Ruth First, Noni Jabavu and Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin are just three examples of groundbreaking female writer-activists who made a difference in apartheid South Africa. These are their stories.
Often overlooked in the grand scheme of the anti-apartheid struggle, the contributions of female journalists during a turbulent and often dangerous time in the history of South Africa played an important role in highlighting the plight of women and children. To commemorate Women’s Month, we look at three formidable female journalists who broke down barriers and made history.
Before she became a well-known political activist, Ruth First worked as a journalist and later editor of a number of progressive newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s, including People’s World, The South African Guardian (later the Clarion) and Fighting Talk monthly magazine.
In addition to writing about social injustices and township life, First also focused on labour issues and did in-depth political investigative reporting. It was in this work that she met some of the main players of the burgeoning struggle movement, including her future husband, the South African Communist Party’s Joe Slovo.
Hounded by the apartheid government, First received several banning orders on her writing. She eventually became a full-blown activist when she could no longer find outlets that would publish her journalism. Her extensive coverage of the 1956 women’s anti-pass march in Pretoria was published across the globe to draw the world’s attention to the injustices of the apartheid system.
First was one of the 156 defendants in the Rivonia Trial, alongside Nelson Mandela and Slovo. After being detained for 117 days, she escaped into exile to London where she became one of the most outspoken anti-apartheid activists. She was assassinated by covert South African government forces in Maputo in 1982.
Helen Nontando Jabavu
Helen Nontando (Noni) Jabavu, born in the Eastern Cape in 1919, came from a long line of writers. Both her grandfather and father were outspoken and groundbreaking journalists. Her father, Davidson Jabavu, started the first black-owned newspaper in 1884; before that her grandfather, John Tengo Jabavu, was the editor of South Africa’s first isiXhosa language newspaper.
Jabavu spent much of her youth in London, where she became a literary journalist. She also covered the emerging post-colonial independence era across Africa, focusing on the relationship between art and politics. In 1961, Jabavu became the first African female editor of the British literary journal, New Strand.
Always conflicted by her African birth and London education, Jabavu attempted to reconcile the two with frequent return visits to South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. These trips often inspired her to write opinion pieces for an international readership on how the apartheid system was increasingly marginalising black South Africans.
In 1976-77, while ostensibly researching a biography of her grandfather, Jabavu contributed to East London’s Daily Dispatch newspaper, under the editorship of Donald Woods. She covered various subjects, including the 1976 Soweto riots and the burgeoning anti-apartheid literary movement.
She received a lifetime achievement award from the Department of Arts and Culture shortly before her death in 2008.
With a burgeoning political verve, Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin joined the legendary The World newspaper in 1963 at the age of 20. At the time, she was the only female journalist in a newsroom filled with the who’s who of the era’s top black male writers, including Aggrey Klaaste, Casey Motsitsi and Joe Thloloe. Sikhakhane-Rankin joined the newspaper just as the Rivonia Trial began and was tasked with finding angles that highlighted the social effects of apartheid on the women involved in the trial.
She befriended notable anti-apartheid activists such as Albertina Sisulu and Helen Joseph and made sure their stories were told. After leaving The World, Sikhakhane-Rankin became the first black female reporter for the progressive Rand Daily Mail, again focusing on the social consequences of apartheid. Her work included extensive investigative pieces on forced removals, of which she became a staunch and outspoken critic.
Sikhakhane-Rankin’s highlighting of the plight of women and children affected by forced removals led activist-church leaders, including Beyers Naude and Cosmas Desmond, to form a precursor to the South African Council of Churches, the Justice and Peace Commission. Sikhakhane-Rankin herself joined doctors and clergy in poverty-stricken areas, providing food and medicine to displaced South Africans.
Her work, both in print and as an activist, soon gained the attention of the South African government. She was arrested and detained for 18 months in 1968. Following her release, Sikhakhane-Rankin focused on her activism, working closely with banned and unbanned organisations, including the South African Students Organisation (SASO).
She went into exile in 1972 and only returned to South Africa in the 1990s. Sikhakhane-Rankin has since worked in the government, and as a writer and a lecturer.
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