Athambile Masola

The grand narratives about history are misleading. Apart from the pass protests of the early 1900s and the 1956 march, history would have us believe that black women were not active participants in South Africa’s history. Athambile Masola digs into the archives.

Recently I was searching for clues about Noni Jabavu’s life and I stumbled upon the pages of the 1935 edition of The Bantu World. I became intrigued by the representation of black women in the newspaper through a series of articles under the title “Bantu women on the move”. By exploring the archives of The Bantu World black women’s multiple identities begin to emerge providing an answer to the question posed by Nomboniso Gasa in the book Women in South African History: “Where are black women, their multiple voices and multiple forms of self-representation, which are often far from the ‘heroic’ subject and more along the lines of fighting for survival and struggling for dignity and self-expression?”

It is important to contextualize The Bantu World and its significance during the 1930s. In Les Switzer’s Bantu World and the origins of a captive African commercial press in South Africa, he describes the context of a reading culture in the 1930s by stating that “literate Africans constituted about 12.4 per cent of the adult African population by 1931…and the number of registered African newspapers alone was nineteen in 1930—the highest in the history of South Africa’s black press.”. He describes the readers of the paper as

he vanguard of an African middle-class culture in a white-dominated, racially-stratified society. The petty bourgeoisie were the principal communicators and consumers of news, opinion and entertainment in the African press for more than two generations after the first fledgling, independent African journals were launched in the 1880s and 1890s. They were the members and office bearers of a proliferating number of independent African political, cultural and economic organisations that sought to generate the accoutrements of a middle-class lifestyle.”

Discovering the stories and profiles about black women in The Bantu World made me reflect about the messages I have received about black women’s lives and their agency before and during apartheid. It was through the discovery of Ellen Khuzwayo’s autobiography Call me woman (1985), Nokukhanya: Mother of light (1993)—Nokukhanya Luthuli’s biography written by Peter Rule, A life’s mosaic: The autobiography of Phyllis Ntantala (2009), that I was confronted with the miseducation and misrepresentation about black women’s historiography. It was through the life stories by and about black women, poetry by Nontsizi Mgqwetho, as well as fiction writing by Lauretta Ngcobo, Miriam Tlali along with other writers such as Boitumelo Mofokeng who contributed to the Staffrider and Noni Jabavu that I became curious about black women’s experiences in South Africa’s history. These authors contradicted the perception that women were at home while men were outside the home.

These texts have contributed to the questions I’ve had about people from my grandmother’s generation and how they lived during a time that rendered them as minors and people who were destined to be wives and mothers.

In the pages of The Bantu World I discovered a letter Rilda Marta wrote to her readers about her trip to a beauty school in New York. Frieda Matthews (Bokwe) wrote about her trip to London and the interesting young people she met; one of whom was a young Noni Jabavu who was struggling with her peers teasing her at school. There were also articles about Charlotte Maxeke’s journeys to various parts of the country. The most interesting article I read was about Ellen Pumla Ngozwana.

The article reads like a CV but when read alongside a description from Ellen Kuzwayo’s autobiography about Ngozwana, she seems more interesting (Kuzwayo’s spelling of her surname is different to the one that appears in the newspaper. The description however supports that she is referring to EP Ngozwana):

“I have in mind particularly Ellen Ngozwane who was popular and very much loved by all the students. She was also a great friend of Professor Matthews’ family. She was a charming and attractive woman, dark in complexion, and well-built, but certainly not stout. She had an excellent taste in clothes and always looked very elegant…Every time we assessed Ngozwane, we always found she had no match among the male staff—in our estimation, she was high above all the bachelor teachers. Our convictions were confirmed later when we learnt that she was married to an eminent Ugandan named Kisosonkole (the father of the Kabaka, king of Buganda).”

The newspaper’s description seems to pale in comparison to Kuzwayo’s richer description of her teacher. Even though the newspaper’s seemingly rudimentary description of an example of an educated African woman, it ends with an interesting twist: Ngozwana is also a writer who contributes to the pages of The Bantu World under the pseudonym ‘Pat’. Her writing is expanded upon in the article: “Her recent moving article on ‘Is life worth living’ proved of great help to many readers. She is an imaginative writer with a theme of poetic justice”. It is thus not surprising then that later in the year the newspaper publishes a speech by Ngozwana which was delivered at Inanda Seminary earlier that month: “The emancipation of women”.

Reading The Bantu World has confirmed that grand narratives about history are misleading.

Apart from the pass protests of the early 1900s and the 1956 march, history would have us believe that black women were not active participants in South Africa’s history. This is seen in our history textbooks which are largely concerned with the grand narratives about history and the big men (often white) who made history happen. The everydayness of history is seldom as explored suggesting that people were simply living and waiting for the big moments of history.