A little bit of history

Artlooks & Artlines

Artlooks & Artlines is a monthly column written by Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation.

I am often reminded that I have an obsession with historical anniversaries. It’s quite strange because during my school years I considered history to be taught in an incredibly boring way. Essentially, it was about learning facts, dates and biographies. Working in the arts sector with its enormous funding challenges, I learned very quickly that a grasp of history and how it can be contextualised could lead to funding opportunities to produce several solo biographical plays. Now who would I think of casting for the role of a young South African woman from Kimberley who is selected to go on a choir tour to Europe to perform before Queen Victoria? The choir wears a Victorian costume for their performances and the young chorister begins to express her dismay at being treated like an African novelty in European dress. The tour takes place at the same time that Emily Pankhurst‘s suffragette movement is gaining momentum in the UK. What Pankhurst has to say resonates with the young African woman who finds herself attentively listening to Pankhurst’s speeches.

There she is lectured by W E B du Bois. Between being first attracted to Emily Pankhurst’s suffragette movement and then being influenced by Du Bois’s Pan-African values, she develops her own political values

After a very successful season in London, the tour goes to Ohio (USA) and it collapses. The young chorister is offered a scholarship to study social work at the Wilberforce University. There she is lectured by W E B du Bois. Between being first attracted to Emily Pankhurst’s suffragette movement and then being influenced by Du Bois’s Pan-African values, she develops her own political values. After graduating with a BSc, she returns to South Africa and becomes a distinguished activist for women’s rights and for youth education. Mobilising her church, she establishes a school in Evaton, Vereeniging, the same place where the Wilberforce College was shut down by the apartheid government in 1960. The College was an affiliate of the Wilberforce Institute in the US. Her stature grows significantly among religious, community and political leaders. Still inspired by her early introduction to Pankhurst’s activism, her Africanist values influenced by Du Bois and her own rising consciousness informed by the South African reality, she becomes one of the most significant women leaders of the political struggle.

Given the opportunity, Charlotte Maxeke could easily have chosen to become a celebrated chorister. Instead, she set aside her aspirations and chose to work as a social worker. (There were hardly any opportunities for a Black woman with a BSc). Today, she is memorialised by having a hospital and a navy submarine named after. The school that she founded to give young people an opportunity that would change their lives is her strongest legacy. The main block at the Wilberforce College in Evaton is named after her. The college in Evaton moves along quietly still contributing to our educational landscape. The Wilberforce University in the US is celebrating its 160th birthday and it is the 120th anniversary of when Charlotte Maxeke was a student of W E B du Bois at the Wilberforce University. It would have been the perfect time to tour a solo play to the Wilberforce University in Ohio and to celebrate the life of a South African woman who started off by singing for her supper but whose legacy continues to put food in a thousand more mouths.

Given the opportunity, Charlotte Maxeke could easily have chosen to become a celebrated chorister. Instead, she set aside her aspirations and chose to work as a social worker

Now given this fascinating history, who in the US could I think of if I needed to join the dots to find some funding? Paula Caffey who was Voice of America? She gave me a biography of W E B du Bois as a farewell gift when I left the US Embassy. US cultural historian Julialynne Walker because the story would resonate with her and because of her passion for South Africa? My ex-boss at the US Embassy, Todd Haskell, because he now holds a significantly important post that advances educational exchanges? And my other former colleagues at the US Embassy because USAID was instrumental in supporting the early years of the Wilberforce College? And who knows just maybe… maybe the young woman who I nominated to go on a US cultural exchange programme and who is now in the Arts & Culture Department in the Lekoa-Vaal Municipality will be able to persuade her Council to fund the production. And then maybe… Just a small maybe, some funding could be found from the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Africa and in the US. It is their 120th year of services in South Africa. The Wilberforce Institute is a project of the Church.

Oh… And just in case I forget, I wasn’t going to write a history note for Creative Feel. I just wanted to know who could play the role of Charlotte Maxeke. Could it be Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Philisiwe Twijnstra, Pretty Yende or Sibongile Khumalo?  And who could I possibly get to direct the play? Lesedi Job? Nondumiso Msimanga? Thoko Ntshinga? The list is quite endless. I think it’s obvious that any government-funded arts agency would consider funding a solo play about a legendary South African. More importantly, I think that a play with such huge names performing and directing it is bound to be a box office hit! A little bit of history has often sorted out my arts funding dilemmas. Thanks to some legendary characters whose biographies make for good theatre.

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