A History of Umteteli Wabantu - 1920-1956

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Rev Marchal Maxeke

Umteteli Wabantu(Mouthpiece of the People), a newspaper, was established by the Chamber of Mines and the Native Recruiting Corporation (NRC) after the 1920 mineworkers strike. This came against the backdrop of increasing militancy by African workers and the influence of Abantu Batho an African National Congress (ANC) newspaper.

Jeff Opland who has researched the newspaper extensively notes that the idea of establishing a paper to counter Abantu Batho came from conservative members of the ANC. They felt the radicalisation of workers came from the communists who had a hand in Abantu Batho. Consequently, John Dube, Saul Msane, Horatio Mbele and Rev Marshall Maxeke approached the Chamber of Mines to discuss the establishment of a newspaper. The Chamber of Mines did not initially take to this idea until the 1920 mineworkers strike.

Amongst its stated aims, the paper claimed it was geared towards advocating “measures of prudence and common-sense.”This would be achieved through a publication that would “defuse native tensions” sparked by the strike. 

The paper was first published on 1 May 1920 with John Dube and Sol Plaatje appearing on the masthead as editors. However, Sol Plaatje had already declined the post, Dube followed by also declining. Despite this, the paper continued to list both men as editors on the first 18 issues of its publication. Dube and Plaatje remained contributors of articles to the paper. Rev Marshall Maxeke became the paper’s first editor; he was later succeeded by AR Maphanya who served as editor from 1922 to 1930.

At its establishment, Umteteli Wabantuwas geared towards weakening Abantu Batho (People), the ANC newspaper, by taking away its readership and its African writers. It sought to appeal to moderate African nationalists in the Transvaal and in other regions of South Africa where African mineworkers were recruited. Furthermore, workers of the Abantu Batho left the publication for higher wages in Umteteli Wabantu. According to historians Les Switzer and Mohamed Adhikari,

“Abantu Batho claimed in 1931 that Umteteli was solely organized by the Chamber of Mines with the object of killing Abantu Batho who at the time had appealed with success to the mine natives who are at the mercy of the uncrowned kings of the compounds.”

Amongst Umteteli Wabantu’s founder members were H. M Taberer who was part of the NRC and Ray Phillips who became disliked by African radicals for his efforts to influence African thinking and opinion. One of Umteteli’s former editors, Harold Khumalo, claimed that Whites wrote a number of editorials in the newspaper. AD Roberts notes that “This paper was edited by Africans and at once became an important organ of the middle class African opinion, but it remained firmly under White control.” Keyan Tomaselli and P Eric Louw further note “Umteteli’s version of consensus news and opinion served to illuminate the process of social control that would be employed by the White owned African commercial press in the next generation.”

Umteteli Wabantucarefully chose to position itself as a champion of workers, while avoiding advancing demands made by unions. For instance, the paper “devoted considerable space to African worker conditions, and criticised state and White labour policies directed against their interests.” Conversely, the paper also criticised communism earning favour with moderates within the ANC amongst who were Rev. Marshall Maxeke, Selope Thema and Henry Selby Msimang. Its contributors also included Richard Msimang and Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo. By 1933 the paper claimed that it had a readership of 100 000.

Apart from focusing on issues affecting mineworkers and toeing the line of the Chamber of Mines, the paper played an important role in the development of Xhosa literature. Jeff Opland notes, “Of all the twentieth century newspapers the greatest contribution to Xhosa literature was made by Umteteli Wabantu.” Several Xhosa poems written by authors such as Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Samuel Edward KruneMqhayi, John Solilo, amongst others, appeared on its pages.

In 1956, Umteteli Wabantu ceased publication. It changed its name to Umteteli Wabantu eGoli (the People’s Spokesman in Johannesburg) and changed to magazine format. Opland notes that over the period of its existence, Umteteli Wabantu had produced 1 862 publications. 


References:
• Ukpanah, I.J. (2005). The Long Road to Freedom: Inkundla Ya Bantu (Bantu Forum) and the African, (Africa World Press), p.86
• Switzer, L & Adhikari, M, (2000), South Africa's Resistance Press: Alternative Voices in the Last Generation under Apartheid, (Ohio University), p.104
• Les Switzer, (1997), South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880 1960, (Cambridge University Press), pp.30-33
• Opland, J., (1998), Xhosa Poets and Poetry, (David Phillip Publishers), pp. 251 & 261
• Keyan Tomaselli and P Eric Louw, (1991), Studies on the South African Media, The Alternative Press in South Africa, (Bellville) p.40
• A. D. Roberts, (1986), The Colonial Moment in Africa: Essays on the Movement of Minds and Materials 1900-1940, (Cambridge University Press) p.234
• Rich, P.B., (1984), White Power and the Liberal Conscience: Racial Segregation and South African, (Manchester University Press), p.15

Last updated : 23-Jul-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 18-Jul-2013