John Tengo Jabavu: A conflicted figure

1859 – 1921

An extract from a book called African Intellectuals in 19th and Early 20th Century South Africa, edited by Mcebisi Ndletyana and published by the Human Sciences Research Council (2008).

African Intellectuals

A pioneer of African journalism and champion of higher education for Africans, yet woefully dependant on white-liberal agency, John Tengo Jabavu was ultimately a conflicted figure.

Jabavu was one of six children. He was born in January 1859 at the village of Tyotyora, about seven kilometres from Fort Beaufort. The mission school of Healdtown had been established here, and both his parents were regular church-goers. His father, Ntwanambi, was a precentor and a prayer-leader-like their father, both John and one of his brothers would later lead singing and prayers in church. He worked as a seasonal labourer building roads and doing masonry work in Grahamstown. Jabavu’s mother, Mary, worked as a washer-woman and sold tin dishes.

Though both his parents were illiterate, Jabavu went on to achieve academic honours. Starting elementary school at the age of ten, he excelled in Literature and Mathematics and repeatedly won the quarterly academic competitions at school. In 1875 he received a Teachers’ Certificate, after his father paid for the exam by selling one of his valued ploughing oxen, ‘Falteyn’. This achievement was followed by yet another distinction, in 1883, when Jabavu passed matric. He became one of only three people within the black community at that time with a matric, the others being Percy Frames and Simon Sihlali.

In 1885 Jabavu married Elda Sakuba, also a Healdtown girl. She was the daughter of Reverend James B Sakuba (1833-1893), who was one of the earliest black Wesleyan priests. Elda was chosen by Jabavu’s mother, who had disapproved of his own choice for marriage. The marriage bore four sons, but Elda’s life came to an untimely end in 1900. Quickly thereafter, Jabavu married Getrude Joninga, with whom he had three daughters.

Teaching Since the Age of 17

Jabavu began his professional teaching career as a teenager, aged seventeen. His first job was in Somerset East. Journalism, however, proved to be a much stronger calling for the young Jabavu. While still teaching in Somerset East, he apprenticed at the local newspaper, learning about the technical side of the newspaper business. This entailed a gruelling schedule for the aspiring journalist. He would start his apprentice in the early hours of the morning, work till breakfast, then go to his teaching job. In the midst of all this-and while taking part-time studies in Greek and Latin-Jabavu also began writing for publication. This was the start of what would become a life-long involvement with newspapers. He became a regular contributor to the Cape Argus, becoming friends with the then editor, Mr Saul Solomon.

Now a writer of note and a somewhat knowledgeable press man, Jabavu left teaching after six years in 1881 to take over editorship of Isigidimi Sama-Xhosa (Xhosa Press) at Lovedale. His stay there was brief, and he left at the expiry of his three-year contract in 1883. The largely religious focus of the missionary-owned newspaper was too restrictive for someone with his strong interest in political issues. However, while at Isigidimi, he had devoted a significant number of pages of the paper to parliamentary debates. He granted positive coverage to liberal politicians-Saul Solomon, JX Merriman, JW Sauer, and RW Rose-Innes-who supported the franchise for Africans, and seemed to show an interest in the general welfare of Africans.

Jabavu’s departure from Isigidimi turned out to be a blessing for civic education among African voters in the Cape and for black journalism in general. A political ‘junkie’, Jabavu became a political agent and canvasser for Rose-Innes in the 1884 elections for the Victoria East seat. Rose-Innes won, largely thanks to Jabavu’s involvement, for which he had refused remuneration. Following the advice of his friend, Meshack Pelem, Jabavu founded the very first black secular newspaper. Its objective was to inform the African population about public issues, and promote their participation in the electoral process. Named Imvo Zabatsundu (Native Opinion), and founded with the financial support of Messrs James Weir and RW Rose-Innes, the newspaper went to print in November 1884, with John Tengo Jabavu as its editor. He was only 24 years old then.

Imvo was to become the voice of liberal politics in the Cape and an advocate of African interests. Often, Jabavu’s interests and those of his liberal financiers coincided and the black public was the better for it. Ultimately, though, Imvo, privileged the interests of its financiers, and they were not always the same as the Africans. However, for a while, Imvo vociferously championed the interests of the black populace. Editorials informed them about parliamentary matters and the performance of their elected representatives, and discussed the advantages of voting for one candidate over another. Imvo also put up a vocal opposition to pass laws and unrestrained sale of alcohol to the black population.

