Phindile Xaba

Independent black owned and controlled press emerged in the late 19th century, gradually overshadowing what was referred to as missionary journalism and media, as the latter was seen as partial to European imperialism, colonialism and in later years apartheid.

South Africa’s Resistance Press is also known as protest media or alternative media and can be traced as far back as the late 19th and early 20th centuries when self funded black controlled press emerged between the 1880s and 1930s rising against European imperialism, colonialism and missionary press.

Independent protest press – 1880s-1930s

In the late 19th century John Tengo Jabavu, one of our great African intellectuals, resigned from Isigidimi samaXhosa (the Xhosa Messenger), that was owned by missionary Reverend Dr. James Stewart. He decided to publish the first black owned and controlled Imvo Zabantsundu (African Opinion) in King William’s Town in 1884, a newspaper that would survive until the late 1980s. Thereafter more black owned newspapers launched, all of which were associated with political formations with content that vehemently opposed imperialism and colonialism.

Solomon Tshekiso Plaatjie would publish Koranta eBecoana (Bechuana Gazette – 1901) – a Tswana/English weekly. In the Natal colony, Izwi laBantu, (1897) would be initiated by AK Soga and Walter Benson Rubusana and would be a voice for the African National Congress. Ilanga lase Natal (The Natal Sun), was started by John Langalibalele Dube in 1903 who also served in the South African Native National Convention (SAANC) which became ANC in 1923; and the Indian Opinion, founded by V. Madanjith also in 1903 and later took over by Mahatma Gandhi, at which point he was the founder of the Indian National Congress. The ANC’s Abantu-Batho, established in 1912 continued to articulate the party politics till 1931.

The 1930s to 1960s lull

The period between 1930s and 1960s was a vacuum. Magaqa explains that due to lack of capital, many publications folded thus opening up opportunities for the entry of white capital into the ownership and control of the black press towards the early 1960s. During this time, however, a number of politically aligned material continued to be produced. For instance, the South African Communist Party’s (SACP’s) Inkululeko (Freedom) can be traced to 1938, even though it was shut down a few years later it would resurface in 1972 published from its London offices in exile.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, the second generation of black newspapers emerged. Also mainly political by nature, these included Inkundla la Bantu (The People’s Leader) in 1946, established by the African National Congress. All were banned following the Sharpeville massacre of March, 1960 when 69 people died after white police opened fire on black protesters. By 1963 Anglo American, as the major stockholder in the Argus group and the Chamber of Mines, had full control of Bantu Press and acquired a thriving and profitable stable of black newspapers. Independently owned black newspapers, however, did not have similar success.

Potter points out as cited in Kolbe’s The South African print media: From apartheid to transformation:

“It was impossible for any independent African newspaper to survive the competitive power of the white-controlled Bantu Press, and indeed, this was the intention.”

Bantu Press published The World, which was constantly harassed by the Apartheid regime, banned and emerged in different titles from The Post and then The Sowetan at a later stage. Kolbe continues to record that when Drum, a monthly magazine in the 1950s and 60s, was owned by Jim Bailey, son of Sir Abe Bailey of South African Associated Press, and focused on contentious issues such as police brutality suffered by black prisoners and prison labour. Bailey would also launch The Golden City Post in 1955, a successful and racy tabloid with some political comment. It was bought by the Argus group in 1972.

Later resistance press – 1970s-1980s

Most of the resistance press of this era relied heavily on donor funds for survival. Some of the very first ad hoc journals that initiated an alternative voice of this time were seen in Cape Town. Grassroots, a community newspaper, was eventually birthed in 1980 after a protracted process of brainstorming that commenced in the 1970s amongst progressive journalists in the Writers Association of South Africa. The newspaper would operate till 1990 and was a labour of commitment to the struggle of the ANC and its allies. It grew to reach approximately 20 000 readers. Eight months after Grassroots was established, its first organiser, Johnny Issel, was banned but the paper continued to exist.

The paper was made up of volunteers from 60 democratic organisations such as the Western Cape Western Cape Civic Association (WCCA), Cape Housing Action Committee (CAHAC), women’s and youth organisations, the youth under Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO with over 400 contributing members and survived on funds from a group of Protestant churches in the Netherlands.

By 1984, the community support of Grassroots encouraged the formation of Saamstaan (Unity), a community newsletter established in the small rural town of Swellendam in the Cape Province. It soon moved base to Oudtshoorn, a larger, mainly rural town, also in the Cape.

From the start, Saamstaan faced enormous hurdles financially, in part because of the large rural area that it covered. It encountered constant police harassment in an area where police vigilance was high compared with Cape Town. There was also another Western Cape newspaper, South, which was successful in providing a voice for the United Democratic Front and other progressive forces in the area, whilst making its coverage relevant to the local community. It folded at the end of 1994 after failing to transition into the new dispensation. New Nation, in the then Transvaal also featured prominently in the 1980s.

The resistant black press was instrumental in forging keeping African people’s voice alive during the many decades of oppression.