AT TIMES Zubeida Jaffer felt Charlotte Maxeke’s spirit next to her while she was researching her book Beauty of the Heart.
Jaffer had been attending a memorial lecture when she realised she knew very little about Maxeke.
After a conversation with University of Free State (UFS) rector and vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen, a decision was made for Jaffer to write Maxeke’s biography.
She joined a team of students and delved into the past to unearth the person behind the activist and leader who had been buried in archives and dusty documents.
It took her and the team almost three years to complete the research.
Maxeke was the first in many aspects: the first black woman in Africa to have a degree; a BSc participant in the king’s court under King Sabata Dalindyebo, to write on the social and political situation of women; the first woman to challenge the pass laws; and was the founder of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918, considered to be the forerunner of the ANC Women’s League.
She also brought the AME church to South Africa. Jaffer, who is an activist, journalist and author, is the writer in residence at the UFS.
Researching Maxeke was more difficult than she imagined – records were hard to find.
Even the year of her birth was disputed. It was either 1871, 1872 or 1874. It was eventually settled that 1871 should be the year, based on the birth of her younger sister Katie, who was born in 1873.
Jaffer went to Maxeke’s father’s village in Limpopo, and tracked down a 106-year-old teacher who knew Maxeke, but Jaffer walked away with a quarter page of notes.
Jaffer, who has battled post-traumatic stress disorder for the past 30 years, said researching the book was an extremely taxing experience, but she was egged on by what she describes as the spirit of Maxeke.
The body of work became “so important” to Jaffer. She said wanted to do it, and she “wanted to do it well”.
But after immersing herself in the work, she became obsessed and had to pull herself back.
“I could feel her spirit,” Jaffer said. “I looked everywhere I could to find her own words. What amazed me was that in 1892, when she was 20/21, she was already writing down what she said.”
Jaffer says her written speeches in 1898 addressed women issues.
“The most extraordinary thing about her and her legacy is that she left us with her written speeches, like beauty of the heart, dignified conduct, leadership and oppression.”
On November 18, Jaffer will speak about the book at a gala dinner hosted by the Charlotte Mannya Maxeke Institute.
The institute has a threefold project to highlight Maxeke’s heritage and legacy; working with provincial governments to assist young girls with special talents to reach their full potential through guidance and support, with the aim of establishing a public school bearing Maxeke’s name.
Beauty of the Heart is on sale for R230 at bookshops or via Jaffer’s website www.zubeidajaffer.co.za