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date: 25 March 2023

Publishing in South Africafree

Publishing in South Africafree

  • Elizabeth le RouxElizabeth le RouxDepartment of Information Science, University of Pretoria


South Africa’s literary history is divided across both language and race. A survey of the country’s publishing history provides a lens for examining these diverse literatures in an integrated way, by focusing on the production context, the circulation, and the readership. The key threads in South Africa’s publishing history can be traced to influences operating outside publishing: the influence of colonial governance, followed by the nationalist government and its apartheid system, and then the post-apartheid influence of transformation. All these factors reveal ongoing attempts by the government of the day to regulate and control publishing and the circulation of information. However, publishing history requires further study to better understand how publishing has evolved in South Africa, and how that permitted or prevented authors from circulating their work to readers.


  • African Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing
  • Print Culture and Digital Humanities

The Importance of Publishing History

South Africa has a small but relatively robust publishing industry, with an estimated 150 publishers in operation by the early 21st century. Printing was only introduced at the very end of the 18th century, and publishing was dominated by imports from the colonial centers for much of the 19th century. The 20th century was heavily affected by apartheid legislation. As in many African and developing-world economies, the publishing industry is dominated by the educational or school textbooks market, but in South Africa this is also balanced by local trade publishing and an excellent skills base. Publishing history in the country thus presents an interesting case study, one that reinforces certain patterns found in other colonial and post-colonial contexts, but also introduces some key areas of difference.

South Africa’s literary history is fragmented and diverse, on the axes of both language and race. A survey of the country’s publishing history provides a lens for examining these diverse literatures in an integrated way, by focusing on the production context, the circulation, and the readership. For instance, a single publishing house could produce works in a range of different languages, different genres, and for different audiences. At the same time, a book could be written by a South African, published in London, and read in Australia, and publishing histories can trace these networks of mobility across borders. Moreover, a publishing history provides a reminder that the literary field is not autonomous, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, but is rather enmeshed in a larger social, political, economic, and material context.1 As scholars such as Peter McDonald and Andrew van der Vlies have argued, literary scholars need to (re)consider the historical context which influenced the production and reception of the texts they examine.2

The key threads in South Africa’s publishing history can be traced to influences operating outside publishing: the influence of colonial governance, followed by the nationalist government and its apartheid system, and then the post-apartheid influence of transformation. All these factors reveal ongoing attempts by the government of the day to regulate and control publishing and the circulation of information. The extent of government involvement may be seen from the extremes of censorship and book banning to the milder but no less influential impact of state policies on educational textbook procurement.

The development of education is thus also an important influence on the development of publishing in South Africa. The rise in literacy rates, in particular, affects readership and book-buying patterns. Literacy has often been seen as diametrically opposed to orality, but we should instead consider literacy in terms of a spectrum of abilities, which often overlaps with oral modes of understanding and communicating. From this perspective, “print literacy” was not simply transplanted into the African context and did not erase the oral culture that already existed, but was “translated, interpreted, recontextualized, and re-embedded in a range of ways by local people.”3 This is a salutary reminder when considering the first encounters with print culture in South Africa.

The Earliest Printing

In the first instance, South African publishing was shaped by its colonial history. This has left a lasting imprint, both in the ongoing involvement of multinationals in the publishing scene, and in the use of English (and to some extent Afrikaans). South Africa—or at least the Cape—was governed by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie; VOC) from 1652 to 1795. Before print technology came to South Africa, there was some evidence of reading culture among the employees of the VOC and settlers. This was based on imported materials, and the literate population was for a long time dependent on Europe for books and other publications. However, it has been suggested that “insofar as there was a reading or intellectual culture at the Cape, it was to be found among the administrative elite in the service of the VOC,” while “in general, books were considered luxury items and . . . reading anything but religious material was restricted to the social elite.”4 Reading was thus an elite activity, closely controlled. However, in spite of this control, reading historian Archie Dick has shown that books also made their way into the hands of non-elites, such as slaves.5

In contrast to developments in many other colonies, the first printing presses in South Africa were not established by missionaries, but by the colonial governors. The VOC resisted the importing of a printing press for many years, in spite of pleas from the settlers. Eventually, in 1784, a German printer, Johann Christian Ritter, was appointed as a bookbinder and printer at the Cape. On his small, portable printing press, he produced ephemeral documents such as handbills, government notices, and maps for the VOC, as well as almanacs—the oldest surviving printed document is his Almanach voor’t jaar 1796. The first book printed in South Africa, by V. A. Schoonberg, was probably printed on Ritter’s press.6

The British occupation that followed Dutch governance led to a new dispensation. Although Ritter requested that his position be continued, and other printers also petitioned for printing rights, only a large trading company, Walker and Robertson, was granted permission to import printing works. The company, which was associated with the trade in slaves among other commodities, was authorized to produce a weekly government gazette as of August 1800. This was the bilingual Kaapsche Stads Courant or Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser, which aimed “to publish the various Political, Military and Naval Occurrences passing in Europe, India, or Elsewhere; together with Colonial Advertisements and Occurrences, more immediately interesting to the Inhabitants” (to quote their masthead).

