The ‘mother of freedom’

Who was Charlotte Maxeke?

Charlotte Makgomo Manye was born at Ramokgopa in the Polokwane district in Limpopo on April 7, 1874.

She was exceptionally talented in languages, mathematics and music. Her proficiency in English and Dutch in particular opened doors.

She had a beautiful voice and sang in concerts in many places, including Kimberley. She later joined a group of singers which toured England where she sang before Queen Victoria. Two years later the group travelled to Canada and the United States. She entered the Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio — a university that was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in 1896. At that time the civil rights leader WEB du Bois was also a student at the institution.

At Wilberforce she married Reverend Marshall Maxeke.

She graduated with a BSc in the early 1900s and is believed to be the first African woman from South Africa to earn a bachelor’s degree in science.

Maxeke and her husband returned to South Africa where they became active in the field of education, setting up several educational institutions, as well as community development.

Later she achieved political prominence as a leader of women demonstrators against proposals to extend the pass system to women and in the same year she founded the Bantu Women’s League, a forerunner of the ANC Women’s League.

In 1918 she led a women’s delegation to Cape Town to put the case of women to the prime minister at the time, Louis Botha.

Her political activism was expressed most notably in an address at the University of Fort Hare in 1930 where she highlighted the adverse effects of the migratory system, family disintegration, the role of women in the family, the effects of racial discrimination and the land question, which she called an “acute question”.


She died in 1939 at the age of 65. Four years later the ANC Women’s League was formed.

Her dream was realised. Instead of women being the wives of members they became members of congress with the right to mobilise themselves.

Social worker, teacher, ­journalist and church leader — Charlotte Maxeke was described by Dr AB Xuma as “the mother of African freedom in this country”.

Yolanda Botha is a member of the national executive committee of the ANC Women’s League. The Charlotte Maxeke lecture, a joint venture of the University of the Free State and the Free State province, will become an annual event focusing on challenges affecting women

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