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Our People: John Tengo Jabavu

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

John Tengo Jabavu (left) and his son Davidson Don Tengo, around 1903.

John Tengo Jabavu (11 January 1859 – 10 September 1921) was a political activist and the editor of South Africa's first newspaper to be written in Xhosa.

In 1876, Jabavu took over editorship of the Isigidimi samaXhosa ("The Xhosa Messenger"), and by the early 1880s had become an important political force. Jabavu's writings tended to focus on the threat of growing Afrikaner nationalism and his demands for equal rights for South Africa's black population.

Tengo Jabavu was also known as a proponent of women's rights as well as public education.

In recognition of his political influence, a group of prominent Cape Colony political figures approached Tengo Jabavu in 1883 with a request for him to stand for election to the Cape Parliament. They recommended that he represent one of the constituencies of the Cape where Black African voters formed a significant percentage of the electorate, such as Victoria East.

However Jabavu declined, citing the possibility that such a move would unite and aggravate reactionary elements in the Cape Parliament and would therefore be counterproductive. Nonetheless, he later lent his powerful support to the more liberal leaders of the Cape's South African Party against the repressive policies of Rhodes's "Progressives',

In 1884, Tengo Jabavu founded his own newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu ("Black Opinion"); a year later, he married Elda Sakuba, who would die in 1900, leaving four sons. The eldest of these sons, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, would become a respected author and activist in his own right; the second eldest, Alexander, succeeded John Tengo Jabavu as editor of Imvo Zabantsundu, following his 1921 death in the home of D.D.T. Jabavu at Fort Hare.

In the 1890s, Tengo Jabavu's movement Imbumba ("The Union") faced a growing rival, the South African Native National Congress led by Walter Rubusana. While it aspired to unity, Jabavu's movement was still perceived as dominated by Fengu people like Jabavu himself.

By contrast, Rubusana's movement was perceived as dominated by Gcaleka. Rivalry was exacerbated by subtle ethnic tensions, but largely came to an end as some degree of unity was achieved under the larger African National Congress, intended finally to lay to rest "the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo feud.

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