The spread of printing in South Africa is related to various waves of settlement and expansion. Once the British eased the monopoly on printing rights, a number of missionary societies started to import printing presses, for instance at Bethelsdorp (around 1815), Griquatown (1821), Chumie (now Lovedale, 1824), and Kuruman (1831). They aimed to produce Bibles and other religious texts, but also educational books, primers, and sometimes more entertaining material such as hymns or fiction. The earliest printed product was a spelling table, produced by the London Mission Society at Graaff Reinet in 1801.7 The mission presses played a significant part in setting the local languages down in writing, and in printing and publishing the first books in these languages. For example, the missionaries at Chumie, near Lovedale, first published in isiXhosa in 1823, while Robert Moffat’s press in Kuruman produced the first Bible in Setswana.8 While there has been some debate on the ethics and accuracy of the orthographies of the missionaries, these mission presses have had a lasting impact on the national publishing industry, and especially literature in the indigenous languages; as Jeff Peires points out, “The fact is that the mass of the vernacular literature published in the past emanated, and still to-day emanates, from missionary presses, and naturally such literature has sought to fulfil the aims of missionary societies.”9 Tim White supports this contention, referring to the specific influence of Lovedale Press: “[Director] Shepherd was to exercise enormous influence in the development and spread of African writing in South Africa, and under him the Lovedale Press was to become one of the key purveyors of the ideas which contributed to the growth of an African consciousness.”10

The next group to have a real impact on print culture in South Africa was the British settlers who moved into the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, and Natal from the 1820s. Their printing presses were used to start up the first newspapers. The first periodical in South Africa was the government gazette, established in 1800. It was followed by the South African Commercial Advertiser, privately printed by George Greig, and edited by Thomas Pringle and John Fairbairn, in 1824. At the same time, the South African Chronicle and Mercantile Advertiser, printed by William Bridekirk, was also established in 1824. These newspapers immediately met with resistance and a clampdown on press freedom by the governor. The struggle of the printers and editors to produce their papers and freely circulate information eventually led to the declaration of a free press in South Africa in 1829. The number of commercial printers grew rapidly after this, and publishing spread along the coast, to all of the burgeoning urban centers of the colony.

This also led to an expansion of the readership, as publications started to be produced for a variety of different target audiences. In 1830, the first newspaper for a Dutch or proto-Afrikaans audience was founded by Christoffel Brand, De Zuid-Afrikaan. The first newspapers for a black readership were published by the mission presses later that decade, with Umshumayeli Wendaba (Publisher of the News) appearing from 1837 and Ikwezi (Morning Star) from 1844. John Tengo Jabavu, who started Imvo Zabantsundu (African Opinion) in 1884, was the first black owner of a newspaper, although he was supported by white capital.

The Settler Presses

Apart from newspapers, the early presses did produce some books and other materials, but Anna Smith notes that, “Until the discovery of gold, and the consequent influx of people, the demand for products of the printing press was extremely small and was largely satisfied by importing from Holland and Britain.”11 The early print quality was reportedly not very good, and paper supplies were highly problematic until the establishment of manufacturer Sappi, although The South African Chronicle of 1824 noted that Cape printing was superior to that of India or New South Wales.12 The earliest books are mostly rather small in size, and aimed very narrowly at the local market.

There is some controversy over the identity of the earliest book produced in early Afrikaans. It appears not to be Zamenspraak tussen Klaas Waarzegger en jan Twijfelaar by Louis Meurant from 1861, as previously thought, as his work is predated by a Muslim work written in Ajami script—a phenomenon known locally as “Arabic-Afrikaans.”13 This work has provisionally been identified as either the Hidayat al-Islam of 1854 or as Ahmad al-Ishmuni’s 1856 Kitab al-Qawl al-Matin (“Die betroubare woord” or “The book on the firm bond”).14 However, with no extant copies of these works, the earliest existing work in Arabic-Afrikaans is Abu Bakr Effendi’s Bayan al-Din (“Uiteensetting van die Godsdiens” or “Explanations of the Religion”), printed in Constantinople in 1877. These Islamic networks and influences still require further study.

The first secular settler press was set up by Jan Carel Juta, who emigrated from the Netherlands and opened a bookshop in Cape Town in 1853. He started publishing soon afterwards, with a short political work by A. N. E. Changuion, and later went on to support some of the most prominent journals in South Africa as well as specializing in educational and academic books.15 Juta and Company remains one of South Africa’s best-known academic publishers today. A further important press was established by a British settler, Thomas Maskew Miller, who emigrated from the United Kingdom and set up a publishing house focused on schoolbooks in 1893. In 1896, the Central News Agency (CNA) was established, as both a bookseller and publisher; the CNA soon set up an excellent book distribution network in all the main urban centers. The following year, in 1897, Jacques Dousseau of Amsterdam began to publish in Cape Town, first under his own name and then as the Hollandsch-Afrikaansche Uitgevers-Maatschappij (HAUM) from 1894. HAUM’s aim was “om goede Hollandsche lectuur tegen lagen prijs in Zuid-Afrika te verspreiden” (“to distribute good Dutch reading material in South Africa at low prices”). They went on to publish some of the most significant Afrikaans writers in the 20th century, such as C. J. Langenhoven and D. J. Opperman.

After the Great Trek in the 1830s, which saw Dutch settlers moving away from British influence into the interior, print technology also spread to what would become the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Both Voortrekkers and new Dutch settlers would play an important role in establishing further local presses. In 1863, the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek (Transvaal) started publishing the Staats Courant in Pretoria. Shortly afterwards, Charles William Deecker set up as the first publisher in the Transvaal, also based in Pretoria. J. H. de Bussy, who had run a successful bookshop, press and publishing house in Amsterdam, set up a Dutch bookshop in Pretoria after 1896, followed by branches in the newly established city of Johannesburg and in Cape Town. These continued to operate even during the various conflicts between the British and the Boers, including the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), although these conflicts disrupted the trade in books and other products.

