANNC (South African Native National Congress).”

Maxeke’s dedication to both civil and women’s rights blossomed during the 1900s, when she was involved in multiracial movements, supported women’s voting rights, protested against low wages and founded an African employment agency in Johannesburg.

Knowledge is power

Maxeke fought on two fronts – politics and education.

Solidly religious and backed by her beloved African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), she was committed to providing South African children with quality schooling.

Maxeke and her husband founded the Wilberforce Institute in Evaton, south of Johannesburg, which continues to thrive today.

In addition to teaching, politics and missionary work, Maxeke was instrumental in arranging study opportunities for African students at Wilberforce University.

Leading light

Maxeke wore many hats, and tired of none of them.

Her string of achievements included membership of the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus, presidency of the Women’s Missionary Society, becoming the first black woman parole officer for juvenile delinquents and organising the Women’s Mite Missionary Society in Johannesburg.

Hospitals, submarines, schools and streets are named for this remarkable woman.

History celebrates Charlotte Maxeke as a phenomenal political force, aptly honoured as “Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa”.