The Tragedy of the Lovedale Press

In such times where culture and heritage are becoming increasingly rare and important during our lives, it seems as though it has become less and less available. The appalling state of historical sites such as the Lovedale Press are very disheartening, requiring better efforts from leadership to rectify

By Khumbulani Jali (Varsity Contributor)

Unassumingly blending in with its surroundings is a simple building on a street corner in the small town of Alice, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Many fail to recognise it as a grand site of history despite the placard outside which reads: “The earliest record of anything written by any Bantu speaking African in his own language in Southern Africa was made at the small printing press at old Lovedale.” Through the decades of its existence, it served as a hub of intellectual and cultural literary work in multitudinous African languages, batting down the old colonial myths that painted black people as unintelligent and unsophisticated beings.

Historic publications have emerged from its grounds. Imvo Zavabtsundu, the first black owned newspaper in the country, Zemk’ Iinkomo Magwalandini by WB Rubusana as well as An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago by Sol Plaatje, (the first novel written in English by a black South African) are just a few of them.

Established in 1823 by the Lovedale Missionary Institution, the press boasts a rich history of nurturing many great minds like S.E.K Mqhayi, author of the isiXhosa novel Ityala Lamawele, activist and author Ellen Khuzwayo, and Black consciousness leaders Steve Biko and Barney Pityana nursed at related institutions like Lovedale College. The University of Fort Hare, another of these institutions, nurtured Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Oliver Tambo, among many others. 

Despite the depth of its heritage, the Lovedale Press is not immune from financial crisis. It once saw consistent revenue through the provision of textbooks to schools in Bantustans. However, with homelands ceasing to exist from 1994, their streams of income began to dry up. Today the press is in such dire straits that both the electricity and water have been cut, and rentals have not been paid in years.

The remaining custodians maintain it out of commitment to its historical importance, no compensation for their labours in a decade. They are also its owners, having bought press via auction in 2001 using their pensions as part of a group of 18 former employees. Now just three remain: Bishop Nqumbevu, Bulelwa Mbatyhothi, and Cebo Ntaka.

They have not been alone in their plight to preserve this institution. Mwelela Cele, a writer and researcher with the New Frame, has written of its struggles to help bring the help of like minded activists. In April 2020 artists Athi-Patra Ruga and Lesoko Seabe co-founded Victory of the Word, which they define as “a fundraising and development platform committed to serving independent artists and the preservation of language both visual and written.” They started off raising funds to support the remaining custodians with their next objective being obtaining National Heritage Object status for the press. The group expressed interest in partnering with the Department of Basic Education to provide literature on indigenous African languages for foundation phase teaching and learning.

This looming threat of closure comes at a time when the Fugard Theatre and Liliesleaf Farm Museum, both important sites of culture and history in the country, have been facing similar fates due to lack of funding. The Apartheid Museum was another of the historical wonders facing extinction earlier this year. In all these cases, much discourse has been around the government and its involvement, or lack thereof, in the preservation of the country’s heritage.

The owners of the Lovedale Press have appealed both the Eastern Cape’s governmental Departments of Art Culture, and Education for assistance, to no avail. They reached the same blockade when they attempted at the national level of the Department of Arts and Culture as well as the National Heritage Council.

The Lovedale Press holds precious memories of South African life, knowledge and language. Of paramount importance is the need to protect the literature and heritage of the formative years of the nation. Furthermore, an additive objective would be to restore it to its former prestige as a premier printing press. It is needless to say that both of these objectives are essential not only for the custodians and the community who value it deeply, but also for the country and its leadership.

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