But, where the interests of the financiers of Imvo and its black readership conflicted, Jabavu chose to support the former. This happened frequently, from the late 1800s onwards, over several key issues: franchise qualification for Africans; support for the Anglo-Boer War; political unity among blacks against colonial establishment; and the Land Act of 1913. On the franchise, for instance, the liberal politicians that Jabavu had helped to office, also known as the ‘Friends of the Natives’, now supported restrictions on the black franchise, and hoped to limit the number of eligible black voters. Jabavu continued to support them, despite this conflict of interests.

Jabavu’s implicit support for the white politicians, who were the nemesis of African voters, turned vocal in the 1898 elections. He supported and formed an electoral pact with the Afrikaner Bond. This was a party that had made it its life-long mission to eliminate voting rights for Africans. Bond politicians had felt disadvantaged by African voters who consistently and en masse voted for the English-speaking liberal politicians. The following year, as the English and the Boers went to war, Jabavu lent his support to the latter. This was a deviation on Jabavu’s part, as he had earlier undertaken to focus the newspaper more on measures than the men who advocate them. Yet, in the instance of the war, the measure did not seem to matter and he essentially followed the men-Merriman and Sauer-who had become close associates of the Bond in 1898.

Jabavu’s support took form of flattering editorials on Hofmeyer’s leadership qualities, as well as exhortations to South African voters to support the South African Party. It would have made sense for Jabavu to side with the British, in the light of his professed loyalty to the Crown and his status as a beneficiary of the ‘civilising mission’. However, Jabavu took a decidedly sympathetic view towards the Boers. He saw the war as an act of British provocation, with the British bent on extending their authority over the Boer republics. (Yet he had always supported British colonialism over Africans, because what he called the ‘civilising’ benefits of colonialism).

While puzzling to others, Jabavu considered his stance on the Anglo-Boer War to be part of his journalistic duty to ‘speak straight from his heart’. His readership, he reasoned, would respond to his frank views, and would not care to see him acting as ‘…a charlatan who poses guide and instruct it with his tongue in his cheek on what he may sometimes not believe in’. Unsurprisingly, Jabavu earned enormous derision from liberal politicians who had previously supported him, particularly RW Rose-Innes and James W Weir. Rose-Innes denounced Jabavu’s views as ‘disloyal and seditious and, were martial law in force, this district would subject you to immediate arrest and imprisonment’. Both Rose-Innes and Weir publicly announced that they were withdrawing their subscription and support for Imvo. Mercury Printing Press, its printers from inception, ended their contract with Imvo, forcing it to start using the Watchman Printing Works. And the paper was banned on 19 August 1901 (only to reappear in October 1902) under Martial Law for the King William’s Town district promulgated in January 1901.

Alienated from Black Leaders

Jabavu’s support for the end of the African franchise alienated him from the broader black leadership. The split within the black middle class culminated in the formation of a rival newspaper, Izwi Labantu, in 1897-an unashamed African newspaper that lent its support to the emerging African nationalist cause. Its very title, The Voice of the People, suggested a more militant predisposition than the moderately titled Native Opinion.
The founders of Izwi, including Reverend Rubusana, were pivotal in the initiatives that eventually led to the formation of the South African Native National Congress in 1912 (SANNC, later the ANC). Jabavu refused to be part of the SANNC, objecting to its racial exclusivity, and formed his own non-racial organisation instead, the South African Races Congress.

Jabavu’s differences with other black leaders resurfaced over the Land Act of 1913. He supported the discriminatory legislation. Every other black leader opposed it, because it sought to limit the proportion of land inhabited by the majority black population to a pitiful 13 per cent of the entire land surface.

John Tengo Jabavu and his son Davidson.

John Tengo Jabavu and his son Davidson.

His support for the Land Act generated an acrimonious and public exchange between himself and Sol Plaatje, a journalist and founding member of the ANC. In one exchange, Jabavu reported that a meeting of Africans in King William’s Town supported the Grobler-Sauer Bill (which eventually became the Land Act). Sol Plaatje disrupted this, and later proved the assertion to be false. Plaatje had taken the long trip from Mafikeng to King William’s Town with the singular purpose of disproving Jabavu. While in King William’s Town, Plaatje also attempted to meet with Jabavu. He made four attempts, and failed in all of them. After providing different excuses for the first three requests, on the fourth attempt Jabavu flatly refused to meet Plaatje. He chose to lock himself in his office instead.

