Our People: Noni Jabavu


Writer and journalist Noni Jabavu was a pioneer. The first black South African woman to publish autobiographies, she had a remarkable career, studied music, was a prolific writer, had a stint as a radio personality for the BBC and worked as a film technician and semi-skilled engineer and oxyacetylene welder, even working on bomber engine parts during the Second World War.


Helen Nontando Jabavu was born on 20 August 1919 into a family of literary figures, and highly regarded intellectuals. Her grandfather John Tengo Jabavu (1859 –1921) first carved his name as editor of South Africa’s first newspaper to be written in XhosaIsigidimi samaXhosaas far back as 1876.


Her father Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu (1885 -1959), a politician turned journalist, founded and became the editor of the first Black-owned newspaper in 1884,Imvo Zabantsundu(Black Opinion). And so the apple did not fall far from the tree.


Her life pre and post Second World War


She would popularly be known as Noni Jabavu in later years of her life. She was born in Middledrift, Eastern Cape to Thandiswa Florence Makiwane, a hard working woman and founder of Zenzele Woman’s Self-Improvement Association and her activist and author father Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu.


When she was 13, she was sent to England to receive an education at The Mount School in York under the guardianship of Margaret and Arthur Bevington Gillett, a London banker and co-partner at Gillet and Co. She also received valuable guidance and support from politician Mohan Kumaramangalam who was born in London but was a member of the Communist Party of India, and his sister Parvati Krishnan.

Jabavu lived there for many years while carving a career for herself as a multi-media practitioner. She would later become known as a writer, author, journalist and editor.


In later years she would go on to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music, but just before the Second World War she had become disinterested in the academy and concentrated mostly on left-wing student politics, that would shape her world outlook as a writer.


She would progressively give up studies, at the outbreak of the war as a film technician and trained to become a semi-skilled engineer and oxyacetylene welder, working on bomber engine parts. After the war she remained in London, becoming a feature writer and television personality, working for the BBC as a presenter and producer.


Tough love choices


Noni met and married English film director Michael Cabury Crosfield in 1951. That would drastically cut her periodical pilgrimages to South Africa as at that time he could not accompany her because of the apartheid Immorality Act which did not allow mixed racial marriages. She would move to Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe.


In 1955 Jabavu returned to South Africa for a three-