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Who has the right to memorialise Charlotte Maxeke?

It is now commonly accepted that there is a glaring and unsettling neglect of women leaders in the history of liberation in South Africa and the continent, and that the equal importance of these women as part of our collective memory is canon. It is therefore surprising and disappointing that when a moment arrives for us to celebrate and evoke the legacy of one such woman — Charlotte Maxeke — who has been minimised into silence in history, there seems to be an attempt to police who has the right to memorialise her and who doesn’t. 

Dr Athambile Masola’s intervention: The ANC can’t co-opt Maxeke, disputing Panashe Chigumadze’s “theory that the Bantu Women’s League was a forerunner of today’s ANC Women’s League” (both published by TimesLive) gives itself wholly to this discourse. In doing so, there is an inevitable distortion of history and erasure of the work of women in the liberation struggle and present-day ANC, including that of Maxeke. 

For want of space, one cannot unpack the misreading given of all the sources provided by  Masola. We will look at the foremost and primary citation, Maxeke’s letter Ukubiwa Kwe League Yi Congress eKomani and what Masola describes as “the most extensive writing I have seen in regard to the [Bantu Women’s League] BWL”: Women and the African National Congress 1912-1943 by Frene Ginwala. 

Masola is correct in placing Maxeke as an activist in her own right, having developed and shaped multiple discourses in and out of the liberation struggle. In her attempt to pry Maxeke from the ANC, however, she not only works to muzzle the voice of Maxeke in the making of the oldest liberation movement on the continent but also reveals an imbalance and a disdain for the ANC versus a commitment to integrity in narrating historical events. 

To give historical context, we will begin with the article by Ginwala. Masola rightly quotes from said article that “the Bantu Women’s League pursued an independent course, and did not affiliate to the SANNC [South African Native National Congress]. Nor did it function as expected”. This she exhibits as the case of what she calls “dubious history” in calling the BWL a precursor to the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL). She however neglects a paragraph above this, where Ginwala writes: “The SANNC leadership had encouraged the formation in 1918 of the Bantu Women’s League, to organise women against proposals to extend passes to women throughout the Union. The Constitution adopted the following year provided Auxiliary Membership of the SANNC to members of the BWL.” To provide context, the SANNC did not adopt a constitution until 1919 — what is referred to as “the following year” by Ginwala. What this translates to is, the first constitution by the SANNC had set in it the right of a woman’s body, the BWL, as auxiliary members.

She also neglects, even more conveniently, the opening of Ginwala’s “The ANC Women’s Section” in which she states that the date and manner of the formation of the women’s section is not ascertainable, however, it could very well be owed to the independence of the Bantu Women’s League, a noted conjecture. She goes on further saying that although the BWL and the ANCWS operated as separate entities, they had an overlap of members with Maxeke being considered “an ANC leader”. This points clearly to two things, firstly, even with the vague history of the ANCWS, one can safely speculate that it was a direct result of the BWL. 

Secondly, the founder and president of the BWL at the time, Maxeke, had a great enough influence on the ANC to be considered one of its leaders, “taking full part in the proceedings and appearing on platforms at public meetings” as Ginwala puts it in her extensive writing. 

This work and recognition is set within the 1920s, post the writing of the letter Ukubiwa Kwe League Yi Congress eKomani. Maxeke went on to assist in preparing the biographical sketches for the ANC publication The African Yearly Register in the 1930s. 

In light of the reading of Ginwala as cited by Masola, one is hard pressed to find the true reason she would take umbrage with Chigumadze holding not only the BWL as the precursor of the ANCWL but naturally, Maxeke as the mother of the ANCWL, and as a person instrumental in the formation and growth of the ANC. 

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This leads us back to the letter Ukubiwa Kwe League Yi Congress eKomani written by Maxeke in 1920 upon which Masola argues that the ANC has no claim on, or can’t “co-opt” Maxeke. Masola highlights that in the letter, Maxeke decries the interference of the SANNC, which would later become the ANC, in the affairs of the BWL. But she fails to apprise us of the full context within which this letter was written. 

In the letter, Maxeke first gives an overview of the state of the SANNC. She illustrates the different working and political relationships the BWL and SANNC have with each other in different branches across the country. She mentions that in Pietersburg, both the BWL and SANNC branches enjoy a good working relationship with each other, unlike the Johannesburg branches, which had broken up into three factions because of the mismanagement of funds and tribalism, among other reasons.  

What transpired in Queenstown (Komani as referred to in the letter) is that some men (number not specified) attended a meeting of the BWL and said that there was a decision to make the BWL Queenstown branch a “clique” of the SANNC Queenstown Branch. This was a demonstration of the typical nature of patriarchy; men wanting to interfere with and micromanage the affairs of women either through direct intervention or by using other women. Such a practice is widespread and common even in the present day; where men see themselves necessary in the leadership of women and seek out ways to necessitate themselves in their affairs. 

Masola also neglects the reality of tensions and internal contestations in any organisation, let alone a political one. Contention moving vertically and horizontally across any organisation is to be expected. It is by no means an indication of the disassociation with that particular organisation or claiming they never belonged to it to begin with. This is demonstrated in Maxeke’s continued work with the ANC, even being referred to as a leader, nearly two decades before the ANC accepted women as full members. She continued working with them till her death in 1939.

A woman with many roles

At the All Africa Convention in 1928, which Maxeke attended and where she was acknowledged as a prominent figure within the ANC, Dr AB Xuma who would later become president of the ANC described her as “Mother of Black freedom in South Africa”. And she was no less. 

Among the attendees of the convention were representatives from the African Methodist Episcopal Church which Maxeke, as a religious leader, played a part in establishing in South Africa. 

Dr Thomaza April, who wrote her dissertation Theorising Women: The life of Charlotte Maxeke, describes her as a theorist, an intellectual, a feminist and a nationalist. 

There was also the Pimville Women’s League and the African Women’s Self-Improvement Society which she would join forces with to establish the National Council of African Women in 1933; an illustration of her character as a perpetual organiser. She surely would not have been foreign to the many communist organisations and unions in attendance as a prominent unionist herself; Maxeke had a role in the workers’ struggle too.

We must acknowledge all of these facets because she was all of them and will continue to be — in and out of her time. She and all women in history must be known in their fullness not only as an act of integrity to history but as a humanisation. There is no type of woman that is not good enough for history. The praying women, the working women, the educated and uneducated, the loud and the timid, even those in the ANC hold the same pen Maxeke held and get to write this nation’s story. 

That is the purpose of commemorating Maxeke, that is “into efunwa yiAfrka, into elilelwa ngabafazi bayo nabayitandazelayo. Ndiyatshona apho zihlobo zam”. 

Author

  • Sarah Mokwebo is a former student activist and Fees Must Fall leader and a feminist who is currently awaiting examination for her master’s degree in built environment at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is also a board member of the OR Tambo School of Leadership