Abenathi Gqomo, a radio journalism student at Rhodes University, and Paige Muller, sat down with her during an interview for Rhodes Music Radio (RMR) to discuss Charlotte Maxeke, the first black female graduate in SA and the process that led to the publishing of the book. Listen to the full interview or read an extract of the radio programme transcript.
AG: You mentioned in an interview that you found yourself by co-incidence in journalism, so how did you know that this was the path for you?
ZJ: I knew because I had spent that month at the Argus by co-incidence in the late 70s, not through conscious choice, and once I was in that situation and I got the experience of how it is to work in a newsroom I just loved every minute of it because before that I thought I would be a clinical psychologist but when I had that experience I forgot about everything else. I just loved it. When I look back I think this thing has really been in my blood, it’s my passion.
AG: How did writing the book and the story of Charlotte Maxeke come about?
ZJ: The book evolved from a discussion with Professor Jansen because I’m based at the University of the Free State. And he approached me and offered me a position of a writing residence for five years, which is a very unusual position to be in and so when I got to Free State there was a memorial lecture to Charlotte Maxeke and I asked him about it and I said to him, I know the name but I hardly know anything about her and we chatted and then he said out of the blue, don’t you want to write her life story? And I didn’t hesitate. I get many requests to write people’s stories and I don’t take it up because you have to feel very passionately and you must really be keen because you’re going to have to spend two years –in this case, three years on one individual -and so you must be committed to this process.
AG: The book has exclusive pictures. We only know one picture of Charlotte Maxeke and you have given us the opportunity to see her graduation picture, so how did you come about getting hold of these pictures?
ZJ: Well the graduation picture came by surprise also because the University of Ohio sent us this package and in this package was this faded piece of paper that was the graduation picture. They also sent the graduation programme, so that’s why I could describe it in a lot of detail and all the people who graduated in that class.
The picture was very faded, so we touched it up a little bit. Dr Thozama April, who has done a lot of research on this subject, said to me some researchers questioned whether Charlotte had actually graduated. So the graduation picture settled that issue.
AG: There are different opinions about where she comes from. Some people say she comes from Limpopo or Joburg, some say Fort Beaufort. You mentioned that you had to do a lot of research to find out where she was from. So how did you come to the conclusion that she was actually from Uitenhage here in the Eastern Cape?
ZJ: Well, I say her childhood was in Uitenhage but she was born in Fort Beaufort. I don’t have paper evidence, but if I extrapolated, her mom was in Fort Beaufort and when her dad came down from Polokwane, from Ga-Ramokgpa Village, he met the mom in Fort Beaufort and he married her there and Charlotte is the only child so the chances are great that they were staying there at least when Charlotte was born. And so that’s how I came to that decision. There is one view that she was born in Ramokgpa Village, but I don’t see any reason her mother would go to Ramokgpa to have the baby because usually the woman is with her family, right?
AG: There was a lot of debate about when she was born. How did you come to conclusion that it was 1871 and not 1873?
ZJ: I thought it can’t be 1873 because her younger sister was born in 1873 and her mother had logged that in the bible. So she had to be born before that. We worked it out that it was two years earlier. Despite being pretty sure, we nonetheless tried to get paper work from Home Affairs, but this was not successful.
AG: So there’s a lot that goes into writing a book, especially someone’s story. So fast forward to 1912, 1913, Charlotte Maxeke forms the Bantu Women’s League (BWL) of the South African Native National Congress, how did that come about, take us through that process.
ZJ: Now you’ve conflated a number of things, she didn’t form the Bantu Women’s League in 1912. She formed it in 1917, 1918. Secondly it wasn’t part of any other organisation because at that stage no women were allowed to be members of the organisation, so there was no chance that it was one thing. So she died in 1939 and in 1944 the ANC Women’s League was started and that was part of the ANC and so throughout Charlotte’s life, she was very involved with women’s issues but she worked independently. All the women’s organisations that she was involved with were independent of any other structure, but worked with everybody. That was her approach.
AG: What prompted her to start this movement?
ZJ: There was a big uprising in the Free State which was the only province where they imposed the pass laws system on women. And so the women there independently also took to the streets, and they marched. And that was cut short because of the First World War in 1914. But by the end of the war in 1917, Charlotte and a few other women got together and they formed the Bantu Women’s League to take up this issue of the pass laws and they went to Cape Town with a delegation and they managed to get a little bit of a reprieve but the matter went on, you know in 1956 women were still protesting about the pass laws.