The rise of Afrikaner nationalism was closely linked with the promotion of Afrikaans as a distinct language. After the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, a distinct emphasis on Afrikaans publishing and state support arose. In 1914, a decision was made that Afrikaans was to be taught in schools at primary level; by 1918, it was a university-level subject. In each case, the schools required materials to be produced, which meant a good business opportunity for printers and publishers. E. C. Pienaar suggested in 1919 that “Suid-Afrika is egter nie rijk aan ondernemende uitgewers nie” (“South Africa does not have a wealth of enterprising publishers”), but this was soon to change.16 One of the most enterprising of the new publishers and booksellers was J. L. van Schaik, who emigrated from the Netherlands in 1914 and set up business in Pretoria. In Cape Town, Nasionale Pers was established in 1915 to publish the newspaper Die Burger, followed shortly afterwards by magazines such as Die Huisgenoot and then by books. Maskew Miller was also very active in producing Afrikaans schoolbooks, once the primary schools had opened. Afrikaans was also deliberately promoted through cultural awards, such as the Hertzog Prize, which was first awarded to a Van Schaik title in 1917 (Jochen van Bruggen’s Teleurgestel).17

Apart from English-language schoolbooks, the English-speaking market was still largely catered to by imports from Europe. The most significant local writers were also still being published overseas, mostly in London, as can be seen in the example of Olive Schreiner. Her now classic novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883), was published by Chapman & Hall using the pseudonym Ralph Iron. With few local trade publishers, and competition from the British publishing industry, which retained strong ties with South Africa as a market, many of the most prominent English-speaking authors were published in London, at least until the end of World War II. Local publishing was seen as a poor second-best option; as Bill Kerr of Longman’s said, “if a novel is worth publishing at all, it is worth publishing in England for the world market.”18 Percy FitzPatrick’s Jock of the Bushveld was published by Longmans, Green & Co in London in 1907, and Alan Paton’s iconic novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, was published by Charles Scribner & Co in London in 1948.

However, even though there was not yet much local publishing, as Corinne Sandwith has shown, there was a vigorous and public discussion of literature and culture in South African magazines and newspapers in the early decades of the 20th century—and this was not confined to whites only.19 Newspapers in particular were used as the basis for “textual circuits,” as a public, political medium to facilitate intellectual exchange.20 This period thus saw the publication of the first black writers, many of whom were members of a mission-educated elite group now known as the “New Africans.” This group saw themselves as part of an international intellectual movement and were influenced by figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. For instance, Sol Plaatje, who was a newspaper editor and journalist in addition to being a significant politician, published Native Life in South Africa in Scotland in 1916, following this with his novel Mhudi in 1930.21 The mission presses also published some of the new black writers locally, both in English and in indigenous languages. For instance, in 1928, Lovedale produced the first novel in English by a Zulu writer, R. R. R. Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy, as well as the first play, The Girl Who Killed to Save, by his brother, Herbert Dhlomo, in 1936. Thomas Mofolo worked at the Sesotho Book Deposit in Morija and had begun publishing works in Sesotho at Morija from about 1907, including his masterpiece Chaka in 1925. An English translation was published in England in 1931. Similarly, Magema Fuze both worked at the mission press at Marianhill under Bishop Colenso, and published his works there, as did John Dube.22 But the work of the mission presses came to an abrupt end with the institution of apartheid policies after 1948.

Apartheid and Its Legacy

The impact of apartheid was both repressive and productive. On the one hand, legislation intended to foster separate development and support dissent had a negative impact on the production and circulation of books, especially those critical of government policies. In particular, the censorship laws of 1963 (amended in 1974) greatly affected what could be published, what was considered “undesirable,” and what kinds of people acquired skills in publishing-related areas. In addition, a number of significant writers were forced to leave South Africa, including Peter Abrahams and Es’kia Mphahlele. On the other hand, the relative isolation of South Africa and the support for Afrikaans led to the growth of local publishing houses, especially in the area of educational publishing.

Some argue that the academic and cultural boycotts of the 1970s and 1980s and the promotion of Afrikaans strengthened publishing in South Africa—especially at the so-called “big three,” HAUM-De Jager, Perskor (through its subsidiary Educum), and Naspers. State-sponsored educational publishing thrived, as the policies of separate development required numerous separate educational systems, each of which required different kinds of schoolbooks.23 This meant that, in addition to the “big three,” the schoolbook market enabled the growth of smaller publishers such as Juta, Shuter & Shooter, Via Afrika, and Maskew Miller. While some foreign publishers disinvested rather than supported the apartheid government, others, such as Heinemann and Longman, remained—the latter in partnership with Maskew Miller after 1983. This small group monopolized the list of approved books for schools, and some scholars have revealed that the writers, school inspectors, and publishers had unprecedented power over what kinds of work could be published.24 In particular, for African languages, the educational market was key, to the extent that many fiction writers could only find a publisher if they wrote a book considered suitable for the prescription market. As a result, the educational department played a disproportionate role in shaping the themes and even the writing of African-language fiction.

Trade publishing, too, grew after the end of World War II, with Howard Timmins, A. A. Balkema and Cornelis Struik all running successful businesses. Timmins published the travel writing of Lawrence Green from 1945 to 1972, whose books were extremely popular and sold many thousands of copies. Balkema was a Dutch immigrant who published many prominent Afrikaans authors, including C. Louis Leipoldt and the controversial Jan Rabie.25 He also had a huge influence on the design and typography used in South African books, and introduced new typesetting technology to the country. Struik became known for coffee-table and non-fiction books. Afrikaans publishers such as Tafelberg and Human & Rousseau were also established in the 1950s and 1960s, specifically to provide a platform for a new generation of writers. Mike Kantey suggests, though, that in spite of this proliferation, “the greatest profits from this period up to the present were made by the Nasionale Group [i.e., Naspers],” and their political influence even extended to support President B. J. Vorster.26 Naspers later absorbed publishers such as Tafelberg and Human & Rousseau, growing its stable of imprints and its reach still further. At this time, most black writers were either being published overseas or in newspaper and magazine outlets, as the range of outlets open to them was narrow and prescriptive. Drum was probably the most significant and influential of these magazines, and is certainly the best known today, but there were also periodicals such as Trek and South African Opinion. Some prominent black writers were also published in local series including Wits University Press’s Bantu (later African) Treasury Series.27

