Jabavu’s maternal forebears were descended from the renowned Makiwanes, an important mission-educated family of Eastern Cape luminaries. Her mother, Florence Tandiswa Makiwane, founded the Zenzele Women’s Self-Improvement Association. Cecilia Makiwane, sister of Florence and aunt to Noni, became South Africa’s first African registered professional nurse.
Noni’s maternal grandfather, Reverend Elijah Makiwane, was an early editor of the Lovedale missionary journal Isigidimi samaXhosa (The Xhosa Messenger), later followed by her paternal grandfather John Tengo Jabavu. Reverend Makiwane was also a proponent of women’s education. With such strong support for women’s achievements in her family, Noni took for granted that she would succeed academically and professionally.
Noni’s grandfather was John Tengo Jabavu, founding editor of Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion), the first black-owned indigenous-language newspaper in South Africa. John Tengo, like Elijah Makiwane, previously worked on the missionary journal Isigidimi samaXhosa. He founded Imvo Zabantsundu in order to report political news, which was omitted from the journal. Imvo Zabantsundu remained in the control of the Jabavu family until 1935. Noni’s father, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, was a founding member of staff at the South African Native College, which would later become the University of Fort Hare. The marriage of Noni’s parents represented the union of two of the most prominent mission-educated, Christian intellectual families in the Eastern Cape at the time.
Like her parents, Jabavu was educated in England. In 1933, aged 13, she was sent to board at the Mount School in York, and later to the Royal Academy of Music. She spent holidays with wealthy English guardians arranged through the connections of General Jan Smuts, a personal friend of the Jabavu family. Smuts was an international statesman and military leader. He served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 until 1924, and again from 1939 until 1948.
On her 14th birthday, Smuts presented Jabavu with a book. She writes,
The slim volume was of course way beyond my understanding at the time. Many years later when I was able to read it, I was amazed. Oom Jannie’s present was a copy of a speech he had delivered at St Andrews University, its theme ‘Freedom’. And in it he developed a theory that freedom was not for the uncivilised black people of South Africa.
Jabavu’s life was filled with such contradictions.
Jabavu did not fit into the moulds available for black women of her time. She wrote often of her multifaceted identity, forged between her South African home and her adopted home of England. With her multiple marriages, and her class positioning as a black British-South African of some social standing, local writers such as Peter Abrahams and Lewis Nkosi had a difficult time knowing where to place her. Dennis Brutus referred to Jabavu as ‘The New Un-African’ in his review article about <em>Drawn in Colour</em>. On the other hand, her books were wildly popular internationally, and Mongane Wally Serote later said of Jabavu, ‘We men ... did not know how to relate to her. She was a woman living far ahead of our times’.
When it came to personal relationships, Jabavu also refused to be restricted by the societal norms of the time. In 1984 she wrote to friends: ‘I’ve had five Matrimonial Experiences. But I won’t tell about them in this letter. They are matters for my 5th vol. of N.J.’s True Life Romances across Cultural Borders.’
‘Jabavu’s work is very much dictated by the kind of middle class family background from which she came.’ Lewsi Nkosi, 1977.
Jabavu answered Lewis Nkosi in her Daily Dispatch column, writing ‘I write and talk about what I know; about the surroundings I grew up in; where my character was formed. What else can a writer write about?'
Jabavu felt the tension between her isiXhosa roots and her western upbringing and she expresses this in her writing. In The Ochre People (1963) Jabavu muses on her social inheritance from a region populated both by families such as hers – mission-schooled Christians – and the so-called ‘pagan people’, who retain older, indigenous traditions.
She writes, ‘Maybe it is atavistic to be in sympathy with the pagan idea that changes in personal status should be marked, as they are when dramatized by ceremony and ritual. What is certain is that the attitude endures, is one that most powerfully colours the social fabric in which you find yourself. And I for one would be sceptical if told it has been undermined by modern conditions or by Christianity. I ask myself, “Why should one expect to know everything and not be capable of uncertainties?”’
In Drawn in Colour (1960) Jabavu writes, ‘isiXhosa is expressive, forceful, not Biblical as some writers lead you to think, more like Elizabethan English. Words are pliable, can be manipulated and therefore impregnated with subtle, often startling shades of meaning, and ‘from the shoulder,’ yet poetic in allusion and illustration.’
Jabavu dreamed of returning to South Africa for many years. As a British passport holder, the apartheid government made it difficult for her to return permanently. Family connections and her husband’s work took the pair to Uganda and later Jamaica. She also travelled according to which locations best suited her writing needs of the moment. She was occasionally troubled by her lifestyle of movement, writing in the Daily Dispatch in 1977 that ‘travel confuses the mind’.
The apartheid-era South African government refused to recognise her right to live in South Africa, the land of her birth. Of this she said, 'Can’t enter? Yet born here - what do you mean?'
She chose to write and travel chose her.
In 1976 Jabavu attempted to return to South Africa to research a biography of her father. According to apartheid laws of the era, she could not spend longer than three months at a time in the country on a holiday visa. She details these difficulties in a series of columns she wrote for the Daily Dispatch in 1977, when she secured a longer stay in South Africa.
'My father was away for ten years. I’ve been away about 44. For him, as for me in my turn, to return is an overwhelming experience. Traumatic.'
My friend, Robert Graves, one of the greatest English poets as you know, once said to me, ‘Noni, you are no poet, my girl. You are an observer. I am not insulting you. An observer is an artist too. You belong in the club of artists.’
This is how I write ... . It’s not by being clever. I couldn’t possibly invent such dialogues. All I do is to use my ears as my parents taught me to from childhood. You don’t need to have degrees as long as you have ears.
Apart from a large body of published pieces, Jabavu was also a prolific writer of letters in private. Although often geographically separated from the people and places she loved, her letter writing connected her with a web of people all over the world, and allowed her a way back ‘home’.
'My only brother, Tengo, was twenty-six years old, reading medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand. ... The week before, I had had a letter from him outlining plans he was making for when he would qualify in a few months’ time. But on March 8th, a young messenger boy whistled up to my house, stamped jauntily on the steps and rubbing his fingers to keep warm while waiting for a possible answer to the message he delivered:
TENGO SHOT DEAD BY GANGSTERS FUNERAL SUNDAY 13TH. JABAVU.
Jabavu’s writing kept her connected to family members and friends across vast geographical distances. She struggled, however, with the emotions that arose from the compulsion to commit her experiences to paper.