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Charlotte Maxeke - role model to all South Africans

Charlotte Maxeke, as a woman in a man’s world, blazing a trail as a South African female leader, role-model and motivator in the sectors of education, religious awareness, social work and political activist. Her story should be told to every young learner, to inspire them to achieve their dreams and aspirations.

I have been so inspired by Charlotte Mmakgomo Mannya-Maxeke’s life story. I knew her name as Johannesburg Hospital is now called the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, but had never researched her. A news broadcast flagged her life, and I began reading. The more I read the more I wanted to learn.

Some of her incredible legacy is recorded here. Charlotte Mmakgomo Mannya was born in Fort Beaufort, Eastern Cape on the 7th of April, 1871, and she passed away on October 16, 1939 in Johannesburg. Some websites suggest she was born in 1874. A woman of many achievements and most awe-inspiring first achievements.

Some of Charlotte Maxeke's incredible achievements are:

  • The first African woman from South African to achieve a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree. She completed her degree in 1901, at Wilberforce University, Ohio, United States of America

  • Advocating women’s rights in 1902, which led to her being the only woman who attended and contributed to the first African National Native Congress (ANNC) conference in 1912. (Later the ANC)

  • She was the first woman to participate in the King’s Courts ruled by King Sabata Dalindyebo of the AbaThembu.

  • Built and established a primary and secondary school, Wilberforce Institute, in Evaton, south of Johannesburg, with her husband in 1908

  • She was the co-initiator, organiser and the first President of the Bantu Women’s League founded in 1918 (later became the ANC Women’s League)

  • She established an employment agency for black South Africans in Johannesburg

  • She was the first African woman to work as a parole officer for juvenile delinquents

  • She was the first elected president of the new National Council of African women in 1937

This video by the Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute (CMMI), tells the story of Charlotte Maxeke - enjoy watching it.

From a young age, Charlotte was a keen singer and member of her church choir. Her primary school teacher Reverend Isaac Williams Wauchope, at the missionary school in Uitenhage expressed when she was eight years old, that her singing was “the voice of an angel in heaven.”

She then went to Edwards Memorial School in Port Elizabeth. She did very well at high school in Mathematics, Science and languages. She was involved in the church her family attended, and was a member of the church choir.

As a young adult Charlotte and her sister joined the African Jubilee Choir. In 1891 the choir began a two year tour of Europe, performing in numerous major European cities. They also performed at Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee at the Royal Albert Hall, in England. It is said they performed dressed in traditional outfits and in English fashion of the day.

During these tours she was exposed to the suffragette movement. (The term suffragettes refers to members of the British Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a women-only movement founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903). When in London, Charlotte also heard the speeches of British suffragettes, including the leader of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, who demanded the full franchise for women.

Charlotte Mannye wanted to pursue her dream of her own education further, so she joined a second choir tour to Canada and the United States. In 1894, the tour organisers abandoned the choir members, leaving them without money in Cleveland, Ohio as well as no passage back home. The African Methodist Episcopal Church took Charlotte Mannye and five other African people from South African under its wing. She was enrolled by the church into Wilberforce University, Ohio. At university Charlotte met her future husband Marshall Maxeke.

In 1901 Charlotte completed her Bachelor of Science degree. She was the first African woman in South Africa ever to receive a university degree.

She returned to South Africa in the middle of the Anglo-Boer War, she had to wait in Cape Town for the war to end before travelling to Ramokgopa village near Polokwane in Limpopo to her father, and to begin teaching.

Charlotte actively became involved in politics, in 1902 on her way to Limpopo, she requested attendance at the men-only annual meeting of the South African Native Convention in Queenstown. Charlotte was the only woman in attendance. She wanted clarity on the objectives, the purpose and inclusion of women in the convention, she was told it was not the right time for women to be included.

In Ramokgopa village, she began teaching with her father, encouraging young people to learn. She began steps to open the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) college in South Africa, wanting to promote education particularly for girls.

