The popular proverb which has almost become a cliché “… if you educate a woman, you educate a nation” has become a living truth that can be traced back to what started a hundred and thirteen years ago at the Wilberforce College.

This modest ‘institution’ was established by Charlotte Mannya- Maxeke and her husband Reverend Marshall Maxeke in 1908 in the humble neighbourhood of Evaton, outside a town called Vereeniging in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. This year, the South African nation pays tribute to the remarkable contributions Charlotte Maxeke has made to humanity by celebrating her 150th birthday.

Charlotte was born on 7 April 1871 and this year, to commemorate her birth, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed guests in Fort Beaufort, the town of her birth, to mark the beginning of a yearlong programme dedicated to recognising her works. Her family heritage, which she never forgot, is in Botlokwa, a village not far from the city of Polokwane. With the funding assistance from the Traditional Leader she started a project to build a school in this village. She also lived in Kimberly and Kliptown to mention just a few places that characterises her as a global citizen. She passed on at the age of 68 on 16 October 1939.

The Wilberforce Institute has been the bastion of Black liberation in South Africa. While other mission schools were enjoying government funding from the apartheid government, Wilberforce was solely funded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was seen by the local communities in Evaton, and elsewhere in South Africa and beyond, as a beacon of hope. The foundation of the Wilberforce Institute was the beginning of a new kind of struggle for the founding fathers and mothers as well as for the hungry earnest souls who wanted to secure knowledge. It was the first African independent school that had ever opened in the then Transvaal. As modest as it appears, it has some of the finest alumna who are leaders in society, government and private sector:

Nimrod Sejake – a pioneer of the Black Workers Union of South Africa; “Ellis Brown” Mokone – one of South Africa’s greatest boxers; Ben Skhosana – former Minister of Correctional Services in the first post-apartheid government of South Africa; Joshua Nkomo – a leader and founder of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union; and Kamuzu Banda – a former President of Malawi.

The National Heritage Council of South Africa (NHC), an agency of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, has initiated a process of declaring the Wilberforce Institute as a heritage site. Muruakgomo Louisa Mabe, the Acting Chief Executive Officer of the NHC, when addressing the community of Evaton, was emphatic that the Wilberforce Institute, as a future heritage site, must be guarded jealously.

Charlotte was a colossus that impacted positively to this country and beyond with her many achievements such as being the first black woman to graduate and have a BSc Degree in Southern Africa in 1901. Her achievements and contributions to society both inside and beyond South Africa’s borders motivated her family to seek recognition of her accomplishments, continue to promote her teachings and the values she stood for, and continue to promote the empowerment of women and social activism that she pursued during her lifetime.

“The work is not for oneself. Kill the spirit of self and do not live above your people, but with them. If you rise above them, bring someone with you.” Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke

One of the activities held by the National Heritage Council at the Wilberforce Institute to remember Charlotte Maxeke, was an Intergenerational Dialogue where young people were in conversation with the generation that benefitted from her legacy. The speakers included the Chairperson of the NHC, Edgar Neluvhalani, Advocate Mojanku Gumbi who was an Advisor to President Thabo Mbeki and is now the Chancellor of the University of Venda, Dr. Noelette Nduna–Watson, Principal of Wilberforce Community College who is also a proud Alumni of the Wilberforce Institute, and young people were represented by another vibrant woman, Nontsikelelo Makaula, a Senior Manager at the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA). Adv. Gumbi’s talk planted a spirit of selflessness and unity despite racial differences. She said: “Tribalism is a construct as is racism. There is no such thing as a person from a certain cultural background being superior to others… There is no scientific evidence to support that. So is no language superior to others”. She advised the young people to remain distanced from regarding themselves as different from each other on the basis of race or language if they, who are leaders of the future, are to build a better Africa for all.

Nontsikelelo, in her opening remarks, referred to the notion that young people in South Africa are termed “the lost generation” and noted that while the scale of unemployment is at alarming proportions, young people should not be characterised by impatience. She mentioned that in contributing to the country’s commitment to a “better life for all” President Cyril Ramaphosa had recently launched the NYDA’s programme called the Presidential Youth Service.

Dr Nduna-Watson, as an educator who studied at Oakland University and Michigan State University in the USA, and with a glowing passion for education, emphasised that “like a parent understood the value of educating a girl, so did Charlotte Maxeke”.

The Chairperson of the NHC, Edgar Neluvhalani, expressed the importance of heritage in society, especially the fundamental political, socio-economic and quality education values that can be derived from the life of Charlotte Maxeke. He made a very poignant statement in his opening address saying “We cannot, as a country, miss an opportunity to commemorate her, just like other historical figures that are taught in our history books. It is a given that people of her calibre deserve a space in the classroom situation, hence the quest by the NHC to foreground heritage within the school curriculum.”

By memorializing and celebrating the life of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke in this year’s activities, we echo her dream of a better life for all in South Africa, deepen her value system, and begin to make her dreams a reality.

The plaque acknowledging the dedication of Bonner Hall.

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