OUR DEBT TO CHARLOTTE
150 years after her birth, Maxeke is still our mother
Charlotte Maxeke — born 150 years ago this month — is celebrated as a mother figure of the struggle, sometimes at the expense of her radical religious and intellectual contributions rooted in an ”Ethiopianist” vision of black independence, writes Panashe Chigumadzi in the first of two articles on Maxeke
From the Chris Hani Road highway into Soweto, not too far from Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, you can see Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke’s grave in the Nancefield Cemetery. Maxeke (née Mannya) died in poverty and relative obscurity in 1939, but her grave site is now something of a small monument — a black granite tomb and headstone framed by four pillars and topped by a roof — befitting a struggle heroine often called the “mother of black freedom”. It was declared a national heritage site in 2010.
After Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Lilian Ngoyi, Maxeke (1871-1939) is among SA’s most famous black female political figures. And yet, if you ask the ordinary South African what exactly makes Maxeke a “mother of the nation”, they might struggle to answer. Most get only as far as referring you to the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, named for her in 2008.
If they are a card-carrying ANC member they will tell you she is the “mother” of the ANC Women’s League, having been the founding president of its forerunner, the Bantu Women’s League, the first black women’s political organisation. That ANC member might be able to tell you that long before women were allowed to participate in the ANC’s structures, Maxeke was present at its 1912 founding conference — the only woman there.
If they move in more academic circles, they might know that Maxeke, a student of WEB du Bois at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church’s Wilberforce University in Ohio, was the first black South African woman to acquire a BSc degree, which she did in 1901. Quite possibly she was the first Africa-born woman to graduate from a US institution, too.
A regular churchgoing AME member would tell you that
Maxeke is a “mother” of their church — the link between the AME in the US and the Ethiopian movement in SA. Though Maxeke only became president of the South African AME’s Women’s Missionary Society (WMS) in
1920, at least two decades into its existence, most AME women will tell you that Maxeke is the “mother” of their organisation. Likewise, most AME women name Maxeke as the designer of their distinctive “missionary uniform” — their leopard-skin hat, black gown, white sash and AME badge. “Mother” Victoria Gabeshane was in fact the designer — but such is the power of Maxeke’s myth and legend within the Southern African AME church.
I visit Maxeke’s grave in the mid-morning on January 16 2020 — a Thursday. Across Southern Africa, Thursdays are for manyano. Drive through a township on a Thursday noon, as I did after I visited Maxeke’s grave, and you will see groups of black women making their way from their fellowship — the white, red and black of the United Methodists, the black and white of the Anglicans, the white, purple and black of the Catholics, the blue of the Zionists, the greens of the Baptists, the black, white and leopard-skin of the African Methodist Episcopals.
Across Southern Africa, amaManyano, the “mothers’ unions” of our churches, are one of our most important social institutions. It is here that our mothers hold us up for prayer. It is here that they sing the songs that buoy their spirits. It is here that our mothers minister to each other. It is here that our mothers hold each other. It is here that our mothers cry. It is here that our mothers arrange funerals. It is here that our mothers find school fees for us when they are short. It is here that our mothers arrange which of our sick to visit. It is here that our mothers, conscripted as “girls” and left behind by our fathers who were conscripted as “boys” on the mines, farms and towns, held each other so that they could hold society. It is here that our society is organised.
Accompanying me on my visit to Maxeke’s grave is a woman who sees herself in Maxeke’s pioneering lineage — Reshoketswe Mosuwe, the current president of the Women’s Missionary Society (WMS), or manyano, of the AME’s 19th district, covering most of SA. At 47 Mosuwe became the youngest district president their WMS has had — something of a challenge in an intergenerational organisation usually headed by matriarchs old enough to see her as their daughter or granddaughter. Before she agreed to spend time with me, Mosuwe sent me to the Diepkloof, Soweto, home of one of the WMS’s oldest serving mothers, her predecessor and mentor, MmaLodi, Mrs Violet Lodi, as part of a kind of leadership philosophy she describes as combining “the energy of the young and wisdom of the old”.
One of the areas of intergenerational contention is the uniform — the leopard-skin hat. The prohibitive cost and effort of obtaining real leopard skin aside, some of the younger manyano women tend to be sympathetic to the criticisms levelled by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in an era when leopard numbers are dwindling. Many are opting for leopard print instead. For the older women the leopard skin is a point of historical pride. In the early days of the church, the cap was designed by Mrs Victoria Gabeshane, an early minister’s wife, in 1897 — in order to distinguish minister’s wives from the lay congregation, but was later appropriated by all women throughout the Southern African episcopal district, including Rhodesia. There, in the 1950s and ’60s the settler state began to target the uniform because it signified allegiance to the nationalist movement, which had taken to incorporating animal skin into their dress as insignia connecting the mission-educated leaders with their land and history. Drawing on the long association of the leopard skin kaross as the regalia of African sovereigns, and uncannily resembling the kaross Maxeke and her sister had worn as part of the African Jubilee Choir’s 1891 London tour, Southern Africa’s AME women had already prefigured this nationalist turn to a proud African past.