Most of this kind of publishing was deliberately non-political, an editorial decision which took on even greater importance after the introduction of censorship legislation. The experience of Oxford University Press (OUP) in South Africa illustrates censorship and its effects. OUP had a presence in South Africa from the early years of the 20th century, and developed a reputation for quality, liberal texts, as well as producing textbooks for black schools. Their policies changed markedly after the Oxford History of South Africa was published in 1971. In this book, Leo Kuper’s chapter on “African nationalism in South Africa, 1910–1964,” given its theme and focus, unavoidably quoted many banned people and publications, and OUP feared that the book would be banned as a result. The publisher’s decision was to print two separate editions: while the international edition included the chapter by Kuper on African nationalism, the local edition contained fifty-three blank pages where his chapter should have been.28 Kuper complained vociferously that OUP adopted “the self-appointed role of surrogate censor.”29 Writers such as André P. Brink and J. M. Coetzee would take a similar perspective in criticizing the repressive effects of the censorship legislation on their own work.30

This case also had a direct effect on the publishing world, in that, after this time, an important group of oppositional, or anti-apartheid, publishers emerged, including David Philip (who left OUP after the debacle to set up his own press), Ravan Press, Ad Donker, and, later, Skotaville. A number of “little magazines” was also established, which became an important alternative platform for writing that was critical of apartheid. Through its books and the literary magazine Staffrider, Ravan in particular became the center of oppositional publishing during the 1970s and 1980s. Their mission was explicitly critical and political: “We are part of that section of South African society engaged in changing the present social system . . . we aim to produce books that inform the struggle in the present . . . and create a climate in which the new society can be discussed.”31 Unlike the mainstream South African publishers, they faced the risks of police harassment and bans. Ravan was also responsible, along with David Philip, for publishing the first black women writers, including Miriam Tlali, Gladys Thomas, and Sindiwe Magona (and republishing Noni Jabavu).

South Africa’s two Nobel Prize laureates for literature, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, are both associated with oppositional publishers, as well as publishing overseas. For example, Gordimer published The Black Interpreters with Ravan in 1973, and ensured that her later novel July’s People was co-published by Ravan and the small Afrikaans alternative publisher, Taurus. Thereafter, throughout the worst of the political repression of the 1980s, Taurus would co-publish—either with Ravan Press or David Philip—Gordimer’s Something Out There (1984), The Essential Gesture (1988), and My Son’s Story (1990).32 Coetzee published his debut novel, Dusklands, with Ravan Press in 1974, and even though he then switched to Secker & Warburg as his primary publisher for his ensuing novels, he retained a close relationship with Ravan and ensured that local editions would be published through them for as long as possible.33

This kind of censorship seemed to bypass the Afrikaans publishing establishment for some time—at least, until the banning of Brink’s novel Kennis van die Aand in 1974 and Etienne Leroux’s novel Magersfontein, O Magersfontein! in 1978. Although the writing of the Sestigers group was considered quite challenging and iconoclastic, it had been passed by the censors before this date. Rudi Venter argues that, on the whole, Afrikaans writers felt “great pressure to conform to Afrikaner values, which exerted a strong measure of pre-publication social control.”34 The bans were highly controversial, and led to a great deal of internal debate in Afrikaner literary and cultural circles. They also heightened opposition to censorship, and unified what had previously been quite disparate and unorganized anti-censorship and anti-apartheid groups. It has been suggested that the controversy around these novels may have provided additional marketing, bringing them to a much wider, worldwide audience than they may otherwise have found so quickly. As a result, even more mainstream publishers began to produce more experimental and explicitly political work in the 1980s.35

However, in spite of this growing liberalization, Afrikaans and other mainstream publishers were shielded from global economic or market forces, and thus remained artificially strong during the apartheid period.36 This position was shaken in the post-apartheid period.

The Transitional Period

After 1994, the era of state censorship ended, and freedom of expression was enshrined in the constitution. The cultural boycott came to an end, and South African businesses—including publishers—started to be welcomed back into the international community. There was a great deal of anticipation and renewed hope. Publishers, anticipating a boom, recruited new staff and turned their attention to new possibilities for government or educational publishing. But what really changed?

The 1990s turned out to be a far harder decade for publishing than expected. A general economic downturn and recession was accompanied by the drying up of foreign funding after 1990. Just as the anti-apartheid struggle came to an end, so too interest in South African politics declined, and donor funding was redirected elsewhere, such as the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe. The opening up of South Africa also led to the re-entry of international publishers and an increase in competition. But perhaps the most significant disappointment lies in the hopes for a political transition—those publishers that had opposed apartheid all along harbored hopes for a changed industry and improved relationships with a new, African National Congress (ANC)-led government. These hopes were dashed by the new government continuing relationships with the same publishers and multinationals, amid rumors of collusion and even bribery. Publishers made a deliberate attempt to reposition themselves to take advantage of the new dispensation. Glenn Moss, director of Ravan Press, complained: “Historically discredited players who only a few short years ago talked the language of Christian National Education suddenly present themselves as torch-bearers of liberation, democracy and progressive education. The capital which they accumulated on the back of Bantu Education and privileged relationships with educational departments is now being poured into advertising campaigns proclaiming their commitment to a new social order.”37 Ironically, it was the smaller oppositional publishers that did not survive the drying up of funding and the repositioning required by the new market and political forces.

While the full money trail has not yet been exposed, it is clear that a number of “sweetheart” black empowerment deals was negotiated at the time of the transition to ensure access to the lucrative school textbook market. In 1993, Thebe Investment Corporation, the independent trading arm of the ANC, entered into a textbook supply arrangement with the British multinational company Macmillan, with some involvement from the oppositional publisher Skotaville. This deal saw the establishment of Nolwazi Educational Publishers. Similarly, HAUM was bought by a black empowerment group in 1994 and renamed Kagiso. These deals were seen as controversial from the start, a new form of patronage, because the publishers were seeking a direct line of communication with the new government. This was supported by Macmillan’s new branding of the time: “Publishing to serve.” While some new staff members felt it was a unique opportunity for black people to contribute meaningfully to the publishing industry and to curriculum development, publishing management largely remained (and remains) white. Editorial policies did not really change, even as the marketing teams became more diverse. English and Afrikaans are still privileged, and more than 95 percent of books are published in those languages.

