On the use and abuse of critique: the Maxeke-Congress debate

Panashe Chigumadzi responds to Athambile Masola’s Charlotte Maxeke columns

23 May 2021 - 00:00 By PANASHE CHIGUMADZI
It seems strange that Athambile Masola's dispute over Charlotte Maxeke’s “ANC co-option” is thus framed specifically as a “response to Panashe Chigumadzi” and not the vast body of Maxeke and broader SA women’s and ANC historiography that I have been building on (and departing from), notes the writer.
It seems strange that Athambile Masola's dispute over Charlotte Maxeke’s “ANC co-option” is thus framed specifically as a “response to Panashe Chigumadzi” and not the vast body of Maxeke and broader SA women’s and ANC historiography that I have been building on (and departing from), notes the writer.
Image: Nolo Moima

On 2 May 2021, Athambile Masola published “ANC can’t co-opt Maxeke,” a response to my two-part series on Charlotte Maxeke’s religio-political legacy.  In her critique, Masola “disputes the theory that the Bantu Women’s league was a forerunner of today’s ANC Women’s League” on the basis of Maxeke’s critique of Congress published in a 19 June 1920 letter to Umteteli wa Bantu newspaper entitled "Ukubiwa kwe League Yi Congress E Komani" (“The Theft of the League by the Congress in Komani”).

To state outright, it is not clear what exactly Dr Masola’s understanding of the word “forerunner” is nor her understanding of my use of it. As a literary scholar, the tools of basic textual analysis should have made it clear to Masola that where I referred to the ANC saying “then named the South African Native National Congress in 1912”, I referred to the ANC Women’s League[’s] ...forerunner, the Bantu Women’s League”. This was to make clear that the BWL was not simply renamed the ANC WL. The word “forerunner” is used to index the complexity of historical processes that do not lend themselves to a neat teleology of nationalist progress.

This historical complexity does not undermine the fact that the ANCWL can trace its lineage to the BWL, or conversely, that Maxeke and her BWL are part of the Congress Tradition of struggle politics. Thus, my essay made repeated reference to Maxeke’s political astuteness in building up women’s independent organisations such as the BWL, while collaborating with the male-dominated Congress whose “patriarchal nationalisms [Maxeke] sought to critique throughout her illustrious career.”

As such, my first essay concluded, “As a strategist, Maxeke carefully balanced the need for cross-gender solidarity as she called for “men and women [to] co-operate against these pernicious laws” while insisting on protecting the rights of women as political agents on their own as she advocated that, “in this building up of the nation, women must lead.'”

The headline from June 1920 that is now causing controversy a century later.
The headline from June 1920 that is now causing controversy a century later.
Image: Supplied

It would appear that in her seemingly close-reading of my essays Masola chose to overlook my foregrounding of complex political processes and dynamics in the historical formation of  the Congress Tradition(s), in order to condemn the work as “historically dubious”.      

Now, what is historically dubious is that Masola’s critique presents us with historical revisionism hinging on a headline. Surprisingly, Masola’s critique seizes on the sensational headline of Maxeke’s critique "Ukubiwa kwe League Yi Congress E Komani", but does not account for the broader context in which Maxeke’s critique arose, nor does she provide us with a close reading of a letter which she asserts is conclusive “evidence” of the ANC’s “co-option” of Maxeke, and by extension, her BWL.

Upon a close reading Maxeke’s letter, it is clear that there is a discrepancy between the letter's headline, its contents and its broader context, which raises questions of Masola’s readings and representations of history.

Firstly, in terms of the broader context, it is important to restate — the ANC did not grant full membership to women during the first three decades of its existence. The draft constitution of the ANC, which was adopted in Bloemfontein in 1912 stipulated that "all the wives of the members of any affiliated branch or branches and other distinguished African ladies where the Congress or Committee therefore shall be holding its sessions shall ipso facto become auxiliary members of the Congress [wherein]...it shall be the duty of all auxiliary members to provide suitable shelter and entertainment for delegates to the Congress".

