The eccentric, forthright and controversial intellectual
Robert Grendon, of Irish and Herero parentage, was a poet, teacher, a prolific writer who lived from 1867 to 1949. His sharp mind and propensity to write and speak his mind landed him in hot water from time to time.
Robert Grendon was known as an eccentric figure: intensely intellectual, confrontational, judgemental and compromising. He died on 7 July 1949. Even so, if we want to understand this controversial protest pioneer journalist we have to go back to where it all began. The time he was born and how his life panned out.
Grendon was born in Namibia in 1867. It is unclear whether or not he was born in Ondangwa in remote Ovamboland. His Irish father was based at a trading post there from 1865 until the beginning of 1867. His mother, Maria, was a daughter of Maherero (c.1820-1890), the ruler of Otjohorongo clan under the Herero people. He was a Coloured man with African lineage.
He received his education at Zonnebloem College in Cape Town where in 1886 he graduated as a school teacher following excellent study records before he matriculated with distinction at the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1889. In that year he worked in the printing department of St Alban’s College in Pietermaritzburg where revolutionary isiZulu-English newspaper Inkanyiso yase Natal was published. This is where the journalism bug bit him.
Grendon taught in Kimberley for eight years in a small elementary school for Coloured children between 1890 and 1898. While in Kimberley he participated in sports, politics and poetry, in the Coloured and African communities. There he began to ply his trade as a poet and newspaper polemicist at publications such as the Comet and Local Advertiser and the South African Citizen.
From 1900 to 1903 he was the headmaster of the Wesleyan mission school Edendale, west of Pietermaritzburg. He eventually relocated to Swaziland where he taught at a small school run by the African Methodist Episcopal Church at KaLabutsheni. There he also farmed crops and owned substantial herd of cattle.
For the two years that followed, he occupied the position of headmaster of John Langalibalele Dube’s Christian Industrial School (Ohlange College) as well as a member of Dube’s Ilanga lase Natal.
In 1892, as a secretary to a pressure group integrating black communities opposed to legislation aimed at reducing the number of black voters, he wrote to the Cape Times and Diamond Fields Advertiser. He confronted John Tengo Jabavu for failing to do ‘his duty as a man’ by opposing the same legislation in the columns of his own paper.
In 1898 he moved to Uitenhage where in 1899 he briefly edited and founded Coloured South African. Jabavu retaliated by criticising the paper for supporting ‘so-called Progressives’ in the Cape Parliament. Coloured South African later incorporated into South African Spectator. Towards the end of 1900 until 1903 he also published his verse in Ipepa lo Hlanga of Mark Radebe. He strongly defended the paper when it was threatened to be closed because of alleged sedition.
When Dube was abroad between February 1904 and May 1905 he supplied almost all of Illanga’s English-language copy. The excellent polemical articles that survived from this period attest his maturity and independence as a political thinker and journalist. However, when Dube returned he dismissed Grendon for ‘editorials which were entirely against the spirit and policy of Ilanga’. By the time he became editorial staff of Abantu-Batho in late 1915 he was a seasoned journalist. As a poet, he wrote a poem called Paul Kruger’s Dream. It is a masterful epic poem of 4 750 verse lines. It was privately published in Pietermaritzburg in 1902. He also took part in the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) as a driver of a forge wagon and witnessed the Battle of Bergendal in 1900.
Grendon primarily became an English language sub-editor, and then moved on as editor-in-chief of Abantu-Batho. Shortly after his arrival in Johannesburg circa between 6 January and 16 February 1916 he joined the writing staff with Saul Msane. He got fired with Msane and brought a lawsuit against the paper on unfair dismissal or unpaid salaries grounds.
In the articles he wrote for Abantu-Batho he was very controversial and this explains reasons for his eventual dismissal from publications he was part of. In December 1915 he challenged the truthfulness of Jan Smuts’ affirmation that, “in taking part in World War 1, South Africa’s ‘white race’ is bleeding the highest ideals of freedom.” Freedom in South Africa maintains Grendon ‘has no meaning beyond its application to the white race.’ The Native Land Act of 1913, the Native Pass Laws and Transvaal Marriages Laws vis-a-vis whites and non-whites, do not correspond with Smuts’ statement, he argued.
In Abantu-Batho of 17 February 1916 he again attacked Smuts’ policy of keeping blacks out of the war as he asserted that it was a white man’s war. In the 20 January 1916 issue he protested the government’s release of General de Wet.
Considering he was a pedagogue his editorial voice is frequently that of a schoolmaster. Very didactic and authoritarian, in occasion, his pronouncements had and still have an ex cathedra ring, stated researcher Grant Christison.
In pages of Ilanga he wrote magisterially, principally using the Victorian accent such as ‘We, Ohlange’, in Ilanga and ‘We of Abantu-Batho’ in Bantu-Batho, as though he was a designated collective representative of the Coloured and African people.
Grendon was a very controversial protest journalist who I would like to equate to the maverick ‘Max du Preez’ of the 19th and 20th century South Africa. He aggressively and uncompromisingly spoke and wrote his mind. Publications such as Ipepa lo Hlanga of Mark Radebe gave him the liberty to be who he really was, not how he should be in conducting himself in the work environment. He was never the one to commit ad hominem remarks but he poked some holes into the logic of who he was having different views with. It was for these reasons that his forthrightness got him fired at Illanga of Dube plus for not observing the code of conduct of the publication.
Christison, G. 2012. ‘We of Abantu-Batho’: Robert Grendon’s Brief and Controversial Editorship.
In Limb, P. Ed. The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp. 151-173.