The acquisitions of these publishing houses were not only politically motivated, but also economically, and can be seen as part of a worldwide trend toward consolidation. This can be seen in the mergers that saw the decline of Perskor, while its great rival Naspers went from strength to strength. Perskor made a string of poor decisions in the 1990s, and its failing fortunes forced it to merge with Kagiso Publishers in 1997. Just a year later, the Caxton newspaper and media group (which by then owned Maskew Miller Longman) bought out the merged group. This company is now owned by the education giant, Pearson. In contrast, Naspers steadily acquired many of the most significant Afrikaans trade publishers, including Tafelberg, Human & Rousseau, and Van Schaik, and diversified into television and internet service provision, becoming one of the largest media companies in the country.38

The newly merged and repositioned publishers did not face an easy transition themselves. In 1997 and 1998, state funding for textbooks halted while the government planned the introduction of a new curriculum. At the same time, there was disruption in the bookselling sector, as the CNA chain stopped book purchases for part of 1998 and later had to liquidate. As a result of these disruptions to their revenue streams, many publishing companies were forced to downsize. The industry’s dependence on educational publishing and on the government as the primary book buyer remains the biggest risk factor for its growth and sustainability.

Twenty-First-Century Challenges

Publishing is a small industry with highly dedicated staff, good quality writing, and excellent production values. However, the industry is characterized by the fact that it does not reflect the demographic makeup of South Africa. It caters predominantly for a limited segment of the market—mainly the white market, in English and Afrikaans—despite the fact that these constitute only a small percentage of the total population. This market is also mostly middle class, has a certain level of disposable income as well as access to suburban shopping malls and online bookselling. (Online or digital sales have not broadened the market so much as opening up new sales channels for the existing market.) The industry itself is still not representative of the diversity of the population, in spite of broad-based black economic empowerment and attempts at transformation. Market viability, and not ideology, determines what will be published. However, a few enterprising booksellers and publishers are showing that there is a potentially considerable market among black readers. The impact of this racial imbalance—what K. Young has called “black writers, white publishers” in the US context—has not yet been examined in detail.39

Some issues include digital disruptions, small market pressures within a global marketplace, and disproportionate government influence (because of the dominance of textbook publishing), such as the ongoing threat of state publishing or much narrower selection and approval policies. Government departments, especially those dealing with education, continue to deal with publishers in a high-handed, even hostile manner, treating them as interchangeable service providers rather than partners in creating learning materials. (It is ironic that the government has paid so little attention to the local industry even while lending high-profile support to projects such as the preservation of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu.40) Continuous curriculum redesign has kept the industry busy but has meant high upfront investments and relatively low returns throughout the post-apartheid period.

With such a small local market, there is ongoing dominance of multinationals in schoolbook publishing, even with significant local ownership and input. At the same time, trade publishing is overwhelmed by imports, up to about 80 percent. In addition, there remain low rates of publishing and reading in local languages. The 2016 National Reading Survey shows that about 14 percent of South Africans are committed, regular book readers, with another 13 percent reading occasionally (as many as 73 percent of the population have “low potential” for reading).41 The industry needs to diversify if it is to remain sustainable.

Discussion of the Literature

Publishing history is a very small area of research in South Africa, although there has been increasing interest in studies of the broader social and material context for literary works. Already in 1997, Nicholas Visser suggested that academic discourse of South African literary history and literature had been “eloquent on discursive practices and conditions, but had largely been silent about material and social conditions and political praxis.”42 Sarah Nuttall notes, too, that “South African literature and the literary archive has been badly served by the mixture of belles-lettristic and New Critical formative pedagogical influences that paid little attention to the materiality and context of texts.”43 Nonetheless, a number of strands can be identified in the study of this area.44

Publishing studies worldwide is still developing as a field of study and is still dogged by a reputation for non-scholarly work, such as memoirs or anecdotal surveys, by practitioners rather than scholars. In South Africa, this is certainly still a problem, although it is slowly changing. For instance, Eric Rosenthal wrote one of the first historical overviews of publishing in South Africa, but although it was published in an academic journal and the author was a well-known historian, the article is not very scholarly and has no references.45 A. S. C. Hooper wrote a similar, very concise, overview of the history of publishing in South Africa, as did the publisher Ad Donker.46 The closest we have to a comprehensive survey of trends in South African publishing is Nicholas Evans and Monica Seeber’s The Politics of Publishing in South Africa, a landmark text, although it is limited in scope and coverage.47 In addition, there is a group of studies focusing on Afrikaans publishing houses, such as an important multivolume study of Nasionale Pers and the imprints that fall under its umbrella.48 Venter’s study of the material production of Afrikaans fiction has created production and publisher profiles, which could be a fertile source for future studies in this area.49 Research by historians, linguists, and literary scholars examining African-language texts has revealed many details of the missionary presses and their role in providing a publishing platform, especially for black authors.50 However, there has as yet not been a single in-depth study of a black publishing house, and the impact of South Africa’s settlers on publishing could still benefit from further elucidation. South African print and publishing history has also barely been inserted into a broader African framework, but that is in part a result of the paucity of research on book and publishing history in other African countries.

In terms of literary histories, there are some with a book history slant, as well as publishing histories of certain individual authors and titles, but more often such studies tend to focus on textual analysis. The focus in local literary studies has been for a number of years on the text rather than the book, looking at themes, genres, and authors. Publishing, it emerges from such studies, is something authors do. Their focus is thus on authorship rather than publication, production, or readership.

Nonetheless, some significant work on publishing history has been done by literary scholars—in fact, the majority of existing publishing histories focus on literary publishing, even though it is such a small subsector in terms of total publishing output. The first of these is Isabel Hofmeyr’s groundbreaking transnational study of A Pilgrim’s Progress, titled The Portable Bunyan, which traces the circulation and translation of this work through African countries, and also considers the interplay between oral and literate modes of communicating.51 She has followed this up with studies of print culture in other transnational spaces, including Gandhi’s printing press.52 The link between print culture and censorship is also of great value for understanding publishing in repressive contexts. In particular, Peter McDonald’s The Literature Police examines the effects of censorship on literary production, with detailed accounts of the involvement and value of the publishing industry.53 Similarly, Rob Gaylard’s study of short stories by black writers is exemplary in his effort to provide a holistic social, cultural, and publishing context for these authors.54 Van der Vlies has produced interesting work on South Africa’s “textual culture,” as well as studies of the publishing or reception history of specific literary texts by writers such as J. M. Coetzee and Alan Paton.55 There is still a divide between studies of literary history in different languages, however, which is why we find separate studies of Afrikaans publishing (but only a very few of other African languages).56 For instance, Van Coller has attempted to integrate the concepts of readership and reception theory into his history of Afrikaans fiction, using a conceptualization of systems and field theory that sees South African literary publishing as a series of interconnected circuits or subfields: “A bone of contention is whether a literary history should be concerned primarily with the authors of works, and with forming them into ‘chronologically and causally linked bio-bibliographical collections.’ Should literary history not rather be concerned with the reception of texts in a historical context, in order to identify principles of evolutionary literary development?”57

A common methodology in such literary studies is the use of case studies, often to illuminate the work of a specific author. There are thus multiple case studies of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, and of individual authors such as Alan Paton and J. M. Coetzee.58 In Afrikaans, Irma du Plessis has explicitly situated her study of a youth series by Stella Blakemore within the relationship between the author and publisher J. L. van Schaik.59 Publishing histories of African-language titles are often closely bound up with studies of the mission presses, as they were so active in developing this field.60 Issues relating to scholarly editing and editorial version have also emerged, although there is certainly scope for more reflective work in this regard. Such studies include an investigation of the versions of Sol Plaatje’s novel Mhudi; Lady Anne Barnard’s diaries; and the poets Douglas Livingstone and Roy Campbell.61

A related area of interest is that of reception, reading practices, and circulation. There are important studies of reading societies, such as the National Home Reading Union, Groenberg Reading and Debating Society, and of reading groups, as well as smaller studies of the reading habits of ordinary South Africans. Archie Dick, originally a scholar of library history, is one of the forerunners in this field.62 He has shown that our understanding of who reads, and who reads what, is still colored by a focus on elites, and that this needs to be extended to find instances of reading in unintended and unexpected places—such as among slave groups, prisoners, or domestic workers. Distribution remains understudied, although Rachel Matteau has done an interesting study of the circulation of banned books in the apartheid era.63 Studies of reading, rather than readership, tend to be snapshots of a particular moment in time, while historians prefer to examine the networks that develop around a particular publication.64

But, as this brief review shows, scholars have barely scratched the surface of this area of study. There is a real need to expand the scope of publishing histories to include further analysis of the development of non-literary publishing, and especially educational publishing. Moreover, this area is still plagued by assumptions, by conclusions based on inadequate evidence, and by a dismissal by literary scholars still concerned with close readings of texts in isolation of their production context. A significant problem in this area appears to be the location and preservation of publishers’ archives, which have been scattered by mergers and acquisitions, poor record-keeping practices, scant regard for their importance to scholars, and natural disasters such as fires. Therefore, there remains much work to be done before a better understanding of how publishing evolved in South Africa, and how that permitted or prevented authors from circulating their work to readers is attained.

Further Reading

  • Dick, Archie. The Hidden History of South Africa’s book and reading cultures. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
  • Evans, Nicholas, and Monica Seeber, eds. The Politics of Publishing in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 2000.
  • Hofmeyr, Isabel. The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Hofmeyr, Isabel. Gandhi’s Printing Press. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Hofmeyr, Isabel, and Lize Kriel. “Book History in Southern Africa: What Is It and Why Should It Interest Historians?” South African Historical Journal 55, no. 1 (2006): 1–19.
  • le Roux, Elizabeth. “The Accidental Growth of Book History: A Literature Review of Print Culture and Book History Studies in South Africa.” Mousaion 30, no. 1 (2012): 39–64.
  • McDonald, Peter. The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Sandwith, Corinne. World of Letters: Reading Communities and Cultural Debates in Early Apartheid South Africa. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2014.
  • Van der Vlies, Andrew, ed. Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa. Johannesburg, South Africa: Wits University Press, 2012.


  • 1. Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1993).

  • 2. Peter McDonald, “Implicit Structures and Explicit Interactions: Pierre Bourdieu and the History of the Book,” The Library 19, no. 2 (June 1997): 107–121; Andrew van der Vlies, “Introduction: The Institutions of South African Literature,” English Studies in Africa 47, no. 1 (2004): 1–15.

  • 3. Mastin Prinsloo, “Literacy and Land at the Bay of Natal: Documents and Practices across Spaces and Social Economies,” English in Africa 35, no. 1 (2008): 99.

  • 4. Adrien Delmas and Nigel Penn, eds., Written Culture in the Colonial Context (Cape Town, South Africa: University of Cape Town Press, 2011), 324–325.

  • 5. Archie L. Dick, The Hidden History of South Africa’s book and reading cultures (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

  • 6. The best early source for this is A. C. G. Lloyd, The Birth of Printing in South Africa (London: Alexander Moring, 1914).

  • 7. Anna Smith, The Spread of Printing. Eastern Hemisphere. South Africa (Amsterdam: Van Gendt and Co, 1971), 53.

  • 8. See, for instance, Jeff Opland, “The Publication of A.C. Jordan’s Xhosa Novel, Ingqumbo Yeminyanya,” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 4 (1990): 135; Frank Bradlow, Printing for Africa: The Story of Robert Moffat and the Kuruman Press (Kuruman, South Africa: Kuruman Moffat Mission Trust, 1987).

  • 9. Jeff Peires, “Lovedale Press: Literature for the Bantu Revisited,” English in Africa 7, no. 1 (1980): 71–85.

  • 10. T. White, “The Lovedale Press during the Directorship of R.H.W. Shepherd, 1930–1955,” English in Africa 19, no. 2 (1992): 69.

  • 11. Smith, Spread of Printing, 27.