Though the 1919 constitution of the ANC still restricted women’s membership to auxiliary status, it provided for the establishment of the “Bantu Women’s National League” to which women over 18 years could become members. As historian Bongani Ngqulunga notes, the constitutional provision for establishment of the Bantu Women’s League was the direct implementation of the decision taken by the ANC for the establishment of such a league.

Upon founding the BWL in 1918, Maxeke and her colleagues did so independently of the ANC leadership and effectively ran it as an independent organisation. As Frene Ginwala established as far back as her 1990 essay Women and the ANC (1912-1943) - which in part sought to correct (both the ANC and) Cheryl Walker’s claim of the BWL’s ANC affiliation in her landmark Women and Resistance in SA (1982) - the League was not affiliated to Congress.

However, several prominent ANC leaders, especially of the Transvaal, were present at the BWL’s 1918 founding conference. In fact, as historian Peter Limb notes, Daniel Letanka, the vice-president of the ANC in the Transvaal, addressed the conference and conceded that “women are organising themselves without the aid of the Congress because [it] has failed to do its duty”.

Though ANC president-general Sefako Makgatho was unhappy that the BWL had been founded independently of the ANC, prominent Congress members pledged solidarity and supported the League’s political campaigns.

As Ngqulunga notes, these close connections between senior leaders of the ANC and the BWL indicate that there was no Chinese wall between the two organisations. After all, Maxeke and other women leaders continued to participate in the activities of the ANC even after the formation of the BWL.

The ANC did try to establish a women’s section affiliated to it in the 1920s, but it never gained traction. For a few years, it coexisted alongside the BWL even though there appears to have been overlap in membership.

In fact, the opening paragraph of Maxeke’s 12 June 1920 letter to Umteteli wa Bantu attests to this close working-relationship between members of Congress and the League: “Kute kwixesha elidluleyo safunda kwipepa la ‘Abantu Batho’ ngendaba ye league e-Pietersburg sabulela kakulu ukuva inqubo yamakosikazi entle ePietersburg ... ipile ngapezulu kune yaseJohannesburg umzi omkhulu,ayenzile imisebenzi nemigudu emikulu … azihlanganisile nemali ezinkulu encedisa kwimisebenzi nezipitipiti ze Congress.” (“A while ago we read in the paper 'Abantu-Batho' of the news of the League in Pietersburg, we were very grateful when we heard about the wonderful progress being made by the women in Pietersburg ...[The League] is in a healthier position than the bigger branch in Johannesburg … [the women] have done great work in collecting money to help with the business of Congress”)

Note that Masola’s own 2018 journal article The Politics of the 1920s Black Press: Charlotte Maxeke and Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s Critique of Congress refers to this section of the letter, explaining: “It seems that the women in the League were also using their own finances to support the work of Congress as auxiliary members of Congress.” By Masola’s own prior admission in 2018, it would appear that the League and Congress were co-collaborators and as such it is difficult to understand how Masola now argues that Maxeke and the BWL was co-opted by the ANC.  

Now, the specific context of Maxeke’s Umteteli wa Bantu letter that Masola does not account for in her response to my essay, is that it arose after Maxeke visited Queenstown (eKomani) where she learnt, as it appears, that one male Congress leader had addressed a meeting there purporting to be speaking on behalf of the BWL without the knowledge of its leaders such as Maxeke.

Criticising this amid the factionalism in the league, Maxeke writes: “Eloqela belisenza lompoposho belizizitunywa zayipina intlanganiso njengokuba zimaqela matatu nje, kuba yona iLeague yabafazi ayikange itume mntu e Komani kwintlanganiso yamadoda” (“This group which made pronouncements on behalf of the League were endorsed by which grouping because there seem to be three groupings; because the League did not send anyone to Queenstown to the men’s meeting”). The tone of the letter suggests that Maxeke was, understandably, upset by this undermining of the BWL’s autonomy. Interestingly, Maxeke goes on to state in the letter that she now understood why Makgatho was unhappy that the BWL had been established without his knowledge as the ANC President-General.

While Maxeke is certainly critical of Congress factionalism and leadership, a close reading of the letter’s contents does not convey the level of hostility that its sensational isiXhosa headline suggests (the same letter was published in Sesotho edition of the paper). If anything, as the aforementioned opening paragraph shows, Maxeke admits that in places such as Pietersburg, there was close collaboration between Congress and the BWL, which was different from Johannesburg, where the Congress was divided into three factions.

Thus, it is understandable, that the concluding paragraph of Maxeke’s letter, though critical, remained conciliatory in its description of the attributes of the kinds of Congress men they as the League women want to be in coalition with:

“Sifuna amadoda okuk’usela abafazi besizwe sawo, ingengawo abamba engqugula ukwenzakaliswa kwabafazi bakuba namehlo okwazi. Sifuna amadoda alusindiso lwentombi zesizwe sawo ezinokuwatemba ngokuko bawo. Sifuna amadoda ayakuti wona azitobe ukuze isizwe siwapakamise, abe zinkwenkwezi ze Afrika nakwizizukulwana ezizayo. Natso into efunwa yi-Afrika, nantso into elilelwa ngabafazi bayo nayitandazelayo. Ndiyatshonela apo zihlobo zam.

Ndim enimaziyo

 uCharlotte Maxeke,

I-President ye League leyo

(“We want men who will shield women of their nation, not those who forge the destruction of enlightened women. We want men who are a salvation of women whose presence they may trust in. We want men who humble themselves for the nation to exalt them, to be the stars of Africa that’ll shine even to the next generation. That is what Africa needs, is what women are wailing and praying for. Let me end there my friends.

Yours known to you.

Charlotte Maxeke

President of the League)

To further support this reading of Maxeke’s desire to collaborate with the Congress men, the historical record shows that Maxeke continued to participate in Congress activities even though she was the League’s president. Contrary to Masola’s assertions, this suggests that the two organisations were not considered as rivals, but as collaborators in the same political tradition.

In fact, beyond the BWL and after it had become moribund by the late 1930s, Maxeke continued to work closely with the Congress until her death in 1939. In her 2012 doctoral thesis on Maxeke, Dr Thozama April describes the Second Conference of the National Council of African Women in December 1938: “The conference was graced by the presence of Reverend Z.R. Mahabane, the president general of the ANC. Charlotte Maxeke saw the presence of Rev. Mahabane as an indication of 'cooperation' between the women’s movement and the ANC. In doing so, Maxeke described the relations between the newly founded council and the African National Congress ...

On the nationalist front, the activities of the women were increasingly drawn more closely to the Congress tradition. Drawing a link between the activities of the women and the ANC, Rev Mahabane advised National Council to join the ANC deputation which was preparing to go to Cape Town in February 1939 ... to interview the Minister of Native Affairs ...”

With this close reading of Maxeke’s sensationally titled Ukubiwa kwe League critique, in the context of her extensive Congress collaboration, it is not clear then, what ANC “co-option” Masola is referring to. Again, this raises questions of Masola's readings and representations of archival histories.

When correctly read and contextualised, it is clear that Maxeke’s letter was an internal critique of her Congress tradition. If the existence of critique, conflict and contestation were the criteria upon which we judge figures to be part of any given tradition, we would count no-one in the ANC.

As we concern ourselves with this “debate” over Maxeke's place in the Congress Tradition, batho ba thiba ka dibono. In this current Ramaphosa-Magashule tussle, it is not unimaginable that a letter could appear in the press under the headline Ukubiwa kwe Congress as the torchbearers of Maxeke's Congress tradition are locked in a battle of the ages, accusing each other of stealing and undermining the processes of the “real” ANC.

