Female voices in the South African media
Through history women’s voices have been stifled and obscured. In this edition of The Journalist, we reflect on a range of women who have contributed significantly to our media landscape.
In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the media were white-dominated, as it would remain until the end of apartheid and even beyond. History has recorded a few male black pioneers of the time such as Tiyo Soga, John Tengo Jabavu, Allan Kirkland Soga, Walter Rubusana, Solomon T Plaatje, Silas Molema, H S Tlale, Pixley Ka Izaka Seme, Alfred Mandena, R.W. Msimang, G.D Montsioa , C Kunene and D S Lentaka. Their works addressed socio-political and economic concerns of African people. But women do not feature in the narrative of the early media.
Imbongi and writer Nontsizi Mgqwetho
Amidst the male dominance, there emerged in the early 20th century a lone woman’s voice whose work broke new ground and is worth the recognition as a pioneer in the media. The voice was that of Xhosa Imbongi and writer Nontsizi Mgqwetho. The Journalist’s writer, Sibusiso Tshabalala in his article Nontsizi Mgqwetho: Way Ahead of Her Time – Female Imbongi Pioneer refers to her as futuristic and one woman whose voice could not be stifled by her gender or the political climate of the day. The laws such as the Native (Black) Affairs Act of 1920 and many others that informed public discourse inspired Mgqwetho’s fearless political commentary. This is evident in her published poetry and articles. Academic Jeff Opland is quoted in Tshabalala’s article as saying:
“Mgqwetho had published 97 poems and three articles for the Johannesburg based newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu, between 1920 and 1929.”
Tshabalala also refers to a piece published on the website – Poetry International Rotterdam – Nontsizi Mgqwetho: A Nation’s Bounty – wherein Isabel Hofmeyr, professor of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, noted that ‘while these debates were often dominated by males – especially those active in political formations, like the Congress movement, and professionals – Mgqwetho played a decisive role in opening up issues. This was at a time when many female voices were stifled by not having access to education and society’s strong gender bias.’
Writer and activist Ruth First
The mid 20th century saw a political activist who would become a legendary investigative journalist. Ruth First, was in her 20s when in 1945, after graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Witwatersrand, swopped her job as an assistant researcher for the Social Welfare Division of the Johannesburg City Council for a typewriter.
According to Lauren Beukes in an excerpt previously published in The Journalist – “Maverick – Extraordinary women from South Africa’s Past” says First wrote up to 15 stories a week on poverty in the townships, gang violence and the bus boycotts.
The mine workers’ strike of 1946 was pivotal to her joining the leftist newspaper – The Guardian as editor-in-chief, which was unfortunately banned by the racist government only to reemerge as The Clarion. “ She went on to work for the People’s World, Advance and New Age as a journalist and editor, and eventually took over the helm of the incendiary monthly Fighting Talk from Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein,” wrote Beukes.
First was amongst the 156 defendants at the Rivonia Trial of 1956- 1961 and ended up being detained for 117 days. She was exiled in 1964 to London where she joined her husband Joe Slovo, but leaving behind their grown children in South Africa. She became an Anti-Apartheid activist as well as research fellow at the University of Manchester (1972), lectured at the University of Durham (1973 – 1978), she even took up a directorship of the research training programme at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, where she continued to dedicate her time to fighting the apartheid regime. She was assassinated by apartheid agents on 17 August 1982, when she opened a letter bomb that had been sent to her office addressed to her.
Memoirist and Journalist Helen Nontando (Noni) Jabavu
Then there was Helen Nontando (Noni) Jabavu (20 August 1919 – 19 June 2008) who came from a history of literary figures. Her grandfather was editor of South Africa’s first newspaper to be written in Xhosa and her father, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, a politician turned journalist who founded and became the editor of the first Black-owned newspaper in 1884, Imvo Zabantsundu (Black opinion). Noni became a writer and journalist, one of the first African women to pursue a successful literary career and the first black South African woman to publish books of autobiography. She was educated in Britain from the age of 13, became the first African woman to become editor of a British literary magazine in 1961 The New Strand, a revived version of The Strand Magazine, which had closed in 1950.
Poet Makhosazana Xaba encapsulates Noni’s description as following:
“One only has to read her two books (Drawn in Colour and The Ochre People) to realise just how skilled she was as a memoirist. Her journalistic column editorials demonstrate a reflective style that must have been unusual for her times. While interviewing Wally Serote who was living in Botswana during the same time as Noni, I learned something that confirmed my initial thoughts on her. ‘We men, she said, did not know how to relate to her (Noni). She was a woman living far ahead of our times.’ This speaks volumes considering Serote himself is a world-wise literary and cultural giant.”
During time spent in South Africa in 1976–77, researching a book about her father, Jabavu published a weekly column in the East London newspaper Daily Dispatch, under the editorship of Donald Woods.
Women pioneers of the 60s
It was the late Joyce Dube, an all-rounder who had cut her teeth in media first as a writer and then in sales and marketing, who contextualised the significance of women’s roles in the 60s. She said the stifling of women had reached a boiling point and that the lid could no longer be pressed down by oppressors. She was particularly concerned about how women, if they ever worked in the newsrooms, would either be clerks or be relegated to serving tea.
In her published article in the Rhodes Journalism Review – You Go Girl!, she casts the light on the likes of Mary Nontolwane and Winnie Mahlangu who both started out as radio broadcast story-tellers. Then in print there was Joyce Sikhakhane Rankin, Juby Mayet and Sophie Tema. She says these women worked beyond deadlines and ten times harder – in their communities thus becoming voices of reason. They became everything to society – teachers, social workers and leaders of their people, emancipating women through the might of writing and broadcast programmes, she wrote.
Joyce Sikhakhane Rankin was the first woman journalist at The World in 1963.
In an interview with Sarita Ranchod in Her Stories – Celebrating Pioneering Women in South African Jounalism – Stories on Karima Brown, Sophie Tema, Ferial Haffajee and Joyce Sikhakhane Rankin, published in the Rhodes Journalism Review 24, she says the one passage to enter journalism for blacks was through on the job training.
She had initially applied to become a cub reporter at the Bantu World newspaper, but by the time she got accepted it had been renamed The World, where she had the opportunity to work with the likes of Aggrey Klaaste, Casey Motsitsi and Joe Thloloe , all celebrated journalists.
“I was the only woman journalist at The World and the newspaper had not employed a woman journalist before. Sophie Tema joined me later and other publications like Drum and The Post employed women like Jubie Mayet,” said Sikhakhane. During The Rivonia Trial of the 60s her male colleagues were least interested that provided Sikhakhane with the space to cover the political realities of the country. According to Ranchod when the Rand Daily Mail opened a township office, Sikhakhane was offered an opportunity to move on from The World and continued to expose the effects of apartheid on the black community.
“I wrote about the lives of Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu,” she said.
Sikhakhane was detained under the Suppression of Communism Act spending 18 months in solitary confinement. She then fled South Africa in 1973 in an escape planned by the ANC. Her escape route took her through Mozambique, Swaziland, Germany, Tanzania, Britain, Zambia and Zimbabwe. She would write a book called window into Soweto.
It is evident that the stories of these women and many others still need to be fully recorded. Women such as Alinah Dube who single handedly ran a Pretoria News Bureau and also penetrated Radio Journalism and Bessie Head who countered racism through her writing.
The Journalist will try to start filling this gap. So, look out for more of their individual stories in our future editions.