Activist, one of the first Black women graduates in South Africa and one of the first Black South Africans to fight for freedom from exploitative and social conditions of African women.
Where was Charlotte born?
Many sources cite Charlotte Maxeke’s birth place as Fort Beaufort the Eastern Cape, however, there are other sources that claim she was born in the Polokwane area, as her birth name Charlotte Makgomo Mannya is Sotho or Pedi. This is consistent with her being born in the Ramokgopa district and sources confirm that her family did in fact live in the Dwaars River area under Chief Ramokgopa for a while.
It is possible that Maxeke's birth place was confused with that of her husband, who was born in Middledrift in the Cape Colony (both Charlotte and her husband were born in 1874). ANC sources also cite Pietersburg (now Polokwane) as her birthplace in public lectures and presentations in her honour.
It is also possible that her birth place was confused with that of her sister Katie, who was born in Fort Beaufort on 28 July 1873, according to 'The calling of Katie Makanya'. However, since Charlotte was the elder sister, this also calls the exact date of her birth into question .
It is clear from several sources, including the previously mentioned book, that Maxeke spent her early life in the Eastern Cape, in the Port Elizabeth area. The fact that she wrote in Xhosa, also reinforces this.
SAHO has elected to go with the sources that locate Ramokgopa in the Polokwane district as her place of birth as this seems most probable. However, we acknowledge that Maxeke must have moved to the Eastern Cape at a young age.
Charlotte Makgomo Mannya was born in Ramokgopa in the Polokwane (Pietersburg) District on April 7 1874. She received a missionary education at Edwards Memorial School in the Eastern Cape in the early 1880s. In 1885, after the discovery of diamonds, Maxeke moved to Kimberley with her family. While in Kimberley, she became a teacher.
As a dedicated churchgoer, Maxeke and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891, and toured England for two years. During this tour, Maxeke performed for Queen Victoria, allegedly in Victorian costume. Sources state that the sisters were uncomfortable with being treated as novelties in London and during this time Maxeke is said to have attended suffragette speeches by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst.
With hopes of pursuing an education, Maxeke went on a second tour to the United States of America (USA) with her church choir in 1894 [some sources state this date as 1896]. When the tour collapsed, Maxeke stayed in the USA and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, which was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). At the university, she was taught under Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Du Bois, and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa.
She graduated with a B.Sc degree from Wilberforce University, 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, Maxeke as one of South Africa's first Black woman graduates.
Maxeke was greatly influenced by AMEC and through her connections with the Ethiopian Church the AMEC was founded in South Africa. She became the organizer of the Women’s Mite Missionary Society in Johannesburg, and then moved to the Polokwane (then Pietersburg) area. Here she joined her family in Dwaars River, under Chief Ramakgopa, who gave her money to start a school. However, the school could not be completed, due to lack of government funding and the poverty of the local community.
After this, Maxeke and her husband established a school at Evaton on the Witwatersrand. The Maxekes went on to teach and evangelise in other places, including Thembuland in the Transkei under King Sabata Dalindyebo. It was here that Maxeke participated in the king’s court, a privilege unheard of for a woman. However, they finally settled in Johannesburg, where they became involved in political movements.
Both she and her husband attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in Bloemfontein in 1912, and 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'. As an early opponent of passes for Black women, Maxeke was politically active throughout her adult life. She helped organize the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913 and founded the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC in 1918.
As leader of this organization, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women. This this was followed up by a protest the following year. She was also involved in protests on the Witwatersrand about low wages and participated in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union (ICU) in 1920.
Maxeke was also involved in multiracial movements. She addressed the Women’s Reform Club in Pretoria, which was an organization for the voting rights of women, and joined the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus. Maxeke was also elected as president of the Women’s Missionary Society.
In 1928, she attended a conference in the USA and became increasingly concerned about the welfare of Africans. She set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and was the first Black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents.
Maxeke was often honoured as ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’, and had an ANC nursery school named after her in Tanzania.
Maxeke died in Johannesburg in 1939.
• Davenport, T.R.H. (1999) South Africa: A modern history. London. p. 237
• Hill, R.A. (1922) The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Africa for the Africans, June 1921-December 1922, Volume IX, p. 113.
• Human Sciences Research Council, (2000) Women marching into the 21st Century: wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo, p.60
• McCord, M. (1995) The calling of Katie Makanya. Published by David Phillip Publishers: Cape Town. pg. 5-10
• Motshekga, A. (2010) Charlotte Maxeke memorial lecture: "Equal Opportunities and Progress, President of the ANC Women's League and Minister of Basic Education, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein [Accessed 12 August 2010]
• Meli, F. (1988) “A History of the ANC South Africa belongs to us”. Harare. p. 13.
• Verwey, E.J. (ed) (1995) New dictionary of South African biography. Pretoria. pp. 168- 170.
• Wells, J. (2008) “Charlotte Maxeke” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History [online] Available at: www.mywire.com [Accessed 12 August 2010]
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.