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The story you need to know about The Lovedale Press

And Athi-Patra Ruga, Lesoko Seabe and Anelisa Mangcu’s mission to save the remarkable institution

By House & Garden South Africa | January 12, 2022 | Art

We know that through their artwork, artists play a different part in contributing to our society's overall health, development, and well-being. Creative thinkers and makers provide their communities with joy, interaction, and inspiration. Still, they also give thoughtful critique to our political, economic and social systems – pushing communities to engage thoughtfully and make steps toward social progress.

When an artist steps out of the studio and picks up an important cause, I take note! Having worked closely with artists for many years, I know it takes a true passion project to take them out of their studios.

Visual artist Athi-Patra Ruga, voice artist, actor and academic, Lesoko Seabe, and curator Anelisa Mangcu are among a growing number of creatives who are becoming a powerful force in the world of cultural philanthropy. In addition to very successful full-time careers, they have, through hands-on involvement, provided much-needed support to the Lovedale Printing Press. In esteemed company with other philanthropist artists such as Nick Cave and Theaster Gates, who have played enormous roles in Chicago's cultural development and neighbourhood transformation.

Picture: Anelisa Mangcu with the limited-edition VOW x Letterhead tote for Lovedale Press. Photo by by Lwando Mxutu.

The Lovedale Press tells the stories of Black writers, literature, history, and so much more at a time when traditional printing and funding sources for printing is shrinking. Passionate about saving Lovedale Press in some form, they have launched a campaign, ‘Victory of the Word’, a ‘three-phase fundraising and development project’ to draw public attention to the crisis facing the press and its custodians. The intention is to raise funds to save it as a heritage site or, at the very least, to digitise the rich Lovedale archive.

The story of The Lovedale Press, founded in 1861, has its origins in a remarkable institution: the Lovedale Missionary Institute in Alice (eDikeni), Eastern Cape. Established in 1841, Lovedale went on to become one of the most famous and influential missionary schools and training colleges on the sub-continent. It numbered among its students many who were to have a major influence on the intellectual life and political, cultural and literary landscape of South Africa.

Founded when the Lovedale Missionary Institute opened a printing department, Lovedale Press provided a means for Black writers to write for Black readers in their own languages, at a time when Black authors were marginalised by white-owned presses publishing exclusively in English and, later, Afrikaans. There is a plaque on an outside wall of the modest building which reads: ‘The earliest record of anything written by any Bantu-speaking African in his own language in South Africa, was made at the small printing press at Old Lovedale.’ These are the words of AC Jordan, a prominent writer of isiXhosa texts published by Lovedale Press and one of Fort Hare's most distinguished literary alumni. Over time, the Press became a major southern African publisher, producing outstanding literature not only in isiXhosa but in other Southern African languages, including English. Sol Plaatje’s seminal novel, Mhudi, numbers among them.

Today, after years of neglect and under-funding, the once-thriving Lovedale Press, a beacon of intellectual life and vernacular expression for a period of nearly 200 years faces closure. Having survived successive frontier wars, the 1913 Native Land Act, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and the brutal imposition of the Bantu Education Act under apartheid, it is hard to believe that an institution of such remarkable stature is under threat. In 2001, when its owners auctioned it off, 18 former employees bought the Press, hoping that the government, the corporate sector and the public would support their efforts to keep this profoundly important heritage alive. However, for years, these dedicated custodians of the flame have had to work without pay. Of the 18, seven have died, and eight are no longer actively involved in running the business. Only three remain; Bishop Nqumevu (76), Bulelwa Mbatyothi (59) and Cebo Ntaka (49). Athi-Patra, who lives between rural Hogsback in the Eastern Cape and his studio in Cape Town, has a fascination with language and understands the deep significance of the vernacular as a means to understand and preserve indigenous knowledge systems, pre-colonial ways of seeing and being. His work ‘iiNyanga Zonyaka’ indirectly pays homage to a rich tradition of African thought, writing and publishing at Lovedale, and celebrates this proud symbol of African excellence. His sublime installation at Norval Foundation, ‘iiNyanga Zonyaka’ (The Lunar Songbook), a monumental vinyl artwork that refracts and radiates light like a stained glass window, has a deep and richly symbolic connection with Lovedale Press.

The central avatar of Athi-Patra’s imagined world, Nomalizo Khwezi, was inspired by Helen Nontando (Noni) Jabavu (1919-2008), who was born in Alice and attended Lovedale in her primary school years but left South Africa to be educated in England at the age of 13. She was one of the first African women to follow a successful literary and journalistic career and the first Black South African woman to publish her memoirs (Drawn in Colour and The Ochre People). Noni was born into a highly educated literary family: her grandfather John Tengo Jabavu (1859-1921) made his name as editor of South Africa's first newspaper to be written in isiXhosa, Isigidimi samaXhosa. Her father, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu (1885-1959), a politician turned journalist, founded and became editor of the first Black-owned newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion). Both newspapers were published at Lovedale. Her aunt, Cecilia Makiwane, educated at Lovedale Girls School, became the first Black registered nurse in Africa, and Cecilia's sister, Daisy Makiwane, became a pioneering journalist. In the 1982 preface to The Ochre People, Noni writes of Daisy, ‘She had been a writer on my grandfather's weekly newspaper at the turn of the century… [a] genius as well as a mathematician.’

Like Noni Jabavu, who moves between two very different worlds, rural and cosmopolitan, African and Western, Ruga's avatar Nomalizo has a shifting, hybrid identity, at once traditional and contemporary, steeped in traditional African cosmology and in the urbane intellectual culture of the city, with its language of (English) cultural alienation. It is not without significance that she comes to Cape Town to work in a publishing house.

Athi-Patra explains that Nomalizo's surname Khwezi is a reference to the planet Venus, the ‘Morning Star’, named iKhwezi in isiXhosa. Victory of the Word is a way of restoring the waning light of the Morning Star that is Lovedale Press.

Written by Elana Brundyn.