After MmaLodi returned from retrieving a large leopard skin from her bedroom and had carefully laid it out on her sitting room floor for me to share in her admiration of its beauty, I asked her what the skin symbolises. She gave the universal answer of the AME manyano — “To us the leopard skin symbolises that as a woman, as a mother, you have to be …” she made a clawing action “… you know?”
“Exactly. Fierce.” She laughed.
Even as she laughed, MmaLodi embodied a Sepedi idiom I grew up hearing while living in Limpopo — “Mmago ngwana o tshwara thipa ka bogaleng” — A mother holds the knife by the blade. That is to say, a mother will hold the knife by its sharpest edge — she’ll do anything to protect her child.
It is no idle saying. MmaLodi and her generation’s manyano were the mothers of the Black Consciousness generation whose revolutionary fire erupted into the June 1976 Soweto uprisings. Drawing their revolutionary fervour from Black Power and black liberation theology, alongside Kenneth Kaunda’s African humanism and Frantz Fanon, amongst others, Black Consciousness organisations such as the South African Students Organisation (Saso) declared Christ “the first freedom fighter to die for the liberation of the oppressed” in the resolutions of their 1973 Annual General Student Council held at St Peter’s Seminary in Hammanskraal. In February 1974, Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, the Saso leader who had sponsored the resolution, became the first South African freedom fighter to be assassinated by a parcel bomb.
In the wake of Soweto ’76, MmaLodi and her generation of manyano women were the mothers who held the knife by its sharpest edge — they were the mothers who had to hide their children, send them away, search for them, identify their bodies in morgues. From within our townships’ smoldering ashes, it was often up to black mothers to make something out of nothing.
As their children sought liberation, their mothers sought survival. Manyano, in part, provided that. If
Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God Psalm 68:31. KJV
the broader black church is the midwife of black theology of liberation, then the manyano births a black women’s theology of survival.
As we walk across the cemetery to Maxeke’s grave, Mosuwe — who is also a board member of the Charlotte Maxeke Foundation — tells me of the struggle over her memory. In 2019, at the commemoration of the 148th year since Maxeke’s birth, the WMS struggled to prevent being overshadowed by a delegation from the ANC Women’s League, led by the minister for women, youth & persons with disabilities, Maite NkoanaMashabane. Mosuwe says the WMS is adamant that Maxeke’s AME contributions will take centre stage in the coming years.
It’s my contention that, in the struggle over the symbol of Charlotte Maxeke, a false dichotomy is often created between Maxeke’s political and religious activism. The religious and political spheres have always been deeply intertwined across South African history — from the 19th century, when the Xhosa prophet Ntsikana began preaching an African theology in the face of British military conquest, all the way to the “Ethiopians” like Maxeke whose prophetic vision of “African regeneration” spawned the ANC, to the militant black liberation theological fire that erupted into the Soweto uprising. To put it simply, there is no 20th-century African nationalism and pan-Africanism without Ethiopianism. Nor is there a Black Consciousness Movement without black theology. As a founder of both the AME and the ANC, Maxeke is part of what we can call the “Black Radical Religious Tradition”.
And yet, in our collective memory, Maxeke has become an abstract mother figure. She is our nation’s womb emptied of the substance of her life as a preeminent anti-colonial intellectual and activist at the centre of one of the most dynamic transatlantic black religious and political movements the world has ever seen. Her symbol has become impregnated with the maternal abstractions of the very patriarchal nationalisms she sought to critique throughout her illustrious career.
As pre-eminent Maxeke biographer Dr Thozama April has often argued, in SA’s public and academic history, Maxeke has the contradictory position of being celebrated as a mother figure while her intellectual contributions are neglected. For example, at Fort Hare’s 1930 Conference of European and Bantu Christian Students, her “Social Conditions Among Bantu Women and Girls” speech made the ground-breaking intervention of placing black women at the centre of the analysis of the urban and rural segregation exemplified by the 1913 Land Act — the very act that precipitated the founding of her ANC — and reconceptualised received roles for black women in a rapidly industrialising settler economy.
Deeply rooted in the Ethiopianist theology of black liberation and nascent womanist theology, Maxeke provided a trenchant critique of white Christian civilisation and the hypocrisy of white Christians in order to advance a nonracial politics of “co-operation” between black and white women in particular, and black and white people in general. In this way she anticipated both the nonracial women’s solidarity politics exemplified by the 1956 Women’s March against the implementation of passes for black women, and the nonracial, non-sexist ideology that the ANC would take up with the 1955 Freedom Charter.
