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Publishing Diversity in South Africa and the United Kingdom

Black Writers, White Publishers: A case study of the Bantu Treasury Series in South Africa

Elizabeth LE ROUX


La publication de l’importante collection Bantu Treasury Series, depuis rebaptisée African Treasury Series, vaut à Wits University Press (WUP), les plus anciennes presses universitaires d’Afrique du Sud, d’être aujourd’hui considérées comme pionnières dans l’édition de littérature en langues indigènes. Au même titre que les presses des missions, les journaux en langue locale et quelques éditeurs scolaires et universitaires, ces presses ont joué un rôle non négligeable dans le développement de la littérature en langue indigène en Afrique du Sud. Le dévouement du professeur et linguiste Clement Doke n’est certainement pas étranger à leur réputation. Inspiré alors par la publication de romans d’auteurs sud-africains noirs en anglais, Doke créa la collection afin de permettre à des auteurs de publier dans les langues africaines locales. Cet article se propose d’examiner l’histoire et l’impact de la collection Bantu Treasury, tout en considérant les relations des auteurs avec le directeur de collection et l’éditeur.

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1Language is a contested issue in South Africa, yet the language of the great majority of scholarly titles is English. Because it is an international language, and for historical reasons, English is often considered the language of scholarship in South Africa, so this is hardly surprising. The wealth of local languages was slower to develop a written or print tradition. As African-language literature developed and came to be published, however, an unequal power dynamic emerged: one of black writers, and white publishers.

2A case study serves to illuminate this cultural dynamic. Using Wits University Press’s Bantu Treasury Series as a case study, this paper seeks to examine the ways in which the texts were mediated by both the series editor and the publisher through the editorial, design, marketing, and sales processes. In some ways, this is an anomalous case study, as it does not represent the usual output from this publisher. For one thing, the usual author profile of the university press was white males, with an occasional female author. Very few black authors were published, outside of this series, until the 1980s. The series also focused on fiction rather than the publisher’s usual exclusive output of scholarly non-fiction. Moreover, it is unusual that this series was produced through the medium of a university press rather than a mainstream publisher, as the eventual readership for the majority of African-language texts was the schoolbook market, and not the scholarly market to which the publisher was accustomed. Nonetheless, this case study is revealing of a number of significant trends and patterns in South African publishing from the 1930s until the 1970s.

Clement Doke and the Bantu Treasury Series

3The Witwatersrand or Wits University Press is South Africa’s oldest university press, founded in 1922. It has developed a reputation for the publishing of African-language literature, due to the publication of the long-running Bantu Treasury Series (later to be renamed the African Treasury Series). Maake argues that:

4Only one university can be associated with publishing in African Languages. Professor C.M. Doke of the University of the Witwatersrand initiated the Bantu Language Series (sic) in the 1930s, published by that University’s press. (“Publishing and Perishing” 145)

5Maake is correct to attribute the series to Clement Doke (1893–1980), Professor in the Department of Bantu Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand – the term ‘Bantu’ referring at the time to a linguistic and ethnographic grouping of peoples and languages across southern and eastern Africa, and having no negative connotations until later. As will be seen, the sense of mission that led to the establishment of the Bantu Treasury Series came from Doke initially, not from the press itself. The publishing strategy and the selection of manuscripts were thus, initially at least, external to the publisher. As a result, it could be argued that WUP was not itself dedicated to African language publishing from the start, as it was only as late as 1960 that the university press would take over the sales and administration of the Bantu Treasury Series and other books from the Department.

6Doke joined the newly formed Department of Bantu Studies at the University in 1923, having retired from life as a missionary due to ill health. His sense of mission, however, did not abate; rather, it turned to his academic interests, and specifically to African languages. His zeal extended to an attempt, as R.K. Herbert describes, ‘to initiate an intellectual revolution in the study of African languages and in the making and creation of Bantu literature’ (2). In 1925, Doke’s doctoral work focused on The Phonetics of the Zulu Language, and in 1931, he was appointed Chair of the Department. He was extremely influential as a linguist and grammarian, especially in southern Africa, to the extent that Herbert refers to Doke as ‘the single most important figure in the history of Southern African linguistics’ (2). Doke’s sense of mission and strong ethical principles also led him to oppose the increasing segregation of South African society. He deliberately sought to appoint black academics in what was then an all-white, segregated university, arguing for their inclusion on the basis of their expertise in the vernacular languages. The first was Benedict Wallet Vilakazi (in isiZulu) in 1938, followed later by C.L.S. Nyembezi (isiZulu), F.S.M. Mncube (isiXhosa) and S.M. Mofokeng (Southern Sotho). He was also committed to mentoring black academics, and produced collaborative work with a number of them. Some of the most significant works that would emerge from the Department of Bantu Studies, to be published by Wits University Press, included Doke’s own English-Lamba Vocabulary (1963); Doke, Malcolm and Sikakana’s English and Zulu Dictionary in Two Parts (1958); and Doke and Mofokeng’s Textbook of Southern Sotho Grammar (1957).

