Today marks 133 years since the first black owned newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu (‘The Native Opinion of South Africa’) published their first report.
Prior to the establishment of Imvo Zabantsundu, the only other African language newspapers printed were missionary journals that encouraged the advancement of literacy and Christianity. Some of these newspapers, such as Ikhwezi (The Morning Star) and Indaba reported in both English and Xhosa, but only provided spiritual enlightenment and evaded any political news.
Another newspaper which was also bilingual then was Isigidimi samaXhosa (The Kaffir Express). The racial slur evident in the title of this newspaper was used to refer to the Xhosa language during this time, which was also present in various Xhosa language manuals and dictionaries of the 19th century period. Although similar to Ikhwezi and Indaba, Isigidimi samaXhosa played a vital role in the establishment of Imvo Zabantsundu. The editor of the former newspaper soon grew tired of the news reported and wanted to report what was really happening in South Africa during that time.
As no politics was discussed in the missionary newspapers, a man by the name of John Tengo Jabavu decided to start his own newspaper. This newspaper would later be known as Imvo Zabantsundu.
Born in 1859 in Healdtown, John Tengo Jabavu was a talented writer and teacher who became increasingly interested in African politics. He wanted to provide a forum where like-minded individuals would share their opinions on the policies made by the government. Although Jabavu was known for writing remarkable articles in the Cape Mercury and the Cape Argus newspaper, he was soon asked by Dr James Stewart to become the editor of Isigidimi samaXhosa. Despite taking on the role of editor at Isigidimi samaXhosa, Jabavu became increasingly interested in politics during the general elections of 1882-1883. Jabavu first tried sharing his opinions in Isigidimi samaXhosa, but was later discouraged to do so by Dr Stewart simply because the missionary journals of that time were dedicated to spreading the Christian gospel. Since the newspaper did not have a clear political position, Jabavu started his own newspaper.
Although Jabavu lacked the funds to start the newspaper, he was fortunate to find two investors, Mr Richard Rose-Innes and Mr James Weir, both from King Williamstown.
By 3 November 1884, the first issue of Imvo Zabantsundu was published. Although this newspaper was known as the first black-owned newspaper during this era, it also became popular because it helped Africans to express themselves without any fear of prejudice and discrimination. It was through this newspaper that Africans were able to share their political views ranging from pass laws, laws governing urban locations and the sale of liquor. Imvo Zabantsundu also became a source of literature for Africans as it addressed the literary aspirations of its readers and also reflected their lives and the country in which they lived.
This is evident when the newspaper published poems in the original dialect and did not translate them into English. By retaining the traditional style in the poems published in Imvo Zabantsundu, the newspaper became more appealing to the African reader as it did not force them to conform to the Western style of reading, which was in English. By providing a safe space to enjoy the Xhosa language the newspaper inspired many writers to write books in their vernacular as there was a limited amount of original books written at the time.
Imvo Zabantsundu was a popular newspaper that extended as far as Natal and Lesotho. This newspaper was unique as it did not aim to promote a religious agenda but instead wanted to encourage Africans to share their political views without feeling restricted. This newspaper also became a conduit for many writers interested in poetry or fiction. It was a powerful newspaper that inspired many Africans to take pride in their culture and informed many of the political and social issues of that time.
Koliswa Moropa (2010) African voices in Imvo Zabantsundu: Literary pieces from the past, South African Journal of African Languages, 30:2, 135-144