Will future historians following in Masola's vein look at this time and disqualify the infighting ANC members from the Congress tradition? It does not require scholarly knowledge of the ANC's 109 year history to know that its members will more readily thiba ka di bono for internal factionalism than they will for a battle against the opposition. Importantly, the tenor and urgency of critique one levels is often a measure of the love and loyalty one has. That Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, for example - loved and claimed as she is by several traditions of black struggle - had sharp words for both the ANC (and her husband for that matter) is a measure of her fierce loyalty to Congress.

Surely, an understanding of personal and political dynamics of critique is the kind of basic political literacy required of any historian of political figures and movements? 

Importantly, as a scholar of SA's intellectual and political traditions, Masola should know that the ANC - especially after its transition into a mass movement - has never misrepresented the fact that it is a “broad church”, capable of absorbing numerous conflicting and contradictory ideologies and traditions into its capacious “non-racial”, “non-sexist” fold. Even as we, rightly, critique the Congress tradition and its uses and abuses of history (as I have in these papers before), let us accord unto Congress what belongs to Congress. Let us not commit dubious historical revisions based on headlines.

As such, Masola's response to my essay on Maxeke’s religio-political legacy raises very important questions about how we engage public history, memory, archives, debate and critique, especially as “feminists”. If there are lessons to draw from Maxeke's critique of Congress — it is the lesson of principled critique, which, to use a biblical metaphor, we shall know it by its fruits.

Among the fruits of principled critique is consistency. As such, the inconsistency in Masola's use of Maxeke’s critique of Congress in her own critiques and engagement with the scholarship on and surrounding Maxeke raises questions. In her 2017 review of Ngqulunga’s The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley Ka Isaka Seme (2017) titled “Making space for women in SA’s political memory, or, the case of the non-intersection of Pixley ka Seme and Charlotte Maxeke Streets”, Masola uses Maxeke’s critique of Congress to castigate Ngqulunga at length for excluding her (and her contemporaries) from the history of the formation of the Congress tradition.

Importantly, this is a critique that Masola reinforces by contrasting Zubeida Jaffer’s substantial inclusion of Maxeke’s Congress contemporaries such as Seme in her biography, Beauty of the Heart: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke (2016). Inexplicably, Masola then goes on to critique my work for situating Maxeke within the tradition. 

What is then even more perplexing is that less than two weeks before my Maxeke essay was published, Masola did not raise this concern over “ANC co-option” when she moderated a high-profile public conversation Charlotte Mannya Maxeke: A woman ahead of her times (8 April 2021) with the two most prominent Maxeke biographers, Zubeida Jaffer and Thozama April. 

As aforementioned, both authors frame Maxeke within the Congress tradition, and yet Masola did not use the opportunity to raise Maxeke’s critique to dispute this. 

As acknowledged in the 8 April discussion and the book itself, Jaffer’s Maxeke biography had the high-level support of ANC ministers — namely Naledi Pandor and Pallo Jordan.

Likewise, April’s Maxeke doctoral thesis explicitly acknowledges that it arose out of her time as a research assistant working with the SA Democracy Education Trust (SADET), a project of liberation historiography from President Thabo Mbeki's office.

Accordingly, the first chapter of April’s thesis Charlotte Maxeke: A celebrated and neglected figure in history (which I cited in my first essay) notably formed part of the landmark publication One Hundred Years of the ANC: Debating Liberation Histories Today (2012). Together, their work is clearly in the tradition of Congress historiography. Surely, if Masola had substantive grounds for disputing Maxeke’s “ANC co-option”, this would have been the perfect public platform to raise her concerns?

It seems strange then that Masola's dispute over Maxeke’s “ANC co-option” is thus framed specifically as a “response to Panashe Chigumadzi” and not the vast body of Maxeke and broader SA women’s and ANC historiography that I have been building on (and departing from).

Long before my essays, and the work of Jaffer and April, the broad consensus in much of women’s and ANC historiography in SA — works that Masola herself cites from Walker's Women and Resistance in SA to Ginwala’s ‘Women and the ANC” to Shireen Hassim's The ANC Womens League: Sex, Gender and Politics (2014) — has held it that the ANCWL can trace its lineage to the Bantu Women’s League, even if it was not directly affiliated to the ANC.

The inconsistency in Masola's “uses” of Maxeke's critique raises the question — what are we to make of critique in Masola's hands? 

Accordingly, we shall know principled critique by its spirit of discernment. Somehow Masola's historical understanding of the functioning of the press does not figure in her critique of my “feminist citational practice” in a second essay that she penned in response to mine.

As a scholar of the historic black press, Masola should have discerned that the platform on which my essay appeared — the commercial press — is not an academic journal or thesis, despite the fact that it was indicated that it was an edited excerpt of my doctoral thesis in progress. As such, the Sunday Times can confirm that the very citations, among innumerable others, that Masola castigates me for excluding were in fact removed by its editors.

More importantly, as a scholar, Masola should have discerned the fact that the work “in question” was not an opinion piece divined of my own providence but a historical essay on Maxeke’s religio-political legacy that is the product of innumerable primary and secondary sources of varied intellectual traditions vastly outnumbering the two “feminist sources” I supposedly “erased”. There are many roots and routes of scholarship, and thus, for the purposes of a newspaper article, we could not burden readers with bibliographical detail that is of interest to specialist scholars like Masola.

There was certainly no effort to present my work as the "first" to broach such terrain. Any scholar worth their salt in the field of theological and religious studies, would immediately discern that the essays built on the late James Cone's pathbreaking theorisations of systematic black liberation theology since 1969, and Cornel West's periodisation and conception of “black liberation theology as critique of institutional racism” in his pioneering study Prophesy Deliverance! an Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982). 

Importantly, within Black womanist theology, scholars would immediately discern the seminal work of former Cone student, Delores Williams, who in her classic text Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (1993) conceptualised a black womanist theology of survival, struggle and motherhood through the biblical survival narrative of Hagar, the enslaved mother of the prophet Abraham.

In the Southern African context, aside from African Christians' own reflections and the many Native Commissions which devoted much energy to the study of the “Ethiopian scare”, the study of African independent churches is inconceivable without texts such as Bengt Sundkler's Bantu prophets in SA (1948) and, in the particular case of the AME Church, Mutero Chirenje's Ethiopianism and Afro-Americans in Southern Africa, 1883 — 1916 (1987). 

All serious theologians would know that the works of the likes of Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu and Simon Maimela, alongside Dan Magaziner's recent work on the Black Consciousness Movement and its relation to Black Theology were critical.

Likewise, womanist theologians would know of Mia Brandel-Syrier's pioneering 1962 study of Amamanyano, Black Women in Search of God. 

This is a text Beverley Haddad references extensively - alongside Delores Williams’ Hagar-inspired theology of survival for example - decades later in her 2000 doctoral thesis African Women's Theologies of Survival. In fact, Brandel-Syrier's Black Women in Search of God is the primary source text from which I provided the Sunday Times the archival image of AME Amamanyano women that appeared in the first part of the essay. 

Once again, I provided the Sunday Times these and many other sources beyond the pale of theology. Understandably, the editorial constraints of the commercial press are not suited for this kind of bibliographical and historiographical review of sources and scholarship that an academic journal or thesis, or in this case, Masola, demands despite her presumed understanding of the historical and present functioning of the press.

In choosing to ignore the nature of the platform it would seem then that this “debate” has been devoid of another fruit of principled critique — good faith.

Ultimately, principled critique is generative of constructive debate. Unprincipled critique — itself an oxymoron — is counterproductive. As we have now seen, instead of channelling our intellectual energies into substantive inquiry and opening new avenues of scholarship, our energies have now been diverted into the task of splitting hairs and rehashing old debates. 


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