Jabavu downplayed Plaatje’s subsequent reports of African opposition towards the Act. The meeting that Plaatje attended, Jabavu explained, only reflected urban opinion. Rural opinion was quite the opposite. Plaatje responded:

Now, I challenge Imvo, or Mr Tengo-Jabavu, to call a series of three public. Meetings, anywhere in the district of King Williamstown. Let us both address these meetings immediately after the Native Land Act has been read and interpreted to each. We could address the meetings from the same platform, or separately, but on the same day and at the same place. For every vote carried at each of these meetings in favour of his views on the Act I undertake to hand over £15 to the Victoria Hospital (Lovedale), on condition that for every vote I carry at any of these meetings, he hand over £15 to the Victoria Hospital (Mafikeng) and £15 to the Carnavon Hospital (Kimberley). That is £30 for charity, if he will accept. I will not place any difficulties in his way by inviting him to meetings up here, but leave him to call meetings among his own people (if he has any) in his own district, and I will attend at my own expense.

Jabavu declined the challenge. Needless to say, the relationship between the two distinguished journalists soured even further. Plaatje charged Jabavu could be forgiven for ‘fabricating the mess out of imaginary native votes of confidence for his master’s delectation…because his paper is native only language’. Plaatje went on to imply that Jabavu’s ‘mind had become property of someone other than’ himself.

Jabavu’s rivalry with nationalist leaders also brought a speedy end to black representation in the Cape Provincial Council. In 1914 he challenged Walter Rubusana, the first-ever African to be elected to the Council in 1909, for his seat. Jabavu’s candidature divided the black voters between himself and Rubusana. The latter still got more votes than Jabavu by far-852 to 294 votes-but fell short of the majority vote. The seat was won by a white candidate instead.

An Impressive Legacy

If Jabavu shamed himself politically, he redeemed himself through his legacy in tertiary education. Jabavu had always been passionate about education-a fact evidenced by his activism within the Native Educational Association. This body had periodically published commentary on all native issues, and consistently formed native opinion on these issues. He also conducted an evening school for adults. But now he distinguished himself in African tertiary by leading a campaign that culminated in the establishment of the very first African University in South African in 1916, the University of Fort Hare.

The idea of establishing a university for black students was precipitated by an exodus of black youth to universities in the United States. Black independent churches, through their links with black universities there, were sending more and more students from South Africa to study there. The colonial government was unsettled by this movement. They feared that exposure to the freedom struggle in the United States would radicalise the young South Africans. The colonial government had no desire for them to replicate the freedom struggle once they were back in South Africa.
Jabavu exploited this colonial uneasiness, arguing that the only way to deal with the situation was to establish a local university. The South African Native Affairs Commission agreed, after its hearings on the subject from 1903 to 1905. Jabavu, together with Dr Neil Macvicar and Hobart Houghton (both from Lovedale), travelled countrywide, canvassing support for what was known as the ‘Inter-State Native College’ scheme. Imvo became a mouthpiece for the proposed university. It popularised the idea and urged donations, including a £10 000 donation from the Transkei Territories General Council.

At the beginning of Fort Hare, in recognition of his pivotal role in establishing the institution, Jabavu was appointed to the Governing Council. He used his position and influences to shape the profile and the selection policy of the university on two fronts. Firstly, Jabavu insisted that the College also admit women because ‘there was no point in educating their young men if their future wives were unable to offer them companionship and community of interest which only an educated woman could give’. Secondly, and to prevent the university becoming elitist, Jabavu persuaded the Council to set its entrance qualification in a way that did not exclude massive number of applications. He intended it to be as inclusive as possible.

With his dream of a black university realised, Jabavu, who was experiencing ailing health, gradually bowed out of public life. He left the editorship of Imvo largely to his son, Alexander. By this time, the newspaper had lost any credibility as the mouthpiece of African interests. This stemmed largely from Jabavu’s controversial support of the Land Act.

The University of Fort Hare founded in 1916.

The University of Fort Hare founded in 1916.

His central role in founding Fort Hare, however, rehabilitated his image within the African community. Jabavu died in 1921, and Fort Hare came to be known as ‘Jabavu’s College’, cementing Jabavu’s legacy in the sphere of education. Two of Jabavu’s sons, Davidson Don Tengo and Alexander Macaulay, later emulated their father’s achievements in education and public life. Davidson Don Tengo, a Bachelor of Art graduate from the University of London, was appointed as a lecturer at the newly established Fort Hare and went on to become Professor of Bantu Languages. Outside of the university, he held several leading positions in various political organisations including the Cape Native Voters, the All African Convention and the Non-European Movement. Throughout his public life, and like his father, he shied away from the ANC and eschewed confrontational politics. Similarly, Alexander juggled his editorship of Imvo with public activities in several organisations, including the radical Industrial Commercial Union and the Native Representative Council.