7The first title in the Bantu Treasury Series was published in 1935, with Vilakazi’s collection of poetry, Inkondlo kaZulu (‘Zulu Songs’). Some commentators have suggested that the inspiration for this series may have been the publication, in 1930, of Sol T. Plaatje’s novel Mhudi. The novel was published in English rather than Setswana – indeed, it is often identified as the first novel in English by a black South African author – and Doke is said to have initiated the series in response, to support writing in the African languages. In a review of Mhudi, Doke observed:

8[This is a] story of Native life written in a simple and interesting style, with the obvious advantage that the author is a Native and not a European trying to portray Native thought. Mr Plaatje has done a good service in writing this. It is a great pity that for Bantu publications the demand is at present so small among the Bantu themselves that books such as this have to be written in English. Mhudi written in Chwana [Setswana] would have been a still greater contribution, and Chwana sadly needs such additions to its present meagre literature. (Bantu Studies, 5(1), January/June 1931)

9In an essay in 1935, surveying the uneven availability of original literature in the African languages, Doke provides a more complete rationale for the Bantu Treasury Series:

10Provided publication outlets can be found for the numerous manuscripts available, Xhosa literature and reading-material will easily keep pace with the demand. … With regard to books suitable for general and cultural reading in the upper classes, Zulu is not in so fortunate a position as is Xhosa. … There is still a dearth in Zulu of imaginative literature, and a Zulu novelist has yet to be found. (Doke, “Vernacular Text-Books”; emphasis added)

11The first issue of the journal Bantu Studies added further justification for Doke’s interest in developing literary cultures, arguing that the classification and analysis of languages was necessary for ‘the efficient performance of the white man’s function in this country’ (Editorial, 1921: i). This phrase exposes the power dynamics behind this phase of linguistic and anthropological studies. Thus, while Doke’s legacy is usually hailed as a positive one, there has also been criticism of his colonially blinkered and somewhat arrogant approach to the study of language, usually couched in terms of white men imposing their own standards and norms on various African languages. As Attwell (“Modernizing Tradition” 97) notes, ‘Journals like Bantu Studies and The Critic … were overwhelmingly ethnographic in their treatment of black expression with all the attendant problems of othering and ‘fixing’ representations in condescending and ahistorical terms. It is not surprising that black intellectuals would have wished to put as much distance as possible between themselves and such representations.’ There are thus political implications to Doke’s commitment to the development of autonomous literary cultures in the Southern African languages, based on paternalist assumptions about literature and development.

12Yet, at the same time as the first novels by black authors were being published in English, ground was also broken with the first novels in isiZulu, which have been variously identified as Abantu Abamnyama, Lapa Bavela Ngakona by Magema Fuze (1922) and John Dube’s Insila kaShaka (1930). Moreover, in the same year that Doke was commenting on the absence of isiZulu novelists (1935), Vilakazi published his first novel in the isiZulu language, Noma Nini, at Marianhill, a mission press. Noma Nini, written around 1932, won a prize in 1933 from the International African Institute and was then published. Vilakazi was by this stage already well known for his writing, which had largely been published in African-language newspapers. He was also becoming increasingly vocal in the struggle against separate development.

13It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Vilakazi, as an academic at the university, a protégé of Doke’s, and an increasingly well-known author, was the first to be published in the Bantu Treasury Series. The collection of poems, Inkondlo kaZulu (‘Zulu Songs’), was warmly welcomed as the ‘first collection of western influenced poetry in Zulu to be published’ (Review in Bantu Studies, 1935). A review in the journal Bantu Studies (edited by Doke) congratulates Wits University Press for the initiative:

14The University deserves hearty commendation for making possible this first venture of a South African Native in the field of poetry. The title-page bears the title ‘The Bantu Treasury,’ and gives promise of a series to be, in which the best literary work of Bantu writers in their own languages shall be made available for their natural audience, and so shall become a stimulus to intellectual and spiritual growth. There is a steadily increasing group of young Africans who are possessed of literary talent and are working hard to perfect themselves in various media of expression. The invitation that the title page of this first volume of a projected series holds forth will be to them an open door of opportunity. Lacking a large reading constituency and lacking facilities for publication, the only recourse of the ambitious Bantu writer has been the newspaper. This series should draw the best African effort in poetry, fiction, essay and drama and should be of immense encouragement to the race. The success of the series will depend in large measure upon the support given it by African readers. African authors of ability will not appear and grow to a significant stature except they have an eager public to read what they write. (Taylor 1935: 163)

