“Lessons from Charlotte Makgomo Mannya-Maxeke”


IF I was asked by Koko Charlotte Mannya Maxeke what did you do with this country when you returned from exile when you were asked to write the constitution? 

My answer would be very simple that we have created a constitutional state where there is a separation of power. The Legislature, the Executive and Judiciary are separate and independent of one another – a situation where there is constitutional supremacy, not parliamentary supremacy. 

A constitution with a Bill of Rights, which would respect the rights of every citizen, black and white. A constitution which respects the rule of law. I’d outline those things in detail to her, but I would be very candid and say, we promised people a better life.

As I read her book and the lessons we should draw from it, I began to find myself indicting myself and all of us and saying; with all these beautiful frameworks our legislative machinery has been slow, and often subservient in finding its feet against the perceived all powerful executive branch of government. 

Its initial unwillingness to hold the executive accountable and exercise oversight has created imbalances in our overall system of governance. A lot of hard work still needs to be done to change the general perception that, because of party politics, and because of the strength of the ANC, the National Assembly acts as the smaller sibling of the executive. The tension between party loyalty and doing the right thing at all times needs to be debated and addressed.

Our executive has gone through different phases. Suffice to say that recently we have taken strides to ensure that we change direction from a path that could have led to a state of anarchy and full-scale looting of our hard-earned taxes. When we allow commercial thuggery from those who used monetary rewards to earn “citizenship” we are standing very close to the edge of the cliff.

Our biggest single challenge is to restore the structure, process and oversight to our gravely ill state-owned enterprises. We have allowed thieves and robbers to shamelessly endanger the future of our children. We have also angered those patriotic South Africans who have paid taxes and expect an honest, hard-working and efficient government. We have been slow in prosecuting and jailing those, who from positions of leadership and trust, have been criminally negligent in the execution of their tasks.

I do not think Charlotte Makgomo Mannya Maxeke, who would have turned 150 this year, would have approved this state of affairs. She vehemently and tirelessly opposed corruption and all forms of injustice.

Here and in the United States of America, Charlotte Maxeke shaped her spear and became a powerful voice for many, who at that stage, were still seeking to find light in an environment that seemed perpetually dark.

As a musician, an organizer, a writer and a wife she has the immense courage to form organisations such as Bantu Women’s League, and work with others such as the ANC, to create a vehicle within which dreams and screams of black resistance could find a rightful home. Tragically, this heroine died almost six decades before democracy found its way to the Southernmost tip of our beautiful continent.

It is with great admiration and attitude that we can say that it arrived here on her shoulders and the shoulders of many others, who were sadly gone before the rainbow nation was finally born.

When I read the script and reflected on a life so vigorously and fully lived, the question that occupied my mind was; What is the state of our constitutional democracy after almost three decades? What is it that one of the mothers of our liberated country will see when she looks at us now?

In my modest view, the strengthening of the pillars of our constitutional democracy lies in leadership. In our legislative and executive branches of government all leaders need to accept that they are servants, and, despite the fact that they now live luxurious lives of masters, they must act as humble, honest and brave soldiers of the people.

We, as the governing party, made stolen promises to the people of our country. We promised a country that belongs to all who live in it, and in the same breath, we promised a better life for all. We have made small strides in both directions, but we have a long way to go still.

Our verdicts, our executive actions and our legislation must reflect that the Charlotte Maxekes and other heroes and heroines of our gurgle did not die in vain. The fathers and mothers of our struggle must find reward, peace and happiness in looking down on us when they reflect on where we are.

As it is now we have only begun the journey of rebuilding a South Africa in which white and black feel safe and cared for. In particular, our journey forward should focus on those who are cold, hungry and vulnerable just like Maxeke did when she cared for the vulnerable and the downtrodden for free for the better part of her adult life. Our failures to fully address their plight should become our victories of the future.

This year, 2021, Our constitutional democracy is a mere 27 years old. In historical terms, it is in its infancy and therefore, still learning to navigate the dangerous paths of corruption, nepotism, leaders leaning towards dictatorships and

institutions hollowed out by those who care more for a quick buck, than for the weak, the vulnerable and the downtrodden.

In such a fragile environment we need to look for inspiration, for heroes and for those who bravely fought against systems that sought only separation, humiliation and racist classification of people who were denied their moral and constitutional birthright.

Furthermore, in such an environment we need leaders, socially-minded soldiers, artists and educated young South Africans who, in their bravery, are willing to confront the wrongs that they see in society. In such a scenario it means finding your voice, finding like-minded comrades and standing up for the principles that you believe in and were taught.

The subject of this book, Charlotte Maxeke, was such a person. She searched for her identity inside and outside of a vicious and oppressive philosophy that sought to ensure that the tools of democracy were structurally hidden away from the majority of South Africans.

We are in 2021, into the fifth Presidency since 1994. Under the presidencies of Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe, Zuma and Ramaphosa, we as the ANC have attempted to steer the ship away from the dangerous, shallow waters in which we found it 1994. Some of our efforts as the government of the day have been successful and others less so.

Our Courts at the highest level have been a strong beacon in the realms of transformation, speaking the truth to its other partners in the legislative and executive arms of government. Others, such as the lower courts need to find inspiration in the decisive, clear and quick actions of the highest courts in the country.

I want to praise the author, Modidima Mannya, for his valiant efforts to place Charlotte Maxeke in a historical context. His book will find its rightful place amongst those historical documents that sought to record our history and, in doing so, chart a better path for the future.

I happily join the author in saluting a woman who not only played a major role in the liberation and upliftment of all women, but in that of every South African.

  • This was a keynote address by Dr Mathews Phosa at the launch of the book “Lessons from Charlotte Makgomo Maanya-Maxeke” hosted by the University of Limpopo. The book is written by Advocate Modidima Maanya.

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