By Zubeida Jaffer
On 7 April 1871, a baby was born in the hills of the Eastern Cape. She grew up to become a formidable trailblazer in our country. Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. The story of this remarkable woman should be known in every South African home. I want to thank Gcina Mhlope and her team for launching this book in Durban today. Through these storytelling adventures, Gcina sheds light on stories that should be an integral part of our lifeblood as South Africans. Knowing our history through telling our stories is a matter close to my heart.
I have had the honour of telling Mam Charlotte’s story and present it to you as Beauty of the Heart, The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke.
On the cover, you see a photograph of her at age 21. It is a photograph that remained largely hidden for 125 years but has now burst into our consciousness connecting her soul to ours.
Charlotte grew up with a passion for education and became our first female graduate obtaining a BSc degree at Wilberforce University in the USA. At the time, only the colonial community was allowed to attend universities in our country.
Not only did she come home to set up a school and give back to her community, she also stood up for justice and fairness in this beautiful land and led women in active resistance.
She was part of a forward-looking group of young people that included the famous journalist and writer Sol Plaatje in Kimberly in the last century. They worked steadily to educate themselves and bring education to others so that the talents of this country could come to fruition.
It is perhaps useful that we study and understand her life and those of her contemporaries to appreciate how much effort has been made to encourage us to fulfill ourselves as human beings.
We stand on the shoulders of giants some of whom have made superhuman efforts to improve the human condition.
At this time of the Covid 19 pandemic, it is particularly important that we draw on stories that inspire us. Mam Charlotte’s example, under considerable hardship, shows us how important it is to be patient and to be constant. The road we are travelling is a long and hard one.
She told us to not live above people but to live with them. She also said: “If you can rise, bring someone with you.” We have to think deeply about these words and others that she uttered in her lifetime. They will guide us through the rough waters that we are passing through right now.
There can be no progress if we abandon her ethos of serving others for the common good. She lifted herself up and took others with her.
On display in public life today is a different kind of conduct: a conduct that glorifies greed and dishonesty. It is a conduct that shames us as a people and it is not sustainable. If we ignore the path carved by Mam Charlotte and others and choose to follow this path, we will all go down the drain together.
Understanding her story is therefore important not only as a story that tells of a remarkable life but as a story that should help us insist that the tide must be turned against greed and dishonesty.
We dare not squander her legacy. We have to find the strength to remain linked to the impulse of nurturing the talents of each one of us. This means we must push away the clouds of doom and gloom and remain engaged in efforts to shine the light on the way forward. I have no doubt that this is what Mam Charlotte would have wanted. It is not the time to drown in the bleakness of our challenges but to stay on a steady path that has already been carved out for us so long ago.
I ask you to read the book and study her life so that you will find and remain on the wise road she travelled: one small step at a time.
Stay safe. Strive to be kind and happy. Much love. Zubeida Jaffer, journalist, author, activist
This is the text of a little speech read by actress, poet and writer NomaKhwezi Becker on 8 September in Durban to mark International Literacy Day. The Gcinamasiko Arts and Heritage Trust launched three books to mark this day and to tentatively reopen the Storytelling Tree live events as the pandemic eases. Beauty of the Heart, The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke was one of the books. To buy the book, click on this link: