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6 July 2021
UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research works on bringing the legacy of Charlotte Maxeke to life with a new puppetry production
A special puppetry production reimagining the life and legacy of Charlotte Maxeke will be staged at Greatmore, the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC’s) new arts and humanities hub being built in Woodstock, in 2022. 

The DSI-NRF Flagship on Critical Thought in the African Humanities at UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) thought a production on the life of this remarkable woman - one of South Africa’s first black woman graduates - would be a fitting nod to 2021 being declared “The Year of Charlotte Maxeke”. 

It’s apt that this production will debut at Greatmore, a former derelict school building across from what was once a designated white area. Greatmore will be the CHR’s first arts and humanities hub in the city; creating a new footprint for a university that was once denied arts education. 

CHR artists Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective and Buhle Ngaba, with the CHR’s Itumeleng Wa-Lehulere, Aja Marneweck, and Jane Taylor, are working on the production that has been inspired by the work of Thozama April, who received the Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Award by the Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute (CMMI) in partnership with the University of South Africa for her “groundbreaking research” on the activist. April held a Next Generation Researcher position at the CHR from January 2016 to December 2019, where she was preparing a book manuscript based on and going beyond her doctoral dissertation.

Puppetry has been chosen as a core artistic medium to explore and highlight significant elements of Maxeke’s story in a way that will connect with her today, and inform the way we think about her for the future. 

Ukwanda’s Siphokazi Mpofu, Sipho Ngxola, and Luyanda Nogodlwana are Artists in Residence of the CHR’s DSI-NRF Flagship. They have travelled abroad, won awards, and through workshops and other interventions have made invaluable contributions to the CHR’s ongoing commitment to reimagining a post-apartheid city. Their work was at the heart of the annual Barrydale Puppet Parade and Performance through an extensive partnership with Net vir Pret and Handspring Puppet Company. 

Mpofu said work on this puppetry production has “opened her mind” to the life of an extraordinary woman who commanded respect even within a patriarchal society. “We want to know about her life. She was so focused. The more I read Thozama April’s PhD thesis on this neglected figure, the more I become curious, wanting to know more about Charlotte Maxeke.” Playwright Ngaba added that bringing Maxeke to life has been a huge and beautiful undertaking that has been “bigger than all of us”. 

She added: “It’s not just about everyone trying to plug Maxeke into the national story; it’s about what she did to make sure that we are seen as women, as the citizens who are here. It gives us the cultural and academic integrity that we deserve because it's been there; it’s always been there, and in the lives of ordinary people and in everyday living. That’s what’s special about Maxeke. We are looking at an ordinary girl who just kept going through the times.”

Reflecting on his commitment to Ukwanda, and his role as Dr Thozama’s doctoral supervisor, Professor Premesh Lalu of the CHR added: “The production of Maxeke's life represents the culmination of the longstanding desire to bring together artistic and humanistic inquiries in the best intellectual traditions of the Black Atlantic, of which Maxeke was a key contributor.”