History of Black Newspapers in South Africa

Newspapers are one of the oldest sources of information available to historical researchers. Although we live in a digital world where information is available within a click of a button, newspapers are still able to make history, with its daily, weekly and monthly reports, and more importantly, what researchers may perceive as one of the reliable primary source. Newspaper files are now regarded as one of the richest collections of raw materials for the historian since it became an important news-gathering agency. Journalists have background insight and specialized techniques for their task. Readers should however keep in mind that a newspaper is a commercial business and one of its priorities is to make a profit for its stockholders. For this reason, they may take steps that appeal to their advertising clients and readership customers.

The great use of newspapers as a historical source has grown steadily faster since its first publication in South Africa in the 1800s. They have been drawn upon to finish historical details, to use the advertisements as illustrations, to focus on the lives of common people, to demonstrate the current stance of public opinion as well as to draw a very clear picture of that period. The newspaper has somehow become quite familiar as part of our daily living in such a way that we are much more likely to approach it with a more fixed idea when searching for historical information. Basically the idea could be to find the truth, gather evidence or particularly tell a story of what really happened as journalists normally experience the story at first hand (eye-witness).

We take a historical journey back to black newspapers in South Africa, their names, the pioneers and what their content was about. We understand that these newspapers have played a big role in the writing of the history of black people and would like to renown them as pioneers.

Black Press in South Africa

The first publication of the black press was in the 1820’s which included for example, an elementary spelling, small catechism, and some hymns. The first known series of publications aimed at black readers were Tswana religious tracts entitled: Morisa Oa Molemo, issued by the London Missionary Society in Kuruman in the early 1830’s. This hardly constituted a newspaper as such but it illustrated a focus on Christianity.

The first newspaper for blacks was therefore produced by Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries working in the Eastern Cape in 1837. It was called Umshumayeli Wendaba (Publisher of the news). This newspaper was printed at the Wesleyan Mission Society in Grahamstown from 1837 to 1839 and then printed from Peddie in 1840 to 1841. Other newspapers followed like; Kwezi between 1844 and 1845, and Indaba (news) in 1862, which was written largely by Africans from Lovedale; for example, Tiyo Soga (known as the first black literary figure) who wrote under the pseudonym Nonjiba Waseluhlangeni from 1829 to 1879. These newspapers were mainly written in isiXhosa with a portion of English articles, as it was seen as a way to assist Africans to learn English.

It should however be noted that the newspaper Isigidimi samaXhosa (the Xhosa messenger) is regarded as the first African newspaper due to the fact that it was edited by blacks in South Africa which also became independent as a Xhosa newspaper in 1876. Research, writing and editing was all carried out by blacks.

In 1844, at the age of 24 years, John Tengo Jabavu founded the newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu (African opinion) which was the first newspaper to progress from being written for and by blacks, to being under their ownership and control as well. It became the most influential and progressive means of expression for black people in the Eastern Cape. It was funded by Richard W Rose-Innes who was a lawyer and James W. Weir who was a local merchant. Imvo Zabantsundu experienced a lot of opposition due to Jabavu’s political stance. It was believed that he supported the Native Land Act of 1913 as well as the Afrikaner Bond, which was against the progress of black people. While the newspaper experienced these problems, a new paper named Izwi laBantu emerged. It was founded and published in East London, in the Eastern Cape by a group of Africans who opposed Jabavu’s support of the Afrikaaner Bond in the election of 1898 in the Cape Colony. This paper was heavily involved in the formation of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912. It was politically motivated as it inspired the formation of the SANNC. One of the founding members of the SANNC Walter Benson Rubusana, was one of this newspaper’s most prominent political writers. This then made Izwi laBantu a publication which became a forum for those who wanted to corroborate African political activities. He used this newspaper to rally support when he became a candidate for the Thembuland Constituency in the Cape Provincial Council – which he went to win and became the first ever African to be elected to serve as its member. The affiliations the newspaper had whether economically or politically, played an important role in the newspaper’s success.

In KwaZulu Natal, John Langalibalele Dube founded the newspaper Ilanga lase Natal in 1903. This newspaper became politically involved as well. In 1912 all the pioneering black journalists met in Bloemfontein on the 8th of January with the exception of Jabavu, to form the SANNC which was renamed the African National Congress in 1923. It is however important to note that the organisation was not formed only by journalists as there were chiefs, and religious ministers as well. They all came from the four provinces (Transvaal Colony, Natal Colony, Cape Colony and the Orange River Colony) of the Union of South Africa (which came into being on 31 May 1910). One of the first orders of the congress business was to establish a collective newspaper which was named Abantu-Batho in 1913 against a background of increasing oppression of South African blacks. The paper had a nation-wide circulation and was printed in isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho and English.

The alternative (Black) newspapers are a rich source of the black history. As mentioned above, the Black people’s history before the 1800s is very poorly written; these newspapers are an important source in the writing of black history in South Africa through the eye of the black people; for example, the history of the ANC is written in broader terms in the Black newspapers, specifically Abantu-Batho which was founded after its formation.


Barnes, H.E. A history of historical writing.