AG: How do you feel that as a society we can start being more inclusive of history that involves women and the vital role they played in society?
ZJ: Charlotte must be a household name. Her story should be known everywhere and so we have to get to that point so it shouldn’t be just at university that you first hear about her, they should hear about her at school, even at primary school, about the woman who was the first graduate, that’s very, very interesting, it would be interesting even for a child. So she must be, she can be symbolic of so much and so I feel that there is something very wrong with the education system because many people who’ve read this book they say they didn’t know these things at all. And so we’re failing miserably in educating all of us about the kind of things that were happening in our country so I think there must be some effort made to correct that.
AG: You read a passage at your book launch from when they were arriving in Kimberly with her sister and it was very descriptive. Did you have to travel to the different places that she lived in for you to be able to tell her story vibrantly?
ZJ: I did travel to the different places but that story particularly was recorded through Margaret McCord’s interviews with Katie Makanya, her sister… I did take the descriptions from that book and I thought it was important to create those images. The graduation story, for example, because I had the programme I could describe that. If you’re a writer you need to put those images into words so that the reader can see what you see, that’s standard I would say. So even when you do your journalism, and radio, it’s powerful, it’s description in words and it’s the sounds that they get as well. So I think radio is probably the best mediums of all the media that we have.
AG: What do you want your readers to take from the book?
ZJ: I want them to get a sense of our earlier history, earlier than 1910, 1912, I want to them to get a sense of that and I want them to get a sense of the young people who made huge efforts to get educated at the time and what they did and their intellectual abilities and to be proud of that, to stand tall and know that we stand on the shoulders of these great people and you walk as a South African proudly. We have a lot of nonsense at the moment, we have a lot of difficulties and in our daily lives we seem to be busy with people who are doing things that we don’t like but we should have the strength of character to know that there are many others who have acted correctly and that’s how I draw my strength. I remind myself that I’m part of this long line of people that have passed on the baton. And I say to students you must remember, you can do whatever you want to do, but you must remember what others did before and what they wanted to achieve so that you take the baton, you don’t run in the opposite direction, very important. So for me, it’s absurd in a country like ours where we struggling to create a nation, struggling to bring people together, to start saying that Mandela was a sell-out, because all we have at the moment, all we really have is our story and our history. And if we start breaking our story then you are doing great harm. If you think of the United States and you think of their story, their story isn’t even actually even true, the land of the free and the greatest, it’s not true, and many things don’t resonate but they all focus on that, they all feel that and I think we have got an even more amazing story and then we want to rubbish the story? No, we can say look we think that what was done only took us to a certain point and maybe they should have thought differently. I’m not saying you can’t criticize it, but you must accept that they did the best under their circumstances and then what is the best that the next lot can do to achieve what we set out to achieve. To tamper, to harm the essence of the story is really stupidity of the highest order because that is all we have. That is what all people have, they have their story and we have a magnificent story.
PM: You’ve unearthed some incredible pieces of original history that had not been found before, I just want to know, as someone who has been in the archives, who has found that original source, describe to us how it felt to have for instance, her music in your hands or to unearth that picture that hadn’t been seen before, describe to us how that felt.
ZJ: There were a couple of moments during this time where it was almost like a spiritual experience, I can’t describe it any other way, when I first saw that photograph of Charlotte I was out of my skin because I thought oh my God, this woman is coming back to us for some reason. In Britain she made some very powerful statements and she was 20, 21, and it’s been recorded, found in this arts magazine, I would sit and think what is going on here? Why is this woman coming out of the ether? And I felt very privileged to be the conduit. And I felt very emotional about some of the things that I found and I just thought, how could this have been written out of history- this experience. It’s something we can all relate to and all draw strength from. So it’s been an amazing but very hard. So hard that my sister who is a doctor, at some point said, this is your last book, no more books. Because I got quite ill at times and it was very stressful but I’m thankful now. I’m not stressed at all I’m just happy to see all of you taking up the baton and telling Charlotte’s story because for me, it’s about her story.
Listen to the full podcast here.