Black authors

15I have quoted this review at length because it raises a number of interesting aspects for analysis, and will be used to frame a discussion of other titles in the series as well. To begin with, it identifies the authors in the series primarily, if not entirely, by race – as ‘Bantu writers’ and ‘young Africans’ – although the focus of the series could be seen as language-driven rather than race-specific. While Taylor’s review appears to underplay the value attached to the authors, with the adjective ‘young’ suggesting they are not to be taken too seriously, in fact those published in the Bantu Treasury Series would go on to become important figures in a literary renaissance: Vilakazi, James Ranisi Jolobe, Sol T. Plaatje, and Nimrod Ndebele, among others. Broadly classified under the grouping of the ‘New African Movement,’ they were highly educated men (there were no women published in the series) with both a cultural and a political mission undergirding their writing. Masilela (“African Intellectual and Literary Responses”) notes that, ‘The New African Movement was preoccupied with the historical project of constructing modernity in South Africa,’ and suggests that such black intellectuals appropriated European ideas to empower themselves – including the use of literature to raise the standard of their civilisation. It is thus an over-simplification to consider the black writers in the Bantu Treasury Series to be restricted to the margins, because they formed an elite in their own right, even while operating within a restricted environment.

16Jolobe, for instance, a Minister of Religion who was educated at Fort Hare, wrote two volumes that were published by Doke in the series — Umyezo (‘An orchard,’ a collection of isiXhosa poetry, in 1926) and Amavo (‘Old traditional stories,’ 1941). Amavo has been labelled ‘the first collection of essays by an Nguni writer’ (Gérard). His writing was also published by other publishers, including mission presses like Lovedale Press, and he served on the editorial board of the religious journal, South African Outlook. Jolobe also played an important role in the compilation and translation of the English-Xhosa-Afrikaans dictionary; so that, like Vilakazi, he combined academic interests in his language and culture with creative writing.

17Number 6 in the series was UGubudele naMazimuzimu by Nimrod Ndebele (‘Gubudele and the Cannibals,’ 1941), the first play published in isiZulu. Ndebele graduated from Wits University in 1948 with a BA in IsiZulu and Political Science, after having been a part-time student. Another significant author was published in 1942, when Samuel Mqhayi’s Inzuzo (‘Reward’) came out in the series. Mqhayi is now known as the ‘father of Xhosa poetry’ and ‘the greatest of all isiXhosa praise poets,’ with the title Imbongi yesizwe jikelele, ‘the poet of the whole nation’ (Opland 204). Doke himself considered Mqhayi ‘the outstanding writer of Xhosa to-day’ (“Vernacular Textbooks” 193), which is the key reason for his inclusion in the series.

18More firsts came with the following volumes in the series: Motswasele II, a historical drama in Setswana, by Leetile D. Raditladi (1945), and Tseleng ya bophelo by Jac G. Mocoancoeng (‘The path of life,’ 1947), a collection of Sotho poetry and drama. But the latter would elect to publish his next volume, Meqoqo ya Phirimana, with the Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel in 1953. There were good commercial reasons for doing so, as will be seen.

19Another of Doke’s students and research assistants would feature as an author in the early 1950s. Bantu Treasury 12 was the play Senkatana, by Sophonia Machabe Mofokeng (1952), and number 15 was Pelong ya ka by the same author. This was published posthumously, in 1962, as Mofokeng, like Vilakazi, died young. Doke wrote the following tribute:

20Sophonia Mofokeng, in his brief life, became an authority on Bantu folk and proverb lore. He was the author of a play in Sotho entitled Senkantana, which was published in the Bantu Treasury Series in 1952, and of a book of essays and sketches, Leetong, published in 1954. He leaves a number of manuscripts, some of which may prove to be sufficiently complete for publication. In 1956 he was invited to join a team of experts in the compilation of a new edition of a German encyclopedia of folklore. Up to the time of his death he had collaborated with me [Doke] in work on Southern Sotho grammar. He had read the proofs of the book now in the press; but, before seeing the finished work, he was called away to his eternal reward. Dr Mofokeng was a man of high scholarship (“Dr. S. M. Mofokeng”).

