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Charlotte Maxeke’s Bloemfontein links and their significance to women

In commemoration of the birth of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke 150 years ago, the National Department of Sport, Arts and Culture has named 2021 The Year of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. During the official launch in April 2021, the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, reminded South Africans that Charlotte was the only female delegate who had attended the founding of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC; later renamed the African National Congress or ANC) in Bloemfontein in 1912. It may be argued that this was Charlotte’s first achievement which was linked to Bloemfontein. At the time, Charlotte was only 40 years old. As South Africa’s first black female graduate she was an educated woman. At a relatively young age Charlotte displayed leadership abilities that were typically associated with her seniors.

Minister Mthethwa hailed Charlotte for her courage: ‘uMama Maxeke was the lone brave female voice in that conference. She held her head high and made a contribution, undeterred by perceptions and societal norms that sought to relegate women to subservient roles in society.’ Although Charlotte did not visit Bloemfontein often during her relatively short lifetime, her visits coincided with groundbreaking and watershed events in South Africa’s struggle history. Today these events are also considered key milestones in the struggle history of women in South Africa and particularly of women in Bloemfontein. Black women’s struggle was a struggle for female dignity, respect, equality, and basic human rights.

Charlotte’s presence at the founding of the SANNC in the Wesleyan School in Bloemfontein’s old Waaihoek township on 8 January 1912 is important for two reasons. Firstly, it is argued that Charlotte’s presence at the proceedings represented all South African women during a time when women, irrespective of colour or creed, were restricted to their roles as ‘mothers and housewives’ in the domestic environment. In terms of the conventions of a male-dominated South African society, women were expected to behave subordinately to men. Consequently, women were not always welcome at political gatherings and meetings. Thus Charlotte’s attendance at the SANNC founding meeting as the only woman delegate among men must have raised a male eyebrow or two. Needless to say, she was not intimidated.

Charlotte used her attendance at the SANNC’s founding as an opportunity to stress church-linked social issues. Yet, her main concern was the so-called ‘woman question’, that is, the plight of the country’s women and particularly women of colour to be treated equally to men. Charlotte’s courage was duly rewarded when she was elected to the SANNC executive. On that hot day in January 1918, Charlotte demonstrated what a black woman could achieve despite societal constraints and male prejudice. Charlotte’s achievement cemented her position as the pioneering black female leader of her time.

The Wesleyan School in Fort Street, Waaihoek, where the founding meeting of the SANNC took place on 8 January 1912. Charlotte Maxeke was the only female delegate in attendance. This picture was taken in 2015 after completion of the building’s restoration. (Source: National Museum)

Secondly, Charlotte’s attendance at the historical event in Waaihoek is also important in terms of what it meant to the women in Bloemfontein. According to journalist and biographer, Zubeida Jaffer, Charlotte’s bold and visible presence at the proceedings impressed Bloemfontein’s women as nobody else’s presence had ever done: ‘While they [the other women] were carrying plates of food and other refreshments, Charlotte was firmly seated alongside her male counterparts.’ As would become clear during the following year, Charlotte’s presence in Bloemfontein had emboldened local black women to voice their grievances and to protest against injustices through demonstrative but peaceful means.

At the time of the SANNC’s founding, the Orange Free State (today the Free State Province) was the only province in the newly founded ‘white’ Union of South Africa (1910) that required residential passes for black women. The passbook was essentially a service book that contained information on the worker’s employees, the duration of service and their track record and character. In Bloemfontein and elsewhere in the province, black people were only tolerated in the so-called ‘locations’ as long as they were useful to white people. In those days, the term ‘useful’ meant black people had to work as servants and labourers for white people. In the case of black women, a range of passes and special permits were introduced; this was not only done to control their movements but also to force them to work for whites. Because the carrying of passes was compulsory, policemen could stop and request women to present such passes at any time or place. Failing to do so often resulted in assault and in the flagrant violation of women’s dignity. Since the pass laws were first introduced in the Orange Free State in 1891, numerous petitions against such measures were sent to the white authorities, however, these were to no avail.

