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.

Sources:

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

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