21Most of the authors in the Bantu Treasury Series were thus iconic South African writers, so it is interesting, even surprising, that the fourth was a Swahili poet – with the volume Diwani ya Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (the collected poems of Muyaka, 1940) – although Swahili is of course classified as a Bantu language. In 1947, Bantu Treasury 11 and 13 would also be volumes of Swahili poetry, Pambo la lugha, by Shaaban Robert (‘The Adornment of Life,’ 1947) and Kielezo cha insha by the same author (‘Model essays,’ 1954). Robert has been called the ‘greatest Swahili author,’ but Harries argues that when Doke accepted these volumes for the Bantu Treasury Series, ‘He had no idea then that Shaaban would become the most famous African vernacular writer of all time’ (260). Harries goes on, providing an interesting insight into Doke’s selection policies for the series:

22This is not the place to consider whether Shaaban’s fame as a writer was due to exclusively literary reasons, but in any case by publishing him, Doke was unwittingly placing himself on the side of the African angels. Doke did not read Swahili, but he was aware that whatever the relative merits of Shaaban’s work, here was a truly transitional writer. Here was an African writing essays in Swahili on African subjects in the Baconian manner; here was an African writing Swahili poems on African themes in literary forms resulting from Arab influence in Swahili culture. This was something recognizably different from most of the texts that came to Doke’s desk. It was relevant to a changing Africa, and so Doke thought, quite rightly, that Shaaban should be supported (Harries 260).

23The Swahili titles would later be quietly downplayed on the list of the Bantu Treasury Series, as WUP chose to market it as a South African series, and these titles would be distributed in East Africa by Oxford University Press on a royalty basis. The authors thus no longer enjoyed the benefits of being marketed as part of a series, but they still received royalties for their work.

White publishers

24While a measure of black agency may be seen in the authors writing works in their own languages, there was still the necessity of a white channel in order to publish and disseminate the works, and to confer a degree of authority upon them. In his review, Taylor notes a number of common obstacles to publication for black authors in South Africa, including what would become a common complaint, the lack of a reading culture, as well as the lack of publishing outlets (while commending the University for providing a new publishing channel). Maake (“A Survey of Trends” 166) notes, for instance, that ‘[t]he problem of a lack of readership’ was obvious even this early. By the end of the 1940s, Malcolm could patronisingly state: ‘The chief difficulty the Zulu writers encounter, now that they have begun to write, is the fact that the Zulu people are not readers to any great extent. Therefore unless a book can be used in schools and a market thus assured, publishers are generally unwilling to undertake its printing. Reading is a comparatively new recreation to the Zulu. He would much rather talk or sing or dance’ (39). Similarly, but with a marked difference in tone, Bang argues: ‘There is as yet not a large Zulu reading public in so far as works in the vernacular are concerned; but in view of the considerable improvement in educational facilities of late, it is hoped that a large and enthusiastic Zulu reading public will emerge’ (quoted in Sibiya). Shepherd (39) provides a similar explanation, showing his understanding of the economics of publishing:

25A distressing feature of the present day is that even among the relatively few Bantu who are educated a love of reading is not a pronounced characteristic. … A consequence of the lack of love for literature is the limited sales of books, with, on the whole, the accompaniment of high prices for those printed. An edition of a vernacular book is generally small in number, and so the price is relatively high.

26The key difficulty, that publishers were reluctant to accept material that was unlikely to be prescribed in schools, would continue. Even Doke was keenly interested in the use of books in African languages at schools and as school textbooks. The small market for African-language literature, even today, remains a contentious issue, with publishers arguing that there is only a very small reading market for such titles. Shepherd mentions that ‘A large number of meritorious MSS. also remain unpublished, chiefly because of war conditions [he was writing in 1945] and for financial reasons, despite the efforts of some presses to give the Bantu author his chance’ (Shepherd 18).

27However, in spite of the perceived lack of a market, the titles in the Bantu Treasury Series sold well. A note in African Studies (likely written by Doke) expresses pleasure that ‘The Bantu Treasury Series … is obviously meeting a real need in Bantu literature. Of this series Volume 3, the late Sol. T. Plaatje’s translation of Julius Caesar into Tswana, has just gone out of print, and the editors are arranging for a war-time reprint to supply its urgent requirement as a school text-book for examination purposes’ (‘Notes,’ 1942, 152). The note goes on to emphasise the importance of the series and its impact already at this early stage: ‘The fact that this Tswana publication is the first of the series to be sold out emphasises what literature surveys in South Africa have repeatedly made known — the dearth of vernacular literature in Tswana. There is an obvious need for a concerted and carefully-planned programme of literature production in this language area’ (‘Notes,’ 1942, 152).

28Given the general reluctance of publishers to take a chance on this market, however, Taylor highlights, in contrast, the importance of newspapers and periodicals as outlets and platforms for black authors. He also comments at some length on the importance of the new channel offered by the university press. In Taylor’s eyes, there is an assumption that the series will be of a high quality (representing ‘the best African effort’), which is linked to the prestige offered by both the publisher and series editor. The question arises, as to whether Doke was indeed conferring authority on these authors and their languages by publishing them in his series, or if the authors were merely using Doke’s series as a channel to reach their readership. As can be seen, the series reflected the degree to which South African society remained colonised and segregated. While a measure of black agency may be seen in the authors writing works in their own languages, there was still the necessity of a white-run channel in order to publish and disseminate the works, and to confer a degree of authority upon them.

