Before South Africa had equal access to opportunities, there were black creatives who paved the way for future generations to have creative careers. Here are three of those trailblazers.
By Siyamthanda Yokwe
The rise of black creatives in the advertising industry has been amazing to watch – but there were black creatives making history before South Africa had equal access to opportunities and the world had granted them permission.
Solomon Linda: Original Composer Of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
Solomon Popoli Linda was born near Pomeroy in Natal. He attended the Gordon Memorial mission school, where he learnt about Western musical culture, hymns and participated in choir contests. In 1931, Linda – like many other young African men at that time – left his homestead to find menial work in Johannesburg. He worked in the Mayi Mayi Furniture Shop on Small Street and sang in a choir known as the Evening Birds. The group evolved from performances at weddings to competing in choir competitions.
In 1938, Linda began working as a record packer for Gallo Record Company, the only recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1939, during a studio session, Linda improvised the song Mbube, which went on to become a major success for Linda and the Evening Birds with 100 000 copies being sold. Unwittingly, Linda sold the rights to Gallo Record Company for 10 shillings (less than US$2) soon after the recording was made. He died in poverty in 1962 while Mbube continued to live and became a worldwide hit repeatedly, performed by musicians who thought it was an African folk song.
For decades, Linda barely received any compensation for the incorporation of his song into The Lion Sleeps Tonight. That situation ended in 2006. A South African copyright lawyer argued successfully that 25 percent of the song's past and future royalties should go to Linda's three remaining daughters, who still live in South Africa. Finally, he received his lion’s share.
Noni Jabavu: The First African Woman To Be The Editor Of A British Literary Magazine
Noni Jabavu was born in Middledrift in the Eastern Cape into a family of intellectuals. Her mother was Thandiswa Florence Makiwane, who founded Zenzele Woman's Self-Improvement Association. Her father was activist and author Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, and her grandfather, John Tengo Jabavu, was an editor of South Africa's first newspaper to be written in Xhosa, Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion).
Thanks to her family’s prominence, Jabavu had the opportunity to be educated in England from the age of 13, and she stayed there for many years. After the Second World War, she became a features writer and television personality in London and worked for the BBC as a presenter and producer.
In 1955, Jabavu returned to South Africa for a three-month stay, which she wrote about in the Author's Note of her first book, Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts (1960). Drawn in Colour was reprinted five times within the first year of its publication and was also published in Italian in Milan under the title Il Colore Della Pelle. After years living in Uganda, where she had written her book, Jabavu returned with her husband to England, and from the beginning of 1961, worked for the literary magazine John O'London's Weekly. She also did editorial work for The New Strand, before being selected as its editor.
Jabavu's second book, The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life, published in 1963, was also a memoir, of which she said: "It is a personal account of an individual African's experiences and impressions of the differences between East and South Africans in their contact with Westernisation.”
During time spent in South Africa in 1976–77, researching a book about her father, Jabavu published a weekly column in the East London newspaper Daily Dispatch.
Before her passing at the age of 88 in June 2008, Jabavu was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by former Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, as well as a best literature award in the Eastern Cape by then sports, art and culture minister, Nosimo Balindlela.
Dr Sam Nzima: The Photographer Whose Photo Inspired A Historic Uprising
Dr Sam Nzima was the South African photographer who captured the iconic Youth Day image of Hector Pieterson during the 16 June 1976 Soweto uprising – but he struggled for years to get the copyright.
In 1956, Nzima found work as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel, where he met a photographer named Patrick Rikotso who taught him photography skills. While travelling, he wrote a story about taking the bus and sent it with photographs to The World, a black African daily newspaper. The editor of The World was interested in Sam Nzima's work and requested that he work freelance for the paper. In 1968, he was invited join as a full-time photojournalist.
On 16 June 1976, police confronted protesting students in what would become known as the Student Uprising. Nzima took the photograph of fatally wounded Hector Pieterson on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets in Orlando West, Soweto, near Phefeni High School. Realising that he had captured a "powerful" image, he also knew that the police would want to confiscate the film. So, he quickly gave the film to the newspaper’s driver and told him to go straight to the office. By that afternoon the image had been transmitted worldwide.
After considerable police harassment, Nzima resigned in 1977 and moved back to his hometown of Lillydale. For many years, Sam Nzima was forgotten and his famous image appropriated in countless ways, even being wrongfully attributed to other photographers who had been covering the uprising.
Nzima finally obtained the copyright to his photograph when the Argus Newspaper Group, which owned The World, was sold to the Independent Group in 1998.
Time Magazine included Nzima's image in their book 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time. Nzima passed away in 2018 but in 2020, he received a posthumous honour which was officially conferred with an honorary doctorate by the Tshwane University of Technology.
Copywriters should remember to celebrate the likes of Noni Jabavu when they think of those who walked so that they could fly. The same goes for recording artists when it comes to the Solomon Lindas who came before, and photographers who have followed in the footsteps of great pioneers like Dr Sam Nzima.
South Africans should never forget that there’s always been a rich history in creativity and it’s now the job of current and future generations to continue that legacy.
Siyamthanda Yokwe is a copywriter at VMLY&R South Africa. Originally published in The Citizen.