Celebrating Mme Noni Jabavu

When it came to doing research about this queen, I could not help but marvel at how much of a heroine and lioness this lady was during her time. Mama understood the power of the pen and she did not play when it came to opening the doors of oppression that were designed to keep black women out of the world of media and communication. She was the first to write an autobiography and the first black female editor of ‘The New Strand’. She is among the remarkable queens who laid the foundation we continue to build on as black female writers.

Early Life

In 1919 on the 20th of August, Mme Thandiswa Florence Makiwane and her husband Tat ‘Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu welcomed their daughter into the world, they named her Helen Nontando Jabavu. Born into a family of literary figures with a grandfather like Tat ‘John Tengo Jabavu who first carved his name as the editor of South Africa’s first Xhosa newspaper ‘Isigidimi samaXhosa’ which was also known as the ‘Kaffir Express’, it would be safe to say her future looked promising.
When she turned 13 years old, her family sent her to England to study and work towards securing a healthy future and one that was bright. She was enrolled at the Mount School, a New York based school and placed under the guardianship of Margaret & Arthur Bennington who were close friends of the family. She was also groomed by a politician called Mohan Kumaramagalam a London born member of the Communist Party of India and his sister Paveti Krishinan.
When Mme Noni left South Africa in 1933, she did not know what she wanted to become. She had this to say about her departure:
“Like a typical black child of those days at 13, I was not too well primed about the negotiations that were ongoing with my parents and my prospective loco-parents about the life they were planning for me which I was to learn in years to come, was to be a practical demonstration of the generations of friendship between families. I learned then that there was a plan for me to be trained as a doctor to serve my people. But it misfired, for a medical doctor was the one thing I didn’t want to be. I didn’t know what I wanted to be.” (Jabavu 1977:8)
Mama lived there for many years while carving a career for herself as a multimedia practitioner who would later become known as a writer, author, journalist and editor.

Later on in Life

During later years she would go on to study at the St London’s Royal Academy of music, she did not last long because she lost interest due to the first world war- her focus was mostly on left-wing student politics which shaped her worldview as a writer. Mama then progressively gave up her studies when the war broke out and worked as a film technician who also trained to become a semi-skilled engineer and oxyacetylene welder who worked on bomber engine parts. She remained in London after the war where she became a feature writer and television personality who worked for the BBC group as a presenter and producer.
Mme Noni then met an English film director, Michael Cadbury Crossfield in 1951 and they tied the knot. The new bride had to cut down on her periodic pilgrimages to South Africa due to the apartheid immorality act which banned interracial marriages her husband could not come to South Africa. She then travelled to Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In 1955 Mama returned to her place of birth for a 3-month stay. This was also during a time when her first book, ‘Drawn in Color’ was in the works and it was only published in 1960 as it was a memoir which was well-received.
In 1961 the couple moved to Jamaica where the husband worked as a film advisor to the government. During this time, she worked as the first African woman to ever become the editor of a British literary magazine, known as ‘The New Strand’ which was a revived version of The Strand Magazine which had closed down in 1950. When they returned to London in 1965, she was then prompted to author her second book, ‘The Ochre People ‘which was another memoir in her own words: “It is a personal account of an individual African’s experiences and impressions of the differences between East & South Africans in their contact with westernization” the book was also well received on a global scale.
In 1976/77 during her time in South Africa, Mme Noni became a weekly columnist for the Daily Dispatch in the Eastern Cape under the editorship of the famed Donald Woods who held that position since 1965. Her stay like before was short due to her having a british passport which was frustrated by South Africa’s Immigration laws – by permitting visitors to stay for 3 months, and she was only here to further her research on a biography she was working on about her father so she had to move around and write. She then went back to Kenya for short visits and she spoke to numerous people about their experience with her father. By the end of that year she had become a household name.

Fun Facts

– Within the 1st year of its publication they reprinted ‘Drawn in Colour’ 5 times and by 1961 the book had been translated into Italian and it was published in Milan under the title II Colore Della Pelle. In 1962 St Martins Press in New York followed suit.
– When John Murray published Noni’s sequel ‘The Ochre People’ in 1963, St Martin’s Press followed with an American edition.
– It took South Africa 20 years to publish her second book through Raven Press.

Mama was among the small but significant crop of women writers who thrived under a system that was designed to keep them out.

It is quite unsettling having to learn about this queen after my primary schooling years, this is the history we were robbed of by the system and its guardians. But it warms my heart to know that she was celebrated when she was alive, she was awarded with a lifetime achievement by the former minister of arts and culture Tat’Pallo Jordan and was given the best literature award in the Eastern Cape by the then sports, arts and culture minister Mme Nosimo Balindela when the ANC had just taken over as the ruling party. Mama passed on when she was 88 years old in 2008. Mama is an inspiration like other remarkable female writers because she paved the way for many like myself. May this inspire you to go and purchase her books: Drawn in Color & The Ochre People so you can learn more about the magic our people created outside the scripted tales presented to us by the system. Daughters of the soil, mother Theresa was never ours to celebrate and honor and it would be wrong to do so and not celebrate our very own queens.


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2 thoughts on “Celebrating Mme Noni Jabavu

  1. What a tribute to Mama Nontando Jabavu.

    Excellently pen out very well by you MaDlamini, our forgotten sheroines with remarkable impact and contribution to print media & society in general.

    This deserves publication to other online & print media to ensure we don’t forget those who’ve paved the way for women.

    Thank you so much for the well written and informative article.

    Liked by 2 people

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