Across the AME Church in Southern Africa, Maxeke is known as the “link” between the AME in the US and the Ethiopian Church in SA. Rightly so. Having found herself stranded as a member of the African Jubilee Choir that had made transatlantic voyages from SA to Britain and then to the US — where it eventually disbanded in Ohio — Maxeke enrolled in the AME-run Wilberforce University. It is there that Maxeke would obtain a BSc degree. A letter from Maxeke to her sister Katie in SA about the AME was read by their uncle, Bishop Mangena Mokone. In 1892, he declared his independence from the racist structures of the Wesleyan mission. Though most Ethiopianist church leaders preached self-help, the Protestant work ethic and bourgeois values, the movement aroused opposition from the South African state because of its message of black independence, selfdetermination and unity.
No discussion of precisely why the name was chosen survives, but for black Christians across the world, Ethiopia had long presented the image and model of an independent African Christian civilisation that had been in existence since the 4th century. Most importantly, Ethiopians were black people who had been Christians for millennia, and not because of European missionaries. Beyond this, they were undoubtedly inspired by the Ethiopian prophecy of African redemption held in Psalm 68:31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” The Ethiopian prophecy of African redemption had become the most quoted verse in African-American religious history, and undoubtedly the most important for black people across the Atlantic. This explicitly black nationalist theology appealed to the growing national consciousness of black peoples who were facing increasing dispossession by a minerals revolution that was transforming all of Southern Africa.
Intrigued by what he read in Maxeke’s letter — for one thing, it described an independent black church with its own university — Mokone wrote to Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, one of the US’s foremost Ethiopianists and an advocate of “Africa for Africans”, for further information about the AME church. Three years after its founding, the Ethiopian Church of SA became the
14th district of the AME Church, in 1896. The “Ethiopian scare”, as the colonial authorities called it, formed the crest of one of the most remarkable episodes in the confluence of African and African-American histories as the Ethiopianist wave crashed across Southern Africa’s settler colonies at the tumultuous turn of the 19th century — a period encompassing the backlash to British imperial reconstruction, the Scramble for Africa, SA’s minerals revolution, Cecil John Rhodes’s destructive Cape-to-Cairo vision, the South African War, and consolidation of the Union of South Africa. By 1910, the year of the formation of the Union, nearly 40,000 Africans — urban workers, peasants, clerks, teachers and dispossesed sovereigns — had joined the AME Church, and tens of thousands more had been touched by its message of black independence and black unity beyond ethnic group, beyond national border. For a brief historical moment,
the AME — in WEB du Bois’ words “the greatest Negro organisation in the world” — stood at the centre of one of the most dynamic popular movements of black peoples across the Atlantic. This was in no small part thanks to Maxeke’s internationalist vision for transnational religious solidarity.
After Maxeke returned to SA at the end of the 1899 - 1902 South African War, she held various positions in the AME Women’s Mite Missionary Society, including president from 1920.
Together with her husband, fellow Wilberforce graduate Marshall Maxeke, she established Wilberforce Institution in Evaton in what is now Gauteng in 1905. It was the second of only two educational institutions founded by black people at the time. Charlotte and Marshall Maxeke went on to found several other schools.
Maxeke tirelessly advanced black women’s place in the church and in politics. True to the Ethiopianist spirit of independence, Maxeke carefully nurtured the independence of black women’s organisations like the Bantu Women’s League, of which she became founding president in 1918. Maxeke worked effectively in solidarity with male-dominated political organisations such as the ANC, where they could critique weaknesses where they found them and initiate political action themselves.
Ever the astute political player, as Professor
Gabeba Baderoon argues, Maxeke understood the power of collective work and reflected the intense commitment of her generation of black women to education as a tool of individual and collective advancement. In 1919, Maxeke led a Bantu Women’s League delegation to petition prime minister Louis Botha against the application of the pass laws to women in the Orange Free State, making parallels to the experiences of African-Americans in the transatlantic slave trade: “The pass system today was but an improvement from the pass that was introduced by the slave master years ago.”
In the end, Botha’s government made few concessions on the law, and Maxeke doggedly continued to keep her focus on this issue until the end of her life. She worked with black men in the antipass struggle, but insisted on the need for independent political action by black women. “How,” she asked, “can men liberate women from the pass laws when they themselves are subjected to them?”
As a strategist, Maxeke carefully balanced the need for cross-gender solidarity as she called for “men and women [to] co-operate against these pernicious laws” while insisting on protecting the rights of women as political agents on their own as she advocated that,
“in this building up of the nation, women must lead”.