29Yet even though the market remained small and publishers reluctant to take risks, as the slow increase in the presence of these publications shows, interest in publishing local authors in their own languages did develop at this time. As R.H.W. Shepherd of Lovedale Mission Press pointed out, there was an ‘urgent need … to publish existing material’ (38). He went on to acknowledge Doke’s (and his own) work, noting that ‘The efforts of the Lovedale Press to publish the works of Bantu authors and the appearance of the volumes known as the ‘Bantu Treasury Series’ are direct attempts to meet the needs of the situation’ (38, emphasis in the original). Shortly after the series was initiated, two conferences of ‘Bantu authors’ were held, in Bloemfontein (June 1936) and in Florida near Johannesburg (October 1936), to ‘organize and promote the production and distribution of literature,’ and ‘to emphasize the value of the use of literature’ in African upliftment (Shepherd, quoted in Attwell, Rewriting 98). In other words, the context of the establishment of the Bantu Treasury Series was one of a rising interest in African literature, and increasing willingness among publishers to test the market, which had previously been seen as non-existent. Peter McDonald notes that, ‘By the 1930s, some mission presses and some new, white-owned commercial publishers began actively, if sometimes anxiously, to encourage the new, secular trends, not least by publishing the first novels by African writers.’ (87)

30However, as some commentators have since noted, the colonised sphere in which writers and publishers operated in South Africa extended to the censorship of black writing by white publishers. It is true that, in contrast to, for instance, Shepherd at Lovedale Press, Doke did not intervene in the contents of the works he published. This can be seen in the political content of Umyezo and in the growing political awareness shown in Vilakazi’s poetry (see Maake, “A Survey of Trends” 165; Masilela, “South African Language Literatures”). But where Doke did intervene quite heavily, and would later come in for some criticism, was in relation to what Peires calls ‘the great orthographic upheaval’ (161). Doke was a professor of linguistics, and as such as keenly interested in standardising the orthography of African languages. In 1929, a South African Orthography Committee was set up with Doke as Chairman. Peires assesses the impact of the guidelines produced by this committee:

31However satisfactory these new arrangements may have been from a purely linguistic standpoint, their social implications were disastrous. The manner in which the regulations were imposed awakened deep resentment among educated Africans. Sol. T. Plaatje spoke for many when he said: ‘It is to be regretted that at this end of the continent the scheme was attacked along real South African lines; i.e. – the Natives know not what they need. So let University Professors lay down a scheme in the light of science; and Native schools will have to adopt it or do without Government grants!’ … Even Mqhayi and Soga, who had sat on the Xhosa sub-committee, could not (or would not) write their manuscripts correctly in the New Orthography. Plaatje, whose Tswana language was hardest hit, concluded that ‘the muddle brooks of only one solution, i.e. not to write Sechuana at all.’

32Plaatje, in particular, was outspoken in his criticism, writing in the newspaper Koranta ea Becoana and other outlets, as well as publishing A Sechuana Reader in International Phonetic Orthography (with Daniel Jones, 1916). It is also in relation to these matters that he translated four of Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana. Indeed, in spite of his differences with Doke in terms of the new orthography, Plaatje’s translation of Julius Caesar would be the third volume in the Bantu Treasury Series: Dintshontsho tsa bo-Juluse Kesara (1937). Plaatje translated five Shakespeare plays, but managed to see only two into print, with the Bantu Treasury Series title only coming out after his death (see Seddon, 2004). This reveals the complicated relationships among both the members of the New African Movement, and their publishers, such as Doke.

Black readers

33Taylor’s review also highlights several attributes of the readership, describing a ‘natural audience,’ ‘African readers,’ and ‘an eager public.’ The notion of a natural audience is of course once again racially bounded, due to language constraints as well as an assumption of affinities among certain kinds of authors and readers. This conception of the audience of the Bantu Treasury Series as being primarily black would later become a reality, but not through the general public eagerly purchasing copies from bookshops, as perhaps Taylor envisaged. Rather, commodified as school and university set works, the volumes of the series would be consumed largely by black school children and by a multiracial audience of trainee teachers. The consumption of the series by this somewhat mainstream audience signalled the growing canonisation of the authors published in the series (as well as the canny selection of such authors by Doke). Due to the limitations of language, the series did not reach a global audience, and was mostly not visible on a worldwide stage.

