South Africa Discussion Group: UMTETELI WA BANTU AND THE CONSTITUTION OF SOCIAL PUBLICS IN 1920S AND 1930S SOUTH AFRICA
Conveners: William Beinart and Susanne Verheul
Speaker: NATASHA ERLANK (University of Johannesburg)
Most writing on the black press in South African history views Umteteli wa Bantu, established in 1920 and funded by the Native Recruitment Corporation, as a signal for African loss of editorial independence, punting moderate African views in reaction to the more radical news available in newspapers like Abantu-Batho (1912 to c.1931). Although established as an exercise in ‘soft power’ by the mining industry, a split in the editorial and business functions of the newspaper facilitated editorial autonomy. This is as much apparent in the form of the newspaper as in its content. It included casual intermingling of social and personal news with all the other content. By sewing people and their activities into the fabric of the paper, Umteteli created an identity for itself as a newspaper which facilitated the construction of a public black sociality, in which the constraints imposed by racial segregation no longer impeded upward social mobility. This playfulness and creativity questions much of what is generally written about the paper, which is usually assessed in relation to its political content and support (or not) for African nationalism. In addition, through ongoing encouragement and exhortation, the paper drew its readers into a status as co-producers of content, facilitating a kind of print cosmopolitanism. In this paper, I examine the paper's establishment and the way in which it functioned, in relation to the broader and more recent literature on print cultures in Africa.