Potter, E. The press as opposition: The political role of South African newspapers. London: 1975.

Barzun, J. and Graff, H.F. The modern researcher. New York: 1957

SA History Online

Research by Ntando PZ Mbatha

NPZ Mbatha


Meeting Bab’ Alfred Duma

The theme for heritage month in 2016 was “Celebrating Human Treasures by asserting our African Identity”. Now we need to be level headed about these things and not think our living heritage can only be renowned and celebrated during this month or when certain themes are set up. This is one of the reasons I have waited until the hype of celebrating heritage has died down because I refuse to be consumed by the idea that heritage is all about dress and song. My people think wearing traditional clothes, organising what they call heritage events, is all there is to heritage. The month has actually been hijacked by other programmes which I wouldn’t like to divulge in because I think they have received more than enough attention as is.

Nevertheless, in August I had the pleasure of sitting down with the one and only Bab’ Alfred Duma. I wasn’t aware that he lives in Tsakane, Steadville and when I learned of this, as a historian, I jumped to the occasion. I have been writing the history of Steadville through oral testimonies and it would have been an injustice not to get his story. I was so taken by how well he welcomed me to his home. From the moment we spoke on the phone organising our meeting, to the actual meeting. His granddaughter is also just the best. I often say “sit down with old people, you will get a lot from them”.

What was supposed to be a meet and greet ended up being a conversation for hours. We firstly spoke about where he was from. We spoke about how he didn’t receive formal education. He said “the only important thing at the time was getting education, it didn’t matter being the oldest person in the class”. He travelled KwaZulu Natal a lot with work and his work as a trade unionist.

He speaks about how difficult life was for him when his mother married another man. Due to this, he had to live with relatives and also struggled to complete his education. Around 1947 he started working “emajalidini” in Emnambithi.

The one question I asked him was why he decided to get into politics. He says “I was often reminded that I didn’t have a formal home and was just a visitor. I carried that with me until I was old and due to this struggle, when I got to work, I was reminded that I was nothing. The hardship I faced from my white employer was exactly the same as the one I had received growing up. So I was reminded that I didn’t belong and had no place I could call home”. He then started seeking a lawyer who would assist him when he got into trouble. By that time, he says he had already started thinking about politics. It was when he worked at KwaMavelempini (a big cotton company at the time), that he realised he had a burning desire within him to pursue politics. When they were all fired at the firm, kicked out like animals, he expresses how painful it was for him. He jokingly tells you that he wanted to burn the firm. He says, due to the seriousness of what he planned to do, he didn’t want to recruit anyone for this, he would do it alone. Arson was a serious case and it would be easy for him to get executed for it. “I collected sacks, I collected glasses (spectacles) thinking I’d prepare for the arson and hide myself in the process. Truth is, I did have friends but didn’t want to involve them in any of this. We were kicked out for protesting low wages. The only problem was that the firm was big with buildings scattered all over, so I wouldn’t have been able to burn it all”. Due to this, he did not proceed with this. He says he knew that he would get arrested and was ready for it as well. This was around 1949 because he left for Durban in 1950 to look for a job. Because he didn’t have documentation to be in Durban, he had to put himself under house arrest with some of his colleagues from eMnambithi. He only got documents in 1951 as from Eshowe as the Chiefs that side assisted him. They used to hold political meetings during the weekend and that is when he requested a lawyer. He was then advised to join the African National Congress. He also joined the South African Trade Union now known as COSATU. He soon belonged to the movement and would soon realise that he received all the assistance he needed. “I became a full member of these organisations in 1952”. He says the people he got introduced to at the organisation were Steven Dlamini and Moses Mabhida who were leaders at the time under President Chief Albert Luthuli.

In Durban he first did piece jobs and only got his formal work at Lion Matches factory where he became a unionist. He giggles when he learns that I have done some background research on his life. At this time, they used to stage peaceful marches (ama hamba kahle) and did not toyi toyi. Although these protests were peaceful, they still were treated brutally by the authorities. He says the challenges faced at this time were mostly working conditions, working hours, and payment. As a trade unionist, he had to speak on behalf of the workers who had faith in him. Their pay was in the fourth night and people presumed that they received a huge pay but only received 5 pounds per forth-night. They soon got arrested for being members and leaders of the trade union and staging peaceful marches. This firm had only black male workers, and their lawyer was RN Steyn who was well trusted at that time. They were found guilty of influencing people to take part in trade unions and they then took the case to the high court. Although they would not spend time, they had to pay bail. Mr Duma’s intent was to get formally acquitted which is why he took this case further for appeal to the high court. He unfortunately only pursued this with Mr Steyn as the rest of the members charged decided to stick with the fine they received.

He says they struggled with communication a lot because he was not fluent in English and his lawyer also could not speak IsiZulu. They did not win this case and lost both at the high court and appeals court. Trade unions weren’t popular at the time and the state wanted to ensure that they do not populate trade unions. He continued to be an active member of the ANC and the SATU.

His political work continues to be more active as the years progressed and Mr Duma shares even more interesting stories about his life and times.

You may tune in for more as I continue to publish…

(This article first appeared on the Ladysmith Herald)

NPZ Mbatha