John Tengo Jabavu (1859–1921), the doyen of the early black press in South Africa and a leading pioneer of African journalism, in 1884 launched his own paper, Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion), in isiXhosa and English, after working since 1876 on the Lovedale mission paper Isigidimi samaXhosa (Xhosa Messenger). Xhosa journalism had emerged gradually within the mission presses but it was difficult to present investigative journalism, or even an independent voice, within their pages.
Jabavu, an active Wesleyan, travelled widely to church, and later political, conferences and often used these visits to report first hand at a time when financial resources for the black press were limited, and communications slow. This story was the editorial lead in the English columns of the issue. He combines on-the-spot reporting and interviewing of local people with in-depth analysis sensitive to background factors. He first sketches the terrain, underlining the isolation yet high population density of the essentially rural district, which was becoming an important source of migrant labour for the Rand mines and Free State farms and mines. There were some small urban settlements and mission stations nearby, notably Bensonvale Institution, about which he enthuses from his own sincere Christian perspective, and Wittebergen, but much of the population lay in scattered villages.
The story emphasises the need for a press attuned to local needs: in this region, remote from big cities, ‘there is no Press to bring to light the thousand and one little worries’. Mindful both of how white readers might dismiss black people’s complaints as ‘trivial’, and of his black interlocutors’ urgings that he expose the injustices they face on a daily basis, Jabavu nicely connects ‘little’
and ‘big’ concerns of the people of Herschel district, in the Eastern Cape (Beinart, 1987). These are in fact ‘big’ worries: the severely administered pass laws resemble the tyranny of tsarist Russia. Local workers are caught in a vicious circle: needing to migrate to find work to pay taxes, they are denied the travel passes necessary to do so; if they succeed, when they return home they could be denied entry on spurious grounds that there is no space. Jabavu’s focus on everyday life captures how the investigative journalist’s domain is not just ‘high politics’. Liberty needs a free press, without which the Africans of Herschel are dependent on the ‘caprice’ of officials. And yet, he is not despondent: the people are in an ‘enquiring frame of mind, indicative of a hopeful future’. Across all this reporting, there is ample evidence that Jabavu has listened closely and with empathy to local voices, who urged him to publicise their plight.
Jabavu’s journalistic style is persuasive, a well-weighted balance of matter-of-fact reporting and eloquent appeal for official action to address inequities. The ridiculous and callous bureaucratic run-around of the pass laws is likened to ‘shutting up a man in a dark chamber and kicking him for not seeing’. Sufficient evidence of hardship is adduced to make the reader want to act, but there is also careful attention to moderate language so as not to call down the wrath of censors, who would in fact shut down Imvo during the South African War.
In this decade, Jabavu also helped build new modern black political organisations in the Eastern Cape. Electorally he supported the South African Party against the party of Cecil Rhodes. Later developments would leave him far behind progressive African opinion; his enmeshment with such patronage politics would see him oppose the formation and policies of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress) in 1912 and fail to condemn the 1913 Natives’ Land Act. Yet despite electoral pacts with white parties, his investigative eye discerned that Africans themselves had discovered the source of their predicaments, such that ‘discontent permeates the whole district’.
In the 1920s, it would be the black women of Herschel who vigorously asserted for black rights. However, although Imvo here in 1887 does ‘call for instant inquiry and redress’, all it can offer is a rather forlorn hope that officials sensitive to black needs might be appointed; with an eye to official readers, Jabavu declares that the people’s complaints are narrated with ‘an assurance that they have simply to be mentioned to be corrected’. The report in this regard thus shows both Jabavu’s forthright criticism of racial discrimination.
Beinart, William. 1987. ‘Amafelandawonye (the Die-hards)’: Popular protest and
women’s movements in Herschel district in the 1920s’, in William Beinart & Colin
Bundy (eds), Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa: Politics and Popular Movements
in the Transkei and Eastern Cape, 1890–1930. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, pp. 222–69.