  • 12. Smith, Spread of Printing, 45.

  • 13. M. Haron, “The Making, Preservation and Study of South African Ajami Mss and Texts,” Sudanic Africa 12 (2001): 1–14.

  • 14. Adrianus Van Selms, “Die Oudste Boek in Afrikaans: Isjmoeni se ‘Betroubare Woord,’ ” Hertzog Annale van die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap and Kuns (1953): 61–103; and Achmat Davids, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims (From 1815 to 1915) (Pretoria, South Africa: Protea Book House, 2011).

  • 15. W. de Kock, The House of Juta. Volume 1: Pioneer Publisher, 1853–1903 (Cape Town, South Africa: Juta, 2007).

  • 16. E. C. Pienaar, Taal en poësie van die tweede Afrikaanse taalbeweging (Pretoria, South Africa: De Bussy-HAUM, 1919).

  • 17. Elizabeth le Roux, “The Early Years of a Dutch Publisher in South Africa: A Case Study of Van Schaik in Pretoria,” Image & Text 25 (2015): 86–109; W. D. Beukes and J. C. Steyn, eds., Boekewêreld: die Nasionale Pers in die uitgewersbedryf tot 1990 (Cape Town, South Africa: Nasionale Boekhandel, 1992); W. D. Beukes, ed., Oor grense heen: op pad na ‘n nasionale pers, 1948–1990 (Cape Town, South Africa: Nasionale Boekhandel, 1992).

  • 18. Bill Kerr, quoted in Philip G. Altbach and Edith S. Hoshino, eds., International Book Publishing: An Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 1995), 417.

  • 19. Corinne Sandwith, World of Letters: Reading Communities and Cultural Debates in Early Apartheid South Africa (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2014).

  • 20. Isabel Hofmeyr, “Books in Heaven: Dreams, Texts and Conspicuous Circulation,” Current Writing 18, no. 2 (2006): 36–49.

  • 21. Plaatje was also the first general secretary of the South African Native National Congress, the forerunner of the ANC. For a more detailed treatment of his landmark work that can be included here, see Bhekizizwe Peterson, Brian Willan, and Janet Remmington, eds., Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present (Johannesburg, South Africa: Wits Press, 2016).

  • 22. Hlonipha Mokoena, Magema Fuze: The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011).

  • 23. Caroline Davis, “Histories of Publishing under Apartheid: Oxford University Press in South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 37, no. 1 (2011): 79–98.

  • 24. See, for instance, Nhlanhla P. Maake, “A Survey of Trends in the Development of African Language Literatures in South Africa: With Specific Reference to Written Southern Sotho Literature, c.1900–1970s,” African Languages and Cultures 5, no. 2 (2011): 157–188; and Viv Edwards and Jacob Ngwaru “Multilingual Education in South Africa: The Role of Publishers,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 32, no. 5 (2011): 435–450.

  • 25. Rabie was controversial for many reasons, but the most prominent was his leadership of the Sestigers literary movement and its rejection of contemporary Afrikaans literary norms and standards.

  • 26. Mike Kantey, “Publishing in South Africa,” Africa Bibliography 1989 (1990): vi–xx.

  • 27. Elizabeth le Roux, “Black Writers, White Publishers: A Case Study of the Bantu Treasury Series in South Africa,” E-Rea 11, no. 1 (Fall 2013).

  • 28. David Philip, “Oppositional Publishing in South Africa from 1945 to 2000,” Logos 2, no. 1 (1991): 41–48.

  • 29. Leo Kuper, “Censorship by Proxy,” Index on Censorship (September 1975): 50.

  • 30. A. P. Brink, “Censorship and the Author,” Critical Arts 1, no. 2 (1980): 16–33.

  • 31. Quoted in Isabel Essery, “The Impact of Politics on Indigenous Independent Publishers in South Africa from 1970–2004. Illustrated by a Case Study of David Philip Publishers” (MA diss., Oxford Brookes University, 2004), 31.

  • 32. Andries Oliphant, Celebrating Nadine Gordimer (New York: Viking, 1998).

  • 33. Hermann Wittenberg, “The Taint of the Censor: J. M. Coetzee and the Making of ‘In the Heart of the Country,’ ” English in Africa 35, no. 2 (2008): 133–150.

  • 34. Rudi Venter, “Inventing an Alternative through Oppositional Publishing: Afrikaans Alternative Book Publishing in Apartheid South Africa–the Publishing House Taurus (1975–1991) as Case Study,” Innovation 35 (December 2007): 86–114.

  • 35. Barnard provides the example of Andre Letoit who was published by Perskor. See Ian Barnard, “The ‘Tagtigers’?: The (Un) Politics of Language in the ‘New’ Afrikaans Fiction,” Research in African Literatures 23, no. 4 (Winter, 1992): 77–95.

  • 36. Francis Galloway, “Hoe gesond is die Afrikaanse akademiese uitgewersbedryf?,” LitNet (July 2014).

  • 37. Glenn Moss, “Educational Publishing in South Africa,” African Publishing Review (1993): 5.

  • 38. Francis Galloway, “Statistical Trends in South African Book Publishing During the 1990s,” Alternation 9, no. 1 (2002): 204–225.

  • 39. John K. Young, Black Writers, White Publishers (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).

  • 40. See Caroline Davis and David Johnson, eds., The Book in Africa: Critical Debates (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and especially the chapter “Making book history in Timbuktu” (pp. 83–102) by Shamil Jeppie, for more on this project.

  • 41. South African Book Development Council, National Reading Survey (Cape Town: SABDC, 2016).

  • 42. Nick Visser, “Postcoloniality of a Special Type: Theory and its Appropriations in South Africa,” Yearbook of English Studies 27 (1997): 89.

  • 43. Sarah Nuttall, “Literature and the Archive: The Biography of Texts,” in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton et al. (Cape Town, South Africa: David Philip, 2002), 283. See also Margriet can der Waal, “A Rose by any Other Name Does NOT Smell as Sweet: A Literary Sociological Approach to Literary Disputes,” Stilet 20, no. 2 (2008): 103–124.

