History of South African Social Work – the founding role of Charlotte Makgomo-Mannya Maxeke (1871-1939)

For more about the history of social services, welfare and social work in South Africa, see https://africasocialwork.net/south-africa/

Regarded as the Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa, Mama Maxeke is a founder and and mother of social work in the country.

Mama Maxeke was born in 1871 (other sources say 1874) in Ramokgopa, Polokwane District (then Pietersburg District), Limpopo Province, South Africa. At this point there was no formal social work training. Those who practiced ‘social work’ at this time were either educated in other disciplines or had skills in welfare, management or church or political work.  She was the first welfare worker or ‘social worker’ in South Africa, was ‘a campaigner for women’s  and  workers’  rights,  she was a ‘native  welfare  officer’  or parole officer for juvenile delinquents at  the  Johannesburg Magistrate’s Courts (Smith, 2021, p. 165). Although she did not have a social work qualification, Charlotte is regarded as the first South African social worker, just like many people who founded social work in other parts of the world without social work qualifications. Her father was John Kgope Mannya, his grandfather was headman Modidima Mannya of the Batlokwa people, under Chief Mamafa Ramokgopa. She obtained a degree in 1901 (others say 1902 or 3) from University of Wilberforce in the USA, becoming the first black South African to do so. At that time, pan-Africanist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a lecturer at the same university. She organised women to protest segregation laws, including the infamous pass laws. She wrote about social injustices in isiXhosa. In 1918 she founded the Bantu Women’s League (BWL) which later became the African National Congress Women’s League. Together with 700 other women, Maxeke marched to the Bloemfontein City Council and burned their passes there. Her husband Marshall Maxeke, was also politically active and they worked together. She has been honoured by having roads  and buildings named after her, and an annual lecture hosted by the ANC, a part he contributed to.

During this period, ‘social work’ contributed to juvenile  reform  and  the colonial  capitalism project. These projects included work in colonial prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals. Social workers like Emily  Hobhouse (a British social worker in South Africa) feature during this period. During the war of the Europeans in South Africa, Emily Hobhouse campaigned for services for white people in camps in 1899. Emily was British and had experience or training in social services from there. In other histories of social work in South Africa, Emily is usually given prominence yet Ma Mexete contributed more significantly to social work in the country.


Smith, L. (2021) Historiography of South African social work: challenging dominant discourses. Critical Proposals in Social Work, 3(1), 155-185

South Africa History Online, Charlotte (née Manye) Maxeke, https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/charlotte-nee-manye-maxeke