A peep at Herschel
John Tengu Jabavu, Imvo Zabantsundu, 23 November 1887
Herschel is essentially a Native district on the extreme north-east confines of the Cape Colony. It abuts on the southern border of Basutoland and the south-eastern limits of the Free State. Although it teems with thousands of the Queen’s subjects, and is probably more thickly peopled than any division in the Colony, we hear very little of it. The Magistrate with his attenuated staff, three European missionaries and a few Native assistants, with the inevitable Trader are the only emblems of civilisation to be met with, here and there, in that expansive territory. The Wesleyan Society has, by sheer resolution, in spite of obstacles of no small moment, at last succeeded in planting an institution in the very centre of the reserve, the light from which is beginning to chase the surrounding darkness. With the revulsion of opinion in the country against Native education it would, however, be hazardous to predict how long it would take the Bensonvale Institution with its satellites in the form of those effective agencies for spreading light and sweetness – the station schools, to lighten up today’s ignorance. Still we are not despondent. Any one approaching the district can hear the rattling among the dry bones; and already the people are in the enquiring frame of mind, indicative of a hopeful future.
In the meantime, from what we ascertained and observed on the spot, it is quite clear that the liberties of the people under our benignant Queen might be in safer keeping. The Natives appear to have found this out for themselves with the result that discontent permeates the whole district, and the prestige of the government is at a low ebb. It has been said that the liberties we have under our gracious Queen rest on the basis of a free Press. We need hardly observe that they have no Press at Herschel. Consequently, their liberties rest upon the caprice of the Government officials for the time being in charge of the Magistracy. This being the case, it is obvious that for the good, effective and profitable government of a Native community in this stage, a solemn responsibility rests upon the Secretary for Native Affairs and the Government of which he is a member to see to it that officers thoroughly conversant with Native feelings and possessing the confidence of the people over whom they are placed are appointed to such points. This is supremely necessary both for the benefit of the governed and for the good name of those who govern. We confess we looked in vain for anything to show that these leading facts had been kept in view by the Government in meeting the circumstances of Herschel.We propose to enumerate a few cases of dealings that appear to us to call for instant inquiry and redress. They rest upon the universal testimony of the Natives of Herschel, who desired us as representatives of the Press to give them publicity. We narrate the incidents with an assurance that they have simply to be mentioned to be corrected. It is represented that Natives are not allowed to address public meetings summoned at the Magistracy to consider questions affecting themselves unless they are headmen. Small as this grievance may appear to be to the uninitiated, it is very serious in the eyes of the Kafir whose natural propensity is ‘to gas’. Perhaps we are restricting the area of the existence of this failing, for is it not from the European race that we have the standing sentence that ‘confession is good for the soul?’ We should have thought that the Secretary for Native Affairs would have enjoined it upon all his subordinates to allow the people to speak their mind, in order if possible to base Native government on the goodwill of the people.
The people of Herschel complain that they have been deprived of a good and desirable slice of their commonage on the pretext that it is reserved for the grazing of the horses of headmen when they attend meetings. This act is rendered more galling by the impounding of stock on this piece of unenclosed land, and the fact that they are deprived of the water that is in it. Then the Pass regulations of Herschel cannot exist anywhere else out of Russia. It seems to be the fashion not to give people passes to leave the district in quest of work, unless they have paid their taxes. We found that the rigour with which Native taxes have been collected, and for dropping which we were complimenting the Government only the other day, has not been abandoned in Herschel. Of course it appears as a very singular thing to the Natives to be refused passes to go out to earn money for taxes, and then to be severely handled for not paying up. It is on a par with shutting up a man in a dark chamber and kicking him for not seeing. How long is this to last! Then it is urged that those who do succeed in obtaining passes to go out to work, when they return home after two or three years they are not allowed to enter the district, on the plea that there is no place for them. There are other matters to which attention might be drawn, but the space at our disposal does not permit us to refer to them in this issue. But we have said enough to show that the Government has a duty to perform towards the weak and helpless subjects of Her Majesty in outlandish districts where there is no Press to bring to light the thousand and one little worries which render life a grievous burden. We shall doubtless be told that the cases we have mentioned are trivial, but it is the trivial things that make up the sum total of human happiness. Now, the effect of these things is contagious, and there is thus all the more reason to have them as far as possible removed so as to secure the smooth and satisfactory government of the people.
Featured Image: John Tengo Jabavu (left) and his son Davidson Don Tengo, around 1903. Image: Buffalo City Tourism