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Charlotte Mannya Maxeke at The Forge

Dr Athambile Masola was part of an esteemed panel at The Forge in celebration of Charlotte Maxeke’s life and politics. Alongside Zubeida Jaffer and Dr Thozama April, they unpacked Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, the woman beyond the name. The conversation—under the topic of ‘Charlotte Mannya Maxeke: A woman ahead of her times’— was centred around the work in which she was invested and the work which continues to recognise her contribution.

Photo courtesy of Nonzuzo Gxekwa

It would be remiss of us not to reflect on this conversation without taking stock of the events of the day, in light of the fire at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital over the weekend which has led to the hospital’s temporary closure. Many people know of and have been made aware of uMam’Charlotte through the hospital, but not so much outside of that representation which is why the conversation at The Forge is important.

Many of us who know uMam’Maxeke’s story have the women who came before us to thank for the laborious work they embarked on in documenting Maxeke’s life. Oftentimes, we stumble upon the names of women as they ‘write themselves into history’ through the work they have penned and through interviews. Other times, we are introduced to these women from research and records.

We are fortunate that there are collections of women’s repositories that have been added to the history records through the thankless work of feminist researchers who understand that the archival landscape has glaring gaps where scholarship, histories and existence have been left out.

Dr April reminded us of the reality of the absence of uMam’Maxeke’s record of birth, contextualising it in the colonial act of excluding Africans from population registration. She says, “the idea of the archive itself is a colonial invention… The ordering of archival material still bears traces of colonial epistemologies.” Highlighting how this erasure of Black women’s work is rooted in the establishment of the proverbial archive. Jaffer also speaks to the ramifications of these gaps in the archive and how they result in recollections that are sometimes not factual accounts of events, times and places.

This has obvious implications for history and means that even in our quest to build an archive, we need to be cognisant of what decisions influence our work and what they are informed by.

This is the work that Asinakuthula Collective is invested in: finding factual accounts, piecing the puzzle together, and presenting the full picture as a reference point but also as an ongoing collaborative conversation that can hopefully extend outside the academy. This knowledge can be shared through cultural, alternative and activist spaces so that it can be accessed even by those who would not have had access to the archive. This means we can all locate ourselves in this tapestry of work, weaving the different stories of the women who are known and unknown; those whose names are often not mentioned celebrated or acknowledged.

Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, the fire at UCT and the images which we have all seen on news sites this past week and the commentary around these institutions are a poignant reflection of the spirit of this time. There is a palpable sense of urgency sweeping over us to get busy and to start where we are, with what we have to continue where the likes of uMam’Maxeke began and stretch beyond ourselves in the threading and sense-making of the track which was laid for us. The realisation of a holistic archive is a journey and one which begs that sichule ukunyathela, kuba inde lendlela (to tread carefully because there’s a long journey ahead).

Written by Zimkhitha Mathunjwa

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