John Tengo Jabavu Was A Towering Figure In South African Journalism 

On 4 November 1884 John Tengo Jabavu launched Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion), a Xhosa language weekly in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape. Although the press was already part of the intellectual life of the educated African elite – “the school people” as they were known – the establishment of Imvo was a groundbreaking development.

On 4 November 1884 John Tengo Jabavu launched Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion), a Xhosa language weekly in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape. Although the press was already part of the intellectual life of the educated African elite – “the school people” as they were known – the establishment of Imvo was a groundbreaking development. One of the oldest newspapers in the world, it was the first black-owned, independent platform for African journalism. 

The newspaper came into existence two years before the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand and preceded the country’s major English dailies – The Star and Pretoria News by three and fourteen years respectively. Their well-known Afrikaans counterparts – Die Vaderland, Beeld, Rapport and Die Burger – are actually more junior, having only seen the light of day in the 20th century.

In the African diaspora the only prominent black newspaper in existence, Negro World was established in 1918 and operated from Harlem, New York. Its founder was Marcus Garvey, a man who needs little or no introduction in the history of the Black Atlantic and the Caribbean. Launched twelve days before the Berlin Conference, which formalised colonialism, Imvo became a vocal witness to this monumental injustice against African people and their lands. 

The paper survived a banning order during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War [1899-1902] and bore witness to crucial events in South African and international history – the Union of South Africa (1910), the birth of the ANC (1912), the two world wars, the civil rights movement in the United States and the rise of the black consciousness movement in the seventies. 

In short, it chronicled incidents that defined the entire history of the 20th century, including the unbanning of the ANC and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of a democratic South Africa in 1994. On the other hand, Imvo provided a platform for African intellectuals and opinion-makers of the day. 

Journalist and publisher Sam Mathe (right) at the launch of author Sandile Memela’s book, Comrade Mzala: A Cousin in the Struggle, in Johannesburg.

One of its earliest journalists was Daisy Makiwane Majombozi, a brilliant mathematician and the first black woman to write matric in 1896. She was the daughter of Reverend Elijah Makiwane, sister of Cecilia Makiwane, the first registered African professional nurse and social worker, Florence Makiwane. 

Described by Sol Plaatje as ‘the pioneer native pressman’, Jabavu was born on 11 January 1859 in Tyatyora village to a labourer and washerwoman. At the time of his birth, missionaries had already established themselves in the Eastern Cape. Both his parents were converts and members of the Wesleyan Church. Shortly after his birth, Reverend John Ayliff established Healdtown, a Methodist mission station in the area around 1953. In later years, it acquired a reputation as a famous school and teacher training institute. 

Nelson Mandela was one of its famous former pupils. Despite Tengo’s modest beginnings as a cattle herder, he was a brilliant pupil who was trained as a teacher and later distinguished himself in other areas, including lay preacher, newspaper editor and publisher. As a proponent of the Cape liberal tradition, he supported the Cape franchise that was open for African men above 21 and with a certain amount of property and salary. 

In 1881 Jabavu was a young schoolteacher of about 21 when Dr James Stewart, principal of Lovedale Mission School invited him to edit Isigidimi SamaXhosa (The Xhosa Express), a publication owned and run by the famous institute. His predecessor at Isigidimi was Elijah Makiwane, a friend who was also a teacher, newspaperman and pastor of the Free Church of England.

In 1883 Jabavu became the first African to obtain a matric certificate. Imvo was published as an independent African political newspaper by Jabavu & Company – a publishing, news and printing firm that he co-founded with John Knox Bokwe, another friend and composer who also practised as a journalist. 

Its original name was Jabavu & Bokwe Proprietors. King William’s Town traders like JW Weir, William Lord and attorney Richard Rose-Innes provided financial backing through advertisements. Jabavu had earlier mobilised African support for the Rose-Innes brothers – Richard and James; regarded as liberals and proponents of a non-racial cause.

One of the oldest newspapers in the world, Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion), was the first black-owned, independent platform for African journalism. Veteran journalist John Tengo Jabazu founded it in 1884.

A politician of note, Jabavu, Makiwane and Reverend Walter Rubusana were part of a deputation of Cape liberals who went to the British Parliament in 1909 to protest against plans by the British and Boer leaders to form of the Union of South Africa since African people were not consulted. 

The other purpose of the visit was to lobby the British government for the retention of the Cape franchise for the educated African elite that qualified. In Britain they met and befriended the Cadbury’s, the Crosfields and Clarks – prominent Quaker families in the chocolate, tea and shoe manufacturing respectively. These families were related, and their friendship with Jabavu and the aforementioned fellow Africans continued through three generations and beyond. 

His son, Davidson Don Tengo “DDT” Jabavu [1885-1959] was a professor and founder member of South African Native College or Fort Hare Native College (later University of Fort Hare) in Alice, Eastern Cape and its only black staff member when it was established in 1915. During his schooling in England, DDT lived with the Clark family. Noni Jabavu [1919-2008], his daughter, journalist and author was also sent to England when she was just thirteen and subsequently became a British citizen. 

She was married to Michael Cadbury Crosfield, a filmmaker and shopkeeper. The last edition of Imvo was published in 1998, after 114 years in circulation, a milestone and peerless achievement in African journalism. Jabavu died on 10 September 1921, two years after the birth of his grand-daughter, Noni.

Sam Mathe is an award-winning South African journalist, publisher and author with a particular interest in the history of South African football, music and literature. He’s the founding editor of Jazz Life Magazine and contributing author of South Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs (2010), Brenda Fassie: I’m Not Your Weekend Special (2014), Joburg Noir (2010) as well as Culture and the Liberation Struggle in South Africa (2021). His book of South African musical biographies, From Kippie to Kippies: Group Portraits of SA Artists is published by Themba Books. His next book, a volume of poetry titled When You Are Gone & Other Poems, is scheduled for release in the summer of 2023. It was inspired by Covid-19 and lockdown.     



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