Let's carry Charlotte Maxeke's legacy by walking in her footsteps

Struggle icon Charlotte Maxeke.
Struggle icon Charlotte Maxeke.
Image: FILE

More than 140 years after her birth and 80 years after her death, Charlotte Maxeke's legacy, pioneering and trendsetting spirit and torchbearer status, are still being felt across the rainbow nation.

At the second conference of the National Council of African Women (NCAW) in 1938 in Bloemfontein, a year before her death, she said: "The work is not for oneself. Kill the spirit of 'self' and do not live above your people, but with them. If you rise above them, take somebody with you."

As we gear up for national elections on May 8, how do our leaders and political parties sustain her legacy, her inspiration and courage? As she said, by not leaving behind the 26-million registered voters and all 58-million citizens.

Our leaders and all of us can only do that if we all embrace Maxeke's character and spirit.

Maxeke taught us that the liberation of humankind from prejudice, racism, hate, and resentment is an ongoing process. She preached that a strong family and a sense of community are central to building and maintaining a cohesive society.

As one of SA's first black woman science graduates, the only woman who attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), now the African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein in 1912; an early opponent of passes for black women who helped organise the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913 and founded the Bantu Women's League of the ANC in 1918 and as someone who participated in tribal courts; a privilege unheard of for a woman and the first black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents, she was a trendsetter in her own right.

No wonder the former Johannesburg Hospital, which is now known as the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, has been named after her.

It is because of people like her that our country is a beacon of hope for women's rights the world over and I wish to applaud those who continue to champion this valuable cause.

She worked tirelessly to advocate for racial and gender equality and inspired countless men and women to work in support of social justice issues. She wasn't in the spotlight. But she exerted her greatest influence in ways that many good women operate: quietly and persistently behind the scenes.

In a word, she was brilliant. She had a photographic memory that could easily relay details of discussions, while providing a nuanced perspective regarding contemporary political, social and economic challenges.

Her brilliance did not only pertain to her exceedingly sharp mind and wit. She had it all, style, charisma and character. She brought positive energy and presence into any room she entered.

From the literature we peruse, there is no doubt that she dedicated her life to unflinchingly fighting on behalf of race and gender equality and justice in a world that inherently respected neither at the time.

Listen to what she said at different times: "It is high time that the voice of black women be heard. They must ready themselves for a struggle," she said at a meeting in 1917.

After listening to a speech by a male person, she said: "How can men liberate women from the pass laws if they themselves are subject to it?"

Dr Mokgokong is chairperson of AfroCentric Health and Community Investment Holdings, owners of Medscheme and other health care providers. She delivered the annual Charlotte Maxeke Memorial Lecture at Unisa this week to celebrate her 148th birthday.

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