Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke (1871 – 1919) was a pioneering South African woman who was passionate about inclusivity, education and evangelism. She grasped every opportunity presented to her and accomplished many notable firsts during her lifetime. These include…
- …being the first black South African woman to achieve a BSC degree in 1901.
- …being the first woman to participate in the King’s Courts under King Sabata Dalindyebo of AbaThembu.
- …establishing a school in Evaton with her husband in 1908 (Wilberforce Institute)
- …being the only woman who attended and contributed to the first African National Congress (ANC) conference in 1912.
- …being co-initiator, organiser and the first President of the Bantu Women’s League founded in 1918 (it would later become the ANC Women’s League)
Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke was born to John Kgope Mannya and Anna Manci on 7 April 1871 in Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape. Her father had grown up without access to education and always encouraged his children to seek to better ourselves. His stories of the lack of literacy in his village, and the mystery the written word held to him and his people, planted the first seed of ambition in Charlotte, who throughout her life was driven by the determination to not only better herself, but also to return to the mountains of her father’s village, and to teach her people.
She and her siblings attended Edwards Memorial – a missionary school – where her thirst for knowledge and a burning desire to be educated, and to educate, was fuelled by her teachers. In 1885, her father began to attend night school and at the same time he converted to Christianity and became a lay preacher at the local Presbyterian church. The Mannya family became dedicated church-goers, and the seed of another of Charlotte’s great callings – her evangelism – was planted. She often expressed how fortunate she was to have a father who encouraged her to pursue her dreams, and who would often tell her that God will make her dreams come true.
African Jubilee Choir
Charlotte and her younger sister Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir and between 1891-1893 the choir was invited to tour England and perform for Queen Victoria. It was here that she had the opportunity to witness talks by some famous suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst, who inspired her to lobby for women’s rights.
The African Jubilee Choir was so well-received abroad that it was invited to tour Canada and the States. After the tour ended Charlotte stayed behind as she felt the States could offer her opportunity and access to the education she had long aspired to. With the help of Bishop Turner from the African Methodist Church, she was granted admission to study at the Wilberforce University near Xenia, Ohio.
Wilberforce University was black-owned and managed, and catered mainly for black students. The institution was aligned to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which had its origins in the Free African Society that advocated for social equality for black people. While studying towards her Bachelor of Science, Charlotte witnessed incredible leadership amongst her peers there, and began to see a different future for herself – one in which she could not only teach her people, but one where she could lead them too. Her desire for the AME church and its principals to be introduced into the country of her birth was eventually realised, through a pastor that her sister Katie knew.
1903 saw two major milestones occur in her life: She became the first black South African woman to graduate with a university degree, and, she married the love of her life: fellow student, graduate and countryman Marshall Maxeke.
Return to South Africa
The couple returned to South Africa with the intention of making a difference and being instruments of change. For about a decade they focused mainly on their evangelistic pursuits and Charlotte was elected as president of the Women’s Missionary Society by the AME.
Charlotte was afforded the privilege of participating in King Sabata Dalindyebo’s court in the Transkei. They started a school under this Royal Family and she was given the name Nogazo as salutation. The husband and wife team also founded the South African Wilberforce Institution in Evaton – an establishment that has survived them both.
In 1912 the couple attended the founding of the African Native National Congress in Bloemfontein. Charlotte had become a strong proponent of changing the social and political situation of black women in South Africa – this included organising anti-pass movements and marches; being a founder member of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918 (which later became the ANC Women’s League) and using every opportunity she had to raise the profile of women’s rights.
Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke lived to be sixty-eight years old. She died on 16 October 1919, however, her legacy and her story does end there…
“I regard Mrs Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest of human causes, working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race, but against her sex. To fight not simply the natural and inherent difficulties of education and social uplift, but to fight with little money and little outside aid was indeed a tremendous task”. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor.