John Tengo Jabavu (1859 - 1921)
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of John Tengo Jabavu
Born in a relatively poor Methodist home on 11 January 1859 in Healdtown, Eastern Cape, John Tengo Jabavu grew up to become a staunch political activist and the editor of one of South Africa's first significant newspapers to be written in an indigenous language.
Between 1877 and 1881, Jabavu trained as a teacher in Somerset East and by the early 1880s was already showing some sharp political acumen. He began freelancing for different newspapers and became known for sparking political debates with his comments.
Realising his commitment to the development of his community, Reverend James Stewart of Lovedale invited Jabavu to become the editor of Isigidimi Sama Xhosa (The Xhosa Messenger) in 1881.
Jabavu made it clear that his intention was to 'educate the people to attain their rights under the Queen's sway'. He embarked on a mission to alert his fellow Africans to the new political reality of that time. Jabavu saw an enlightened mind, rational and principled, as a critical tool for the liberation and development of Africans. He did his utmost to ensure that Africans were exposed to conditions conducive to political and intellectual development.
An ardent reader, Jabavu was hugely motivated by Umshumayeli Wendaba, the first South African newspaper specifically intended for black readers, which was printed by the Wesleyan Mission Society from 1837 to 1841. This prompted him to want to start his own newspaper, which could be a platform for the interchange of ideas among readers regarding the future society for which they were all yearning.
At the tender age of 25, Jabavu established his own newspaper entitled Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion) in 1884. Imvo Zabantsundu was built on the principles of love, peace and Christian justice. Upon taking up the editorship, Jabavu made it very clear that the newspaper would be a voice for black people.
Jabavu turned Imvo Zabantsundu into a forum of ideas for the Native Educational Association and Lovedale Literary Society intellectuals, boasting members such as Elijah Makiwane, Thomas Mapikela, Pambani Jeremiah Mzimba and Walter B Rabusana. All these interlocutors, writers and intellectuals were at the base of the pyramid of political ideas pertaining to how to bring about a just society. Jabavu's bare-knuckled fight against white minority rule through his newspaper often drew the attention of the Cape Parliament. Yet, this did not sway this champion of freedom from his course towards democracy and the upliftment of oppressed South Africans.
Jabavu travelled to London to fight the colour-bar clause in the Union Constitution and was invited to attend the Universal Races Congress in 1911.
He was totally committed to ensuring equal opportunities for Africans and played a pivotal role in the formation and inauguration of the South African Native College (University of Fort Hare) in 1916.
John Tengo Jabavu, a bold and pioneering intellectual, rose against the odds to contribute towards the development of African journalism and to the stirrings of black consciousness in South Africa.
As an astute journalist and editor, he dedicated his entire life to causes that promoted the rights of Africans. His newspaper became the voice of the voiceless and his political views helped to shape African political thinking.
Jabavu died in Fort Hare in 1921 and is remembered as one of the most influential Africans of the 19th century.