34To continue with the example of Plaatje’s work, this title reveals that the schoolbooks readership was considered significant from the start. While Doke encouraged Plaatje in his translations, to the extent of publishing one of them, at the same time he had been hopeful that Plaatje would produce more original work in Setswana: ‘In a review of one of Plaatje’s translations C. M. Doke directed advice to Plaatje, discouraging him from translating Shakespeare because he thought ‘other types of Literature are much more needed in Chuana than this ... the Department of Native Education will give a clear lead as to what type of literature is of immediate urgency’’ (Maake, “A Survey of Trends” 172). Even at this early stage, then, Doke was quite aware that the schoolbook market was needed in order to keep the series viable. At the same time, Plaatje deliberately produced his translations for the schoolbook market; as Seddon remarks, ‘A primary aim of his translations was to provide school books in the vernacular for a new generation of young Setswana speakers who were growing up within a culturally changed environment, in a missionary education system, where the oral cultural practices, and the ethical and social systems they encoded, were being lost, distorted, or forgotten, and where there was little to read in the vernacular besides religious texts’ (90). Though they envisaged different channels, then, the end for Doke and Plaatje was the same.

35Given this large market, reprints of 10 000 or 20 000 or more copies of the various titles were common, and brought in welcome revenue to supplement the low income from monograph sales – which is ironic, given Desmond Cole’s later insistence that the ‘primary objective of the Bantu Treasury Series had never been prescription’ for schools (S86/309). For instance, a ‘Report on the Activities of the WUP in 1985’ (S86/308) registers a record level of sales, largely due to sales of Isoka lakwazulu, which had been prescribed in schools. In 1980, sales of Bantu Treasury titles accounted for 57% of all sales income (WUP Annual Report, S81/135, 1981: 220), a figure which rose to 62% in 1982, on the back of high prescription orders. The schools involved fell largely under the auspices of Bantu Education.

Marketing and design

36The last key aspect on which Taylor commented in reviewing Vilakazi’s Inkondlo kaZulu was on the design of the book:

37A word must be said about the outward appearance of the book. The dignity of its simple blue cloth binding, with the seal of the University on the cover, the clear print and perfect proof-reading are not only a credit to the Editors and to the Lovedale Press [the printers of the work], but they are a quiet testimony to the recognition given to these poems as real literature, worthy of preservation and of presentation to their readers in a form of beauty.’

38This description of the paratext situates the work and its author as serious, and as meriting the attention of a scholarly press. This edition would go through four reprints in the twenty years between 1935 and 1955, before a new edition appeared in 1957, in the new Isizulu, specifically aiming at the schoolbook market. With orders in the thousands annually, the reprints of the titles in the series kept the Press afloat throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, in the early 1970s, Wits University Press was still regularly advertising the series in its journal African Studies (e.g. 1970, 29(2): 140), although no new titles were being published.

39It is interesting here to contrast the early paratexts, and particularly the covers, of the Bantu Treasury titles, with updated editions produced as part of the renamed African Treasury Series several decades later. The early editions of Vilakazi’s Inkondlo kaZulu are produced, as Taylor describes, in a ‘simple blue cloth binding.’ The title, in a bold sans serif, appears at the top, ranged left, with the author’s name just below, in a slightly smaller font. Below the words is a line drawing of the African continent, with the top half shaded grey and the lower half unshaded, with the words ‘Bantu Languages’ ranged across this lower section. This is a very simplistic depiction of the notion of the area under study in the Department of Bantu Studies. In the lower left, the words ‘Bantu Treasury No. 1’ appear, showing Doke’s intention from the outset to publish a series of texts. The design looks like what it in fact ended up being: a low-cost school textbook.

40The version currently available is very different, with both series and individual titles having undergone a complete redesign. The title of the work is now displayed in large, bold serif print across a white block at the top of the page. Below, in a series of yellow blocks, appears a photograph of a Zulu warrior, the words ‘Izinkondlo zesiZulu’ (a more modern way of saying ‘Zulu poems,’ which is in fact a repeat of the title), the author’s name, and a logo for the African Treasury Series. The new cover design privileges the title, and thus the content, over the author, and highlights the place of the series. The rather generic cover photograph places the title firmly, for the knowledgeable South African reader, in the category of ‘African-language publishing.’

41These changes in design thus may signal the need to refresh titles and their packaging for a new generation of readers, but in fact the rather obvious changes disguise what has not changed. The positioning of the titles remains very much within the genre — perhaps one could go as far as saying the ghetto — of African-language publishing in South Africa. Largely marketed to schools, through Macmillan South Africa, an educational publisher, the significance of the authors for a literary market is now played down in favour of commercialism.

Decline and fall

42The year 1953 saw a hiatus in the publishing programme of the Bantu Treasury Series, although Wits University Press continued, of course, to publish in other areas. The first contributing factor was that Doke retired in that year, after a long career at the university. It would take some time before his successor, Desmond Cole, took up the reins of the Bantu Treasury Series, and he was never to lend the same impetus and drive to his role as series editor. Towards the end of the 1950s, moreover, the New African Movement declined, and the 1960s would become known as the ‘decade of black silence.’

