Ruth First, Juby Mayet, Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin and Noni Jabavu were among the fierce women journalists during the apartheid era who defied the laws and spoke truth to power no matter how difficult or threatening the situation.
South African media laws during apartheid were highly restrictive, and journalists were often banned for reporting on the white minority government. Publications such as The World, Weekend World, Rand Daily Mail and Drum Magazine were established during this period to provide news and information to South Africa’s majority. The writers who emerged from these publications would go on to document and record our rich history – some also paid with their lives.
Journalists such as Henry “Mr Drum” Nxumalo did investigations on how farmworkers were treated among other dangerous investigations which eventually cost him his life. Ruth First who also wrote on similar topics was assassinated by the South African police in Mozambique.
As we commemorate women’s month, we cannot forget the women journalists who shaped the media landscape and paved the way for this generation’s journalists to continue telling real stories, exposing the corrupt and holding power to account.
We remember Ruth First.
Ruth First was a journalist, academic and political activist, who dedicated most of her life to anti-apartheid and resistance movements such as the 1946 mineworkers’ strike and the Indian Passive Resistance campaign. She was pivotal in the formation of the underground SACP among other activist organisations and clubs. As a journalist, First became the Johannesburg editor of a left-wing weekly newspaper The Guardian, and often investigated slave-like labour conditions, the anti-pass campaign, migrant labour, bus boycotts and slum conditions. She left an indelible mark on social and labour journalism in the 1950s. First was known for her vivid, accurate and often controversial writing, but her reportage was the basis of her longer pamphlets and her books.
We remember Juby Mayet.
Zubeida “Juby” Mayet’s journalism career began in 1957 when she started writing for the Golden City Post and later contributed to Drum magazine. A pivotal moment came in 1977 when she joined The Voice in Lenasia, Johannesburg as a deputy chief sub-editor, a first for a black woman journalist. Her writing tackled issues of gender inequality, racism and apartheid. Mayet co-founded the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ), holding the position of assistant secretary-treasurer, and was an active member of the Writer’s Association of South Africa. She was among 29 black journalists, who marched against the UBJ’s banning and journalists’ detention in 1977. In 1979, she was detained and faced harsh conditions under the Internal Security Act. Mayet’s influence extended to the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa (MWASA) and the Writers’ Association of South Africa (WASA). She was the inaugural recipient of the Lifetime Achiever Award for Women in Writing (2000) and received the Steve Biko International Peace Award (2013).
We remember Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin.
Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin immersed herself in politics at a very young age – from boycotting Bantu Education to organising the Pioneer Group of the ANC with other youth – she remained involved in politics and resistance movements. In 1963, she started working at the World newspaper and reported widely on topics relating to the social effects of apartheid. She authored Window on Soweto, which reflected and foreshadowed the student uprising in 1976. In her capacity as a journalist, Joyce moved around a great deal and was able to facilitate communication between political activists. She left the World newspaper to join Rand Daily Mail as the first black woman and began writing articles which highlighted the effects of apartheid on the general African population, especially the issue of forced removals. She played a pivotal role in the formation of the Justice and Peace Commission that was a group of priests against apartheid.
We remember Noni Jabavu.
Helen Nontando “Noni” Jabavu was the first black South African woman to publish autobiographies, but she was also a music student and a budding engineer. Jabavu was the daughter of politician turned journalist, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu who founded the first Black-owned newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu. This paved the way for Noni who ventured into roles as a BBC radio host and film technician. Noni lived and studied in England for some time, and that helped her evolve into a versatile multimedia professional, ultimately embracing roles as a writer, author, journalist, and editor. Her experiences influenced her thinking towards left-wing student politics and which shaped her outlook as a writer.
We look up to the women before us, who made great sacrifices to lead us to where we are. Whether in journalism or politics, may we be them and may we raise them.