  • 44. For a more detailed literature review, see Elizabeth le Roux, “The Accidental Growth of Book History: A Literature Review of Print Culture and Book History Studies in South Africa,” Mousaion 30, no. 1 (2012): 39–64.

  • 45. Eric Rosenthal, “Trends in South African Publishing,” English Studies in Africa 13, no. 1 (1970): 275–290.

  • 46. A. S. C. Hooper, “History of the South African Publishing and Book Trade,” in The Love of Books: Proceedings of the Seventh South African Conference of Bibliophiles, ed. P. E. Westra and L. T. Jones (Cape Town: South African Library, 1996); Ad Donker, “English-Language Publishing in South Africa,” English in Africa (1983): 29–35.

  • 47. Nicholas Evans and Monica Seeber, eds., The Politics of Publishing in South Africa (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 2000).

  • 48. Including titles by C. F. J. Muller, Sonop in die Suide: Geboorte en groei van die Nasionale Pers, 1915–1948 (Cape Town, South Africa: Nasionale Boekhandel, 1990); C. F. J. Muller and W. D. Beukes, eds., Naspers: ’n Geskiedenis (Cape Town, South Africa: Nasionale Boekhandel, 1990); Beukes, Oor Grense Heen; Beukes and Steyn, Boekewêreld.

  • 49. Rudi Venter, “Die materiële produksie van Afrikaanse fiksie (1990–2005): ’n empiriese ondersoek na die produksieprofiel en uitgeweryprofiel binne die uitgeesisteem” (Ph.D diss., University van Pretoria, 2006).

  • 50. One of the best examples is Lize Kriel’s The Malaboch Books: Kgaluši in the “civilization of the written word” (Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009).

  • 51. Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

  • 52. Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

  • 53. Peter McDonald, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2009). This could be supplemented by Margreet de Lange’s work, The Muzzled Muse: Literature and censorship in South Africa (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins, 1997).

  • 54. Rob Gaylard, “Writing Black: The South African Short Story by Black Writers” (D.Litt diss., University of Stellenbosch, 2008).

  • 55. Andrew van der Vlies, South African Textual Cultures: White, Black, Read All Over (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2007).

  • 56. There are very few publications on the literary history of South Africa’s indigenous languages. An example is Russell Kaschula, “Xhosa Literary History: Towards Transformation in Selected Xhosa Novels,” South African Journal of African Languages 23, no. 2 (2003): 60–76; D. B. Z. Ntuli and C. F. Swanepoel, Southern African Literature in African Languages: A Concise Historical Perspective (Pretoria, South Africa: Acacia, 1993).

  • 57. H. van Coller, “Recently Published South African Literary Histories,” English in Africa 35, no. 1 (2008): 61.

  • 58. One example is Phaswane Mpe, “The Role of the Heinemann African Writers Series in the Development and Promotion of African Literature,” African Studies 58, no. 1 (1999): 105–122; Rita Barnard, “Oprah’s Paton, or South Africa and the Globalization of Suffering,” English Studies in Africa 47, no. 1 (2004): 85–107; Andrew van der Vlies, “Local Writing, ‘Global’ Reading, and the Demands of the ‘Canon’: The Case of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country,” South African Historical Journal 55, no. 1 (2006): 20–32; Clive Barnett, “Constructions of Apartheid in the International Reception of the Novels of J. M. Coetzee,” Journal of Southern African Studies 25 (1999): 287–301; and Jarad Zimbler, “Under Local Eyes: The South African Publishing Context of JM Coetzee’s Foe,” English Studies in Africa 47, no. 1 (2004): 47–59.

  • 59. Irma du Plessis, “Crafting an Apartheid Social Imaginary: Stella Blakemore, J. L. van Schaik Publishers and Problems of Racial Etiquette in the Keurboslaan Series for Boys, 1959–1961,” Stilet 20, no. 2 (2008): 125–158.

  • 60. A few examples include Nhlanhla Maake, “CM Doke and the Development of Bantu Literature,” African Studies 52, no. 2 (1993): 77–88; R. G. S. Makalima, “The First Fifty Years of the Written Literature of Xhosa,” Fort Hare Papers 8, no. 2 (1987): 34–45; Jeff Opland, “Fighting with the Pen: The Appropriation of the Press by Early Xhosa Writers,” in Orality, Literacy, and Colonialism in Southern Africa, ed. J. Draper (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Cluster Publications, 2003), 9–40; and Jeff Opland, “The First Novel in Xhosa,” Research in African Literatures 38, no. 4 (2007): 87–110.

  • 61. Margaret Lenta, “On the Recovery of an Ancient Text: Principles of Editing: The Diaries of Lady Anne Barnard,” Literator (1997); Tim Couzens and Stephen Gray, “Printers’ and Other Devils: The Texts of Sol T. Plaatje’s Mhudi.” Research in African Literatures 9, no. 2 (1978): 198–215; and N. Meihuizen, “Recent editions of Livingstone’s poetry and the ethics of editing in South Africa,” English in Africa 35, no. 1 (2008): 177–186.

  • 62. Dick, The Hidden History; Archie L. Dick, “Book History, Library History and South Africa’s Reading Culture,” South African Historical Journal 55 (2006): 33–45.

  • 63. Rachel Matteau, “The Readership for Banned Literature and its Underground Networks in Apartheid South Africa,” Innovation 35 (2007): 81–90.

  • 64. Myrna Machet, “Young People’s Reading Interests in South Africa,” Mousaion 20, no. 1 (2002): 44–72; T. Mashishi, “The Storage Place of Tradition: The Reading Experiences of Black Adults in African Languages,” African Research and Documentation 83 (2000): 75–84; Maritha Snyman and Cecilia Penzhorn, “Leser en konteks: ’n resepsiestudie oor Afrikaanse romanselesers,” Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe 51, no. 2 (2011).