We need more Charlotte Maxekes

The Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala recently penned an opinion article published by the Sunday Independent on 10 May 2020.

As we navigate the challenges of the Covid 19 there is palpable anxiety that overcoming the problems it poses is an insurmountable task. Covid 19 is the biggest disrupter of our times. The world economy has come to a standstill literally and all countries are closed.

By May 3 3.45 million people were confirmed to carry the virus and it had killed 244 000 people. Of those proved to be infected 1.1 million had recovered. It is important to note that the number of people confirmed infected are those who had symptomatic signs of the disease and that there are many more who are asymptomatic and showed minimal or no signs.

South Africa has been under lockdown for six weeks. South Africans have shown tremendous support for and cooperation with the lockdown regulations but the impact of Covid19 on our economy will be devastating. Economists are expecting a contraction of our economy of 6%. Some people are even arguing that the economic impact of Covid 19 would be more destructive than the pandemic itself. It is in times like these that we are reminded of one of our liberation icons Charlotte Maxeke whose birthday was in April. It is in times like these that we should draw inspiration from Maxeke.

So for the sake of the generational gap who was Charlotte Maxeke? She was born Charlotte Makgomo Mannya on April 7 1871 in Fort Beaufort Eastern Cape to a mother from the region and a father from Ga Ramokgopa in the present day Limpopo Province. She was born into the unity of the African people uniting the people of the now Eastern Cape with those from the now Limpopo Province. She was a hard working student who was given the responsibility of teaching other students at a young age.

Charlotte was a talented all-rounder who was excellent in languages and sciences as well as a gifted musician. At a time like this when the coronavirus is destroying our economy we need leadership at all levels of our society. Instead of always pointing the finger at others we should all take personal responsibility to defeat this pandemic and all its consequences. In 1891 Charlotte joined the African Jubilee Choir. Her success attracted Mr KV Barn who was organising a choir that would tour Europe. Just before Charlotte left for a tour to Europe Mr Bain was replaced by a European organiser Mr Howell. The choir performed in many European cities including London where it performed in front of Queen Victoria at the famous Royal Albert Hall next to Imperial College. After their tour in London the choir went to the US. In New York Howell disappeared without a trace. The choir including Charlotte had no place to stay and had no money. The story was covered in many newspapers and it attracted Bishop Daniel Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal AME Church who organised a scholarship for Charlotte to study for a BSc degree at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

Charlotte seized the opportunity at Wilberforce University. She befriended the famous African American scholar and the first Harvard doctoral graduate WEB Du Bois wife Nina Gomer. Du Bois was a professor at Wilberforce when Maxeke was a student there. Maxeke graduated on time and with impressive grades making her the first black South African woman to obtain a BSc degree. At Wilberforce Charlotte met and married Marshall Maxeke thereby assuming the name Charlotte Maxeke. They then returned to South Africa. In South Africa Charlotte Maxeke was very active in the AME Church especially in the promotion of education of the African people. She became the president of the AME Women s Missionary Society. She was a delegate at the founding of the ANC in 1912. In 1918 she was the founding president of the Bantu Women’s League which was later renamed the ANC Women’s League ANCWL . In 1919 she participated in the anti-pass law demonstration which later inspired the 1956 Women s March. She was also very active in the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union.

She led the delegation that met the then South African Prime Minister Louis Botha to demand the repeal of the pass laws. In the post corona world we need leaders like Maxeke who can connect with all sectors of society such as unions businesses both national and international as well as politics. South Africa will need to mobilise and synchronise all its forces to ensure success in the post corona world. Maxeke was a builder of institutions.

She founded the Wilberforce Community College in Evaton in the Vaal as well as the ANCWL and these institutions continue to exist long after her departure in 1939. As we enter the post corona world let us build the culture of people who make institutions that become bigger than ourselves. Let us cultivate leaders who are driven by the desire to leave a legacy that will outlive them multiple times.

At the University of Johannesburg we have just launched a series of conversations about the post corona world. We know that the post corona world will touch every sector. For example unless we find a vaccine against this virus people will use more online platforms to communicate rather than flying to have one on one meetings. The post corona world will require leaders of the calibre of Charlotte Maxeke. Such leaders would need to be technologically savvy, globally connected, locally grounded, and hungry for the success of future generations.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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