Lively Noni Jabavu, an upper class British Xhosa woman, turns her gaze on 1976 SA

Review: Vivien Horler

A Stranger at Home, by Noni Jabavu (Tafelberg)

When Athambile Masola, now a writer and academic at UCT, was a student in 2009, she was asked to write a regular column for East London’s Daily Dispatch newspaper.

She wondered why there seemed to be so few black women writers and commentators, and began researching this. It emerged that black women had been writing for centuries, “but the colonial patriarchal framework in my education refused to acknowledge or see these women’s voices as valuable”.

Her research uncovered the Xhosa writer and journalist Noni Jabavu, who grew up in the UK and at one point was the first woman, the first black person and the first non-Brit to edit The New Strand, a London literary magazine.

She had also written two books, Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts (1960), and The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life (1963).

In 1976/77 Jabavu came back to South Africa on two extended visits to research a biography of her father, Professor DDT Jabavu, the first black professor at what was then Fort Hare University College.

While she was here she was commissioned to write a weekly column for the Daily Dispatch, then under the editorship of the late Donald Woods. This volume is a collection of those columns, running from January to December 1977.

While the introduction to the collection by Masola, and the writer and poet Makhosazana Xaba, and Masola’s afterword, tend to be rather scholarly, slotting Jabavu into her place as one in a long line of black women writers, Jabavu’s columns are anything but.

They are lively, often funny, questioning and frequently thought-provoking. They also provide a snapshot of what South Africa was like in the mid-70s, after the 1976 uprising.

What gives them an extra twist is Jabavu’s own extraordinary background and the perspective it gives her writing. At 13 she was shipped off to Britain where she was brought up among the upper class, acquiring some seriously upmarket people as friends, one of whom was the poet Robert Graves. Her boyfriends went to Eton, and she was well-educated. She lost her SA accent and acquired a cut-glass British one.

So when she came back to South Africa after an absence of around 40 years, she was, as the title of this collection indicates, “a stranger at home”.

She was born in Alice, now Dikeni, in the Eastern Cape in 1919, so was in her late 50s when she wrote the columns. Her family was an elite Xhosa one – her grandfather John Tengo Jabavu was the first black editor-owner of an African newspaper when he started Imvo Zabantsundu in 1884, her father was made chair of Latin and Bantu languages at Fort Hare, Professor ZK Matthews was an uncle by marriage, her aunt, Cecilia Makiwane, after whom the hospital in Mdantsane is named, was SA’s first black nurse.

The columns kick off with her encounter with immigration at Durban docks. “As I last visited SA in 1955, I may be excused for having forgotten the feel of adrenalin spurting into your bloodstream when a pair of hostile ‘South African European’ eyes behold you… But I felt it again in a flash, on seeing the kaleidoscope of changing expressions on the face of the officer who took my passport from my hand.”

It was a British passport, and the immigration officer accused her of being ineligible for it. Eventually, after first saying she couldn’t enter the country at all, he stamped the passport allowing her in, but for three months only, unlike the unlimited time given to the white British people on the ship.

But it’s not all about the evils of apartheid. There is also a great deal about the contrasts she found between life in Britain and South Africa, and also about the differences between city and rural black people, the ochre people.

And she talks about her childhood and youth, and how she felt about being shunted off to the UK. The plan, she discovered much later, was for her to be trained as a doctor to serve people in the Eastern Cape. It misfired – she became a writer, not a doctor.

But to begin with, her family travelled by ship to Cape Town to stay in a rambling house in Claremont where the host, “a jolly old man… wearing a white goatee and khaki shorts” told Noni and her siblings to call him Oom Jannie. There was also a small curly-headed lady called Tant Isie.

Then Noni journeyed to England with her new family, and a few months later Oom Jannie arrived to visit. He presented her with a book containing a copy of a speech he had delivered at St Andrews University titled Freedom, in which he developed a theory that freedom was not for the uncivilised black people of South Africa.

Written into the flyleaf was: “For dear Nontando on her 14th birthday JC Smuts.”

Jabavu apparently had a rich sex life – at one point she refers to “one of her husbands, or maybe it was a lover”. At the time she wrote the columns she was based in Kenya and partnered with a 6ft “vanilla gorilla”, reportedly how white Kenyans referred to themselves at the time.

The topics of the columns range from “Xhosa men have changed” and “Why don’t our blacks read?” to “Travel only confuses the mind”, “Love, law and languages” and “When whites hold all the aces”.

She is acutely aware, as a citizen of the world, how restricted South Africans are. She is unable to socialise with her international friends when they visit in SA, as there is nowhere they can legally go together. Very early on she points out that the dominant white African tribe does not seem to understand “time is not on their side”.

And much later she muses about white South Africans, after comparing the non-racialism in Tunisia during a visit to Cape Bon, the most northerly point in Africa, with the whites-only beaches and houses at Cape Agulhas: “What is apartheid protecting South African whites from?”

Noni Jabavu died in June 2008, 11 years short of her century.

This collection is thoroughly worth reading, and not only for the light it shines on black women writers.


2 thoughts on “Lively Noni Jabavu, an upper class British Xhosa woman, turns her gaze on 1976 SA

  1. David Bristow

    Everything about this is fascinating: I had heard of her, but not that she was a writer. It’s a must-read.

  2. Pingback: Writing ourselves into existence: The story of black women – Bret News

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