Bloemfontein Mayor Ivan Haarburger, undated (Source: National Museum)

Inspired by Charlotte’s presence at the SANNC’s founding, Bloemfontein’s women decided to take matters into their own hands because nothing came of their petitions and pleading. Barely two months after the founding meeting, local black and coloured women collected 5 000 signatures across the Free State in protest against the compulsory carrying of passes. Once again, this effort yielded but empty promises made by Henry Burton, the Minister of Native Affairs to whom the petition was presented. During a community meeting held in Waaihoek on 28 May 1913, Bloemfontein’s women decided on a much stronger anti-pass campaign. Charlotte served as an impetus for setting this new course of action in motion by assisting in organising the campaign. Reportedly, she also led a march of about 200 women to Bloemfontein Mayor Ivan Haarburger’s office in the town hall in Maitland Street to inform him of their unwillingness to carry passes any longer. In a powerful act of defiance, a group of women tore up their passes at a local police station on the night of 29 May. It may be argued that this much- publicised protest action was Charlotte’s second accomplishment which is linked to Bloemfontein.

A group of black and coloured women voicing their demands on the steps of Bloemfontein’s town hall in Maitland Street (today Charlotte Maxeke Street) while waiting for Mayor Ivan Haarburger to address them, c. 28 or 29 May 1913. (Source: National Museum)

The Bloemfontein women’s anti-pass campaign, which at the time had not yielded any meaningful concessions from the authorities, was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Towards the end of 1917, when the war was not yet over, it was again Charlotte who took the lead to reignite organised resistance towards ongoing discrimination against black women in the Orange Free State and elsewhere. She initiated the founding of the Bantu Women’s League (BWL) which later became part of the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL). Unsurprisingly, Charlotte was elected as the BWL’s first president during the launch meeting held in Johannesburg on 18 January 1918. Arguably, the Bloemfontein women’s battle against the pass laws was not in vain because the formation of the BWL as a powerful new vehicle for protest was a direct result of their persistent actions.

As president of the BWL, Charlotte acted swiftly; shortly after the new organisation’s founding she led a delegation of women to Prime Minister Louis Botha to present their grievances to him. The women not only voiced their opposition to the government’s proposed amendments to the pass laws; they also decried the still stringent application of the pass laws to women of colour in the Orange Free State. Reportedly, Botha assured the women that he had ‘no intention’ of forcing South African women to carry passes. However, Charlotte and the Orange Free State women only won a complete victory when all women of colour were excluded from the pass laws on a national basis in 1923.

Prime Minister Louis Botha, undated (Source: National Museum)

Charlotte visited Bloemfontein again as president of the BWL to attend the first meeting of the All-Africa(n) Convention (AAC) in 1935. The BWL was the only women’s organisation that was invited to attend this milestone event. Although some sources present it as anecdotal, it is worth mentioning that Charlotte was so insistent upon attending this meeting in Bloemfontein and arriving there on time, that she travelled in a coal truck from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein the previous night! Nothing stood in the way of her mission to bring about change in the lives of black women in South Africa.

 At the convention, Charlotte played a leading role in initiating the establishment of the National Council of African Women (NCAW). The 61-year-old Charlotte was also elected as its first president – her third achievement which is linked to Bloemfontein. In a speech made at the convention, Charlotte stressed her unwavering commitment to strive towards a multiracial and non-sexist South African society in which women were treated with respect and dignity. She also added that this objective would eventually be achieved by black endeavour and not by white patronage. Four years after this speech, Charlotte passed away at the age of 65.

Today, 150 years after Charlotte’s birth, her ideal of a non-racial and non-sexist society has not yet fully materialised. Endemic violence against women still plagues South African society. However, Charlotte’s vision for women to be treated equally to men is still alive. She has certainly not been forgotten and her memory and achievements are being honoured; streets and buildings are named after her. In 2012, the Bloemfontein city council deemed it appropriate to rename Maitland Street – the very same street where Charlotte and other Bloemfontein women demonstrated against the detested passes in 1913 – after Charlotte Maxeke.

Bloemfontein’s main street was renamed Charlotte Maxeke Street. (Source: National Museum)


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