Charlotte and her husband, Marshall Maxeke founded in 1908, a primary and secondary school called “Wilberforce Institute” in Evaton, South Africa.

As time moved on, she continually advocated for the participation of women in church and political meetings. She championed for the rights of women, opposed the pass law for women, and the right to vote.

In 1912, the Maxekes attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which would go on to become the ANC. It is said Charlotte was invited to attend as the only woman, due to her questions at the 1902 meeting. The South African Native National Congress (SANNC), primary mission was to bring Africans of all races and cultures together as one people, to defend their rights and freedoms.

In an addition of “Umteteli wa Bantu” (Mouthpiece of the People) Charlotte wrote in Xhosa about the social and political problems facing women in South Africa. The exposure and knowledge for women’s rights lived strong, Charlotte continually expressed concern with the issue of passes for women.

In 1913, she helped to organise the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein. A petition signed by some 5 000 Black and Coloured women, in March 1912, in the Free State, was sent to Prime Minister Louis Botha asking for the repeal of the pass laws. No response was given, so the march of the BWL, led by Charlotte, saw women burn their passes in front of the offices of the Prime Minister. The women were protesting against the proposed reintroduction of passes for women, low wages, as well as a list of other grievances.

She went on to form the Bantu Women’s League (BWL) as a branch of the SANNC in 1918. (This became the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL). Initially women were not allowed to be members of the ANC, women membership was only accepted at the Congress's 1943 conference and in 1948, the ANC Women's League was formed.)

She joined the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union in 1920. She was involved in multiracial groups fighting against the racial issues and for women’s rights.

In 1928, Maxeke set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg

In 1937 a new National Council of African women brought together professional African women from throughout South Africa and elected Charlotte Maxeke president. She died two years later, aged 65.

Charlotte Mmakgomo Mannya-Maxeke is an inspiration to all South African women, being committed to her inspirations and beliefs, and achieving incredible goals throughout her life. She is honoured as the "Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa".

As educators let’s develop meaningful teaching resources of South African heroes, and continue to build and develop our rich historical knowledge. I love history, it was one of my Matric subjects and my majors when I studied teaching. We should be promoting history among our learners, encouraging them to research and assist in documenting our past as a country from all aspects of life and our diversity of peoples, building a comprehensive puzzle for future generations, such as the history and stories of people like Charlotte Mmakgomo Mannya-Maxeke.


  • The Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute (CMMI)

  • The Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute (CMMI). MME CHARLOTTE. Early years.

  • The Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute (CMMI). MME CHARLOTTE. African Jubilee Choir.

  • DW. Made for minds. African Stories. Charlotte Maxeke, ‘Mother of Black Freedom’

  • AMANDLA! The Liberation Heritage of Durban Charlotte Mannya Maxeke (1871-1939)

  • Sowetan Live (2011) One of the first freedom fighters.

  • Zubeida Jaffer (2016) Beauty of the heart, The life and times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke

  • The Reporter. (2019) Charlotte Maxeke Tribute

  • South African History Online. Charlotte (nee Manye) Maxeke

  • South African History Online. Bantu Women’s League

  • South African History Online. ANC Women’s League (ANCWL)

  • Black Past. (2018). Charlotte Maxeke (Manye) (1874-1939)

  • Zubeida Jaffer (6 Apr 2021). Charlotte Maxeke: A woman of firsts. Mail and Guardian

Image Sources:

  • Charlotte Maxeke on the cover of a Christmas card, circa 1890

  • Book cover: Zubeida Jaffer (2016) Beauty of the heart, The life and times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke

  • National Heritage Monument. The Long March to Freedom. Sculpture Charlotte Maxeke

  • The Reporter. (2019). Charlotte Maxeke Tribute. Charlotte Maxeke.pic

  • South African History Online. Charlotte (nee Manye) Maxeke

  • The Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute (CMMI). MME CHARLOTTE. African Jubilee Choir.

YouTube video:

  • The Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute (CMMI) The story of Charlotte Maxeke

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