Corinne Sandwith

Reading the Colonial Public Sphere through Newspaper Form

The project is interested in the particular shapes that newspapers take in colonial African contexts. Central to this enquiry is the assumption that the Europhone form of the newspaper – distinguished by the typical rhetorical and structural features of seriality, recursion, polyvocality and juxtaposition – is both replicated and reshaped in new material and social contexts of emergence. Drawing on the notion of the sociality of form (the ways in form can be understood as registering the social world in which it takes shape), the project explores the particular acts of writing and public inscription which are induced by the peculiar conditions of colonial conquest and encounter. It asks what forms of the periodical press were thrown up or activated by the late colonial scene; what kinds of idiosyncratic or distinctive print formats, forums, rhetorical styles, genre and modes of address were called forth; and what these might tell us about the character and workings of the colonial public sphere.

Fig 1: Front page of Umteteli wa Bantu (Wits Historical Paper Library)
Fig 2: Front page of Bantu World (Wits Historical Papers Library)

The focus of this enquiry is the South African print and public sphere in the early 1920s and 30s. Some of the main newspaper players in this period include the multi-lingual, weekly publications Umteteli wa Bantu, Umsebenzi, Ilanga lase Natal, Abantu Batho and, from the 1930s onwards, Bantu World. These publications jostled for place in a lively late colonial printsphere which included the larger commercial (monolingual) dailies The Star, the Rand Daily Mail, the Cape Times, Die Burger and Die Vaderland. Two general points can be made about newspaper form during this period: the first is the unusual prominence of multilingual newspaper form. This was a period in which many publications, targeting Black readers in particular, published their newspapers in up six different languages, including isiZulu, isiXhosa, English, Sesotho, Setswana and Afrikaans. The practice of multilingual newspaper publishing varied in nature and degree and included both the habit of conscientious cross-language publishing across a range of different language sections as well as those of a more irregular, selective and arbitrary kind. While the existence of multilingual newspaper form does not necessarily disturb the privilege of English, the fact that English is made to co-exist and intermingle with a range of other African languages opens up possibilities for alternative kinds of proximity and forms of counter-colonial valuing. It also confirms the importance of African languages for the interpretation of African modernity. 

A second point to do with the shape of newspaper form in colonial contexts is that newspapers often had mixed origins, having been founded through a coalition of (often unlikely) interests between for example, white liberal funders and Black newspapermen. The commonplace colonial phenomenon of hybrid or hyphenated periodical form in which different interest groups coalesce and combine, and the unequal power nexus that the form inscribed, cannot easily be reduced to the paradigm of white coercion and Black resistance but requires recognition of both unexpected, contradictory political alignments and shifting power dynamics.  

Umteteli wa Bantu, a weekly multilingual newspaper which was funded by the Johannesburg Chamber of Mines and edited by Black newspapermen is a fascinating example of this phenomenon. This was a newspaper that was conceived by both its white and its Black instigators as a voice of moderation in a rapidly radicalising, even hostile, political environment. Both funders and editors shared an instrumentalist view of the newspaper as a form of moral pedagogy and sought to guide its Black readers into a more rational – that is, moderate – politics. In terms of newspaper form, the emphasis on reasoned moderation as against inflammatory speech is evident in the newspaper’s regular, longform layout, its measured sub-headings, its dense, continuous prose and its conspicuous, often heavy-handed, editorial presence: the editor not only published regular ‘Notes to Correspondents’ advising readers on both style and political content but also engaged in various kinds of editorial engineering including outright censorship. This dominant conception of the colonial periodical press as a political-educational tool – shared by both Black and white founders – was regularly resisted by its readers who continued to raise political issues in less than moderate tones, thus exploiting a further attribute of newspaper form, namely polyvocality, and the space it inevitably opens up for vigorous contestation and ongoing public debate.

Editorial Page of Umteteli wa Bantu (Wits Historical Papers Library)

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