43The effects of the other key factor were even more far-reaching. The Bantu Education Act was promulgated in 1953, which legislated that the medium of instruction at black schools would be the ‘vernacular’ language. This policy created an immediate demand for schoolbooks in the local languages. Thus, after 1953, a number of Afrikaner publishing houses began to take an interest in publishing literature in African languages, largely for the schools market. Competition would become fierce, and the pro-establishment and well-established educational publishers garnered an increasingly large share of the market. This precipitated the decline of the mission presses and other smaller publishers, including Wits University Press, in the field of African-language publishing: ‘By the 1980s, though Shuter & Shooter retained a share of the isiZulu market, and though Lovedale, multinationals like Oxford University Press, and local university presses remained active on the margins, the field [of African language publishing] was dominated by Van Schaik, Via Afrika, and Educum’ (McDonald 89).

44The effects on the series can be immediately illustrated: Jac G. Mocoancoeng published his collection Tseleng ya bophelo (‘The path of life’), comprising both poetry and drama, with the Bantu Treasury Series in 1947. But he chose to publish his next volume, Meqoqo ya Phirimana, with a mainstream publisher with ties to the Nationalist regime, the Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel, in 1953. This diversion of authors to the larger establishment publishers quickly dried up the sources of new work for the Bantu Treasury Series. But this did not signal the end of African-language publishing at Wits University Press, nor, immediately, of the Bantu Treasury Series. After a gap of about eight years, the series continued, with the isiZulu play Ukufa kukaShaka by Elliot Zondi (‘The death of Shaka,’ 1960). Sikakana, who had worked at the Department of Bantu Studies and later at Wits University Press, produced a volume of isiZulu poetry in 1966 (Inkhwezi likaZulu). More isiZulu poetry followed, with Hayani maZulu, by Phumasilwe Myeni (‘Sing Zulus,’ 1969) and Isoka lakwaZulu, by N.G. Makhaye (‘Zululand’s fiancé,’ 1972). But this brief revival of the series did not last.

45There were complaints in the early 1980s that the Bantu Treasury series ‘which continues to be the financial mainstay of the Press, has lost impetus in that no new title has been added since 1972’ (PC Working Group, 1 August 1983: 1). Amid the increasing government repression and clampdowns on freedom of speech and expression in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of new authors were turning to writing in English and to publishing abroad. A planned revitalisation of the series in the early 1980s was unsuccessful, and with Cole retiring in December 1982, there was little leadership of the series thereafter. The few titles published in the 1980s reveal the lack of a commissioning or series editor actively soliciting titles, as their submission was driven by the authors themselves.

46In 1988, three new manuscripts were submitted to the series, but owing to declining sales and decreased profitability in the very competitive school market, these were declined. The Press no longer had an interest or expertise in publishing for the schoolbook market, which meant that the target audience for these books was now seen as scholarly rather than educational. The Press was also coming under increasing pressure to be self-sustaining, and to produce an income from its publishing programme. This would lead, among other consequences, to the decision to cease publication of the journal African Studies in the mid-1990s, and to move it to the commercial publisher Carfax, which has since been acquired by Taylor & Francis.

47Another short-lived revitalisation attempt came as recently as 2007, when another title appeared: The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho, edited and translated by Jeff Opland. This was the first of a number of new titles planned for release in what was now being called the African Treasury Series, but it was followed only by two titles. The first was Abantu Besizwe (‘The Nation’s People’), the historical and biographical writings of SEK Mqhayi, also edited and translated by Opland (2009). Abantu Besizwe is described in a Wits University Press catalogue (2007) as ‘the first new volume of Mqhayi’s writing to appear in over 60 years … It contains 69 historical and biographical essays contributed to newspapers between 1902 and 1944 as originally published, with facing English translations.’ In 2010, a collection of poetry by Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Hayi usizi kwizwe lenu, Nontsizi!, was published jointly with Macmillan South Africa, which now distributes the Treasury series titles.

48At this stage, it appeared that the Press itself had largely lost interest in the African Treasury Series, for the same catalogue describes the series as having been initiated in the 1940s, rather than 1935: ‘First published by Wits University Press in the 1940s, the series provided a voice for the voiceless and celebrated African culture, history and heritage. It continues to make a contribution by supporting current efforts to empower and develop the status of African languages in South Africa’ (WUP, 2007: 1). The publishing of local literature continued, largely in English, notwithstanding the ending of the series.

Significance and impact

49The Bantu Treasury / African Treasury Series was certainly influential in publishing African-language literature. As Attwell argues, ‘The Bantu Treasury Series was an attempt to establish an archive of modern literature in the vernacular’ (Attwell, Rewriting Modernity 55). What can be said about the significance and impact of this series?

