Women who wrote themselves into history
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Women who wrote themselves into history

Written by Athambile Masola 

I have been lucky enough to immerse myself in the world of books and history for a year now, while reading for my postgraduate degree. I have had the time to sit with old newspapers and books to explore the world of the past. 

I have been drawn to the writing of women who were changemakers and activists, with Pumla Ellen Ngozwana and Noni Jabavu two of my favourites. I came across Ngozwana while flicking through 1935 editions of The Bantu World, which was a popular multilingual newspaper in 1930s South Africa. A multilingual newspaper is hard to imagine in our current context where hard news is generally reported in English and Afrikaans, across all the country’s major newspapers (with the exception of Isolezwe, which is still in circulation). 

The Bantu World was written in English, isiXhosa and Sesotho. Readers were able to contribute letters in whichever language they preferred. In fact, Guybon Sinxo wrote an entire novel in isiXhosa with a chapter published in the newspaper each week. In 1935, Ngozwana was featured in a column called “Bantu Women on the Move” where she was hailed for her career. She was also a regular contributor to the newspaper, known for her essays and stories. Ngozwana married Christopher Kisosonkole, a member of the Buganda royal family, and moved to Uganda just before independence. At independence, she was one of four women who formed part of the new parliament.

I love writing about Ngozwana’s work because she is the perfect example of how powerful writing is. Had she not written, we would not know she existed. 

Noni Jabavu’s writing is more visible than Ngozwana’s as she was a pioneer both in South Africa and England. She wrote two memoirs – Drawn in Colour and The Ochre People – published in 1960 and 1963 respectively. These launched her into the spotlight as the first South African woman to write memoirs while living in England.

Jabavu writes about her loyalties to South Africa – her country of birth – and to England, where she was educated. Jabavu left South Africa as a 13-year-old girl to finish her education abroad. Her family was politically connected and among the African elite, with connections across the world. Her father was a scholar and her grandfather had been a newspaper pioneer. Both her parents had studied abroad). Her family is known for having pioneered the change in narrative about black people in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

In 1977, Jabavu returned to South Africa with the intention of settling down. While this didn’t happen because of bureaucracy, she found a way to remain in South Africa for a few months that year. This gave her the opportunity to research the biography she was writing about her father. But, for me, her most significant accomplishment in 1977 was her weekly column in the Daily Dispatch (while Donald Woods was editor). She produced  over 40 columns that year, with the week of Steve Biko’s death being one of few exceptions. Her columns were witty and revealed a writer who not only found joy in her craft, but also found joy and great interest in the topics she discussed. Her writing was not overtly political but questioned the racial politics of the apartheid government.

The headlines alone suggest that she was a woman ahead of her time: “Petty apartheid 1977”, “Why I’m not marrying” and “When whites hold all the aces”.

It is significant that these women not only wrote about their lives, but that their writing was published in newspapers at a time when it must have seemed impossible due to the laws of the time. Until I read their work, the narrative I had accepted was that only men (and white men at that) had access to writing, and that women were in the home or in their local communities being nurturers. What the narratives of Ngozwana and Jabavu show is that women are multi-layered and that these women understood the importance of committing their writing to paper; for posterity. Without their writing we might still be in the dark about the extent of women’s writing in the 20th century.

It is important to place these writers within the context of earlier writers like Daisy Makiwane, who was the only woman in John Tengo Jabavu’s newsroom in King William’s Town in the 1800s. After becoming one of the first black women to write and pass the matriculation examination, there was very little for her to do as she wanted to be a mathematician. And so her father, Elijah Makiwane, asked his friend John Tengo Jabavu to keep her busy as a journalist. 

Decades later in Johannesburg, Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s poetry appeared in newspapers of the 1920s. Her poetry is sharp and critiqued the politics of the time. 

I hate to imagine what it would have meant for these women not to have had the time and opportunity to commit their ideas to paper all those years ago. I like to think that they were imaginative readers like me, who has found their work many years later and is excited to have literacy ancestors in the form of writers who were black women. It matters that their names should not be forgotten. It matters that we find more writers from the past who were women. This will enrich us and our history, which has often shrunk the image of black women.

My hope is that more of these women’s names appear in the textbooks of our children so that black girls can know from a young age that they too can be writers. And that black boys can be enriched by the stories of women. In unearthing the work of black women writers, we are forced to demand more questions about ourselves and our future. Their writing begs the question, why do we wait to celebrate women in August?  Women’s contributions should be celebrated throughout the year because of the contribution women have made and continue to make in South Africa.

Athambile Masola is a writer, blogger and teacher. She lectures at the University of Pretoria in the Education Faculty. Her PhD research looks at the memoirs of Noni Jabavu and Sisonke Msimang in conversation with each other. She is one of the founding members of Literacy in Our Lifetime, a literacy campaign in Johannesburg.

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