Unsuppressed spirits

South Africa's Alternative Press
November 7, 1997

In South Africa today the major newspaper groups are having to justify themselves with some difficulty to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, to explain how they were effectively silenced from reporting the outrages by apartheid governments during the worst years of oppression. Their evidence shows how little the mainstream press was able to represent the aspirations and sufferings of the black majority.

It is all the more interesting to look back at the earlier attempts to start newspapers in South Africa to provide the voice of the emerging middle-class of literate African, Indian and Coloured readers, and how those attempts were frustrated. This book fills this gap, before the non-white press was dominated by the uniformity and control of the "white hand", and was circumscribed by government constraints.

The dozen chapters of the book, written by different authors, are of uneven quality, but nearly half of them are written by the editor, Les Switzer, a former South African who is now a professor in Texas, who helps to give shape and pattern to the book. He shows how the early flowering of non-white newspapers in the late 19th century provided an outlet for vigorous and varied journalism, from Indian Opinion in Natal, founded by Mohandas Gandhi and later taken over by his son Manilal, to the Zulu paper Ilanga lase Natal, edited by the great educationalist John Dube.

As newspaper ownership became more concentrated, and political power more centralised, the earlier variety and opportunities were overwhelmed by the ambitions of white groups to control non-white views: the most influential black paper, Bantu World, was effectively dominated by the Argus Group, itself owned by the mining companies.

The most effective alternative paper was the weekly Guardian, later New Age, which was the main voice of the Communist party. The book rightly emphasises its remarkable role in exposing scandals and injustices, which gave it a credibility and identification with black readers that the mainstream press could not achieve. A whole chapter by Don Pinnock is devoted to the achievement of Ruth First, editor of New Age during the 1950s. First's journalism, Pinnock says, struck at the heart of apartheid ideology by focussing on "the daily indignities of passes, grimy court proceedings, prison conditions, township squalor and farm conditions". And by connecting with the daily lives of ordinary blacks, it made a crucial contribution to the liberation movement.

The alternative press was not all so politically dedicated. Neville Choonoo's chapter gives a vivid account of the literary flowering of black South Africans of the "Sophiatown generation" of the 1950s, which Choonoo compares to the "Harlem renaissance" of black writers and artists in 1920s New York. He gives generous credit to the black magazine Drum (of which the reviewer was editor for four years), and its sister paper The Golden City Post, for providing the outlet and focus for the new black writers.

These writers were not primarily political journalists, but they provided a new atmosphere of confidence and self-expression that provided a cultural backing for the African National Congress and its militant young leadership, including Nelson Mandela, who paid tribute to the writers. The clamp-down after the 1960 Sharpeville massacres marked the effective ending of this renaissance, with the exile or death of most of the chief writers.

The book tantalisingly ends in 1960, after which time the alternative press faced its greatest challenges. New Age was eventually suppressed, all papers were threatened by censorship, and writers in exile felt compelled towards more polemical and fiercely political writing. Not until the mid-1980s did an effective alternative press re-emerge with papers such as The Weekly Mail and New Nation, which were to play a courageous role in revealing atrocities and corruption.

But this record of early alternative journalism throws much light, not only on the editors and papers who originated the alternative press, but on the character of their readership. The book shows how the first generation of mission-educated, conservative Africans gave way to more assertive generations who challenged their rulers more openly.

The earlier newspapers were essentially part of the social history of the time. Migration to the cities after the beginning of the second world war provided a new mass readership, and gave the Afrikaners a greater sense of the "black peril", convincing them that apartheid was the only solution.

However, the vigour and creativity of these urban people, and their links with white culture and industry, could never be completely suppressed. The writers, artists and musicians who emerged from the slum towns represented a spirit that survived the decades of exile, imprisonment and torture. Their outlets inside South Africa were suppressed during the 1960s and 1970s, but in the new South Africa editors need to look back to the earlier tradition of the alternative press to find the diversity and vigour of expression that is a crucial part of a democracy.

Anthony Sampson is writing the authorised biography of Nelson Mandela.

South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880-1960

Editor - Les Switzer
ISBN - 0 521 55351 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 400

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