50Gray calls Wits University Press ‘a pioneer in the publication of African language literature’ (176), while Masilela suggests that the establishment of the series was an important aspect ‘of the hoped-for cultural revolution,’ and was ‘fundamental in cultivating the intellectual and cultural space of the New African Movement’ (“South African Language literatures” 5). This significant role, in supporting African-language literature before the widespread influence of Bantu Education, is now part of the heritage of the Press. Doke’s legacy has also been well-established as a result of the series:

51Doke’s editorship of the Bantu Treasury Series, and his advocacy of translating works into one or another of the Bantu languages opened the way for other publishers to take an interest in Bantu literature. The period after 1953 can arguably be termed ‘the Doke era,’ for his concern for the growth of literature in Bantu languages had a far-reaching impact. (Maake, “CM. Doke”)

52The Bantu Treasury Series was not prolific, producing just twenty or so titles, but many are still considered classics of South African literature. Sibiya (2004) lists a few examples: ‘Vilakazi, for example, is not only still popular but is regarded as one of the greatest poets in isiZulu. SEK Mqhayi is an exceptional poet and novelist in isiXhosa.’ This is partly because the series published authors who were already influential, or who would shortly become so. While these authors did not form part of WUP’s usual author profile, they were nonetheless an elite group of authors.

53Moreover, the series served as an inspiration for, and had a widespread influence, on writers who were published by other publishers. For instance, Plaatje’s translation of Shakespeare inspired a host of other translations, among others of Shakespearean plays. Maake (1993: 79) lists King Solomon’s Mines, Robinson Crusoe, Prisoner of Zenda and Cry, the Beloved Country as books that were translated in this period. He argues that, ‘Doke’s editorship of the Bantu Treasury Series, and his advocacy of translating works into one or other of the Bantu languages opened the way for other publishers to take an interest in Bantu literature’ (1993: 79).

54The series was affected by the loss of its driving force when Doke retired, although it continued for a few years more under Cole. The real blow, though, came from the dominance of large educational publishers, once the Bantu Education Act established African-language teaching at the black schools. Beyond the schoolbook market, a commercial market for African language books has still not developed in South Africa. Indeed, such literature is still considered underdeveloped, and one of the key factors is seen as the continuing reluctance of publishers to risk small print runs. While some argue that there is a lack of a reading public in all the South African languages, others put this down to a lack of market research and of political will (Sibiya; Maake, “Publishing and Perishing”).

55What is interesting to note is that the situation exemplified by this series, of black writers and white publishers, has persisted in South Africa. While black writers and leaders in South Africa have called for black-owned publishing houses, these have either failed to materialise or not survived. Skotaville Press, for instance, was established in the early 1980s and lasted for a turbulent decade. Seriti sa Sechaba, the first publishing house run by a black woman in South Africa, lasted just a few years, also in the 1980s. Why has there been no rise of black publishing to champion and promote black writing? This is a matter that requires further research, to ascertain the reasons for their failure and to consider whether there is still a need for publishing houses that could enable black authors to reach out to their readers without the mediation of white publishers.

56The American phenomenon described by John K. Young’s book, Black Writers, White Publishers, therefore, is one that is all too familiar in the South African context. Young notes that, ‘what sets the white publisher-black author relationship apart is the underlying social structure that transforms the usual unequal relationship into an extension of a much deeper cultural dynamic’ (4). His work illustrates the extent to which black authors have negotiated white power structures in order to reach their audience, through a complex act of confrontation, collaboration and even compromise. While much of what Young describes applies equally well to the South African situation, there are certain important differences. For instance, the missions of various publishers did not aim to perpetuate divides among racial groups, but to overcome them. Moreover, Young’s description relies largely on a white-dominated publishing industry representing “blackness” to an implicitly white audience, but this has not been the case to the same extent in South Africa. While, for instance, oppositional or anti-apartheid South African publishers deliberately targeted a multiracial audience, the importance of the schoolbook market created a much larger, mostly black audience for many African-language books. In South Africa, too, the particular dynamic of a numerical minority serving as the cultural majority has complicated the concept of ‘minority’ publishing.

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Archival documents

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WUP catalogue. “African Treasury Series”, 2007.

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Elizabeth LE ROUX, « Black Writers, White Publishers: A case study of the Bantu Treasury Series in South Africa », E-rea [En ligne], 11.1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2013, consulté le 12 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Elizabeth LE ROUX

Department of Information Science, University of Pretoria.
Beth le Roux lectures in Publishing Studies in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. She previously worked in the scholarly publishing industry for more than a decade. She is currently working on a PhD on the social history of South Africa’s university presses, and has published articles on women writers in francophone Africa, on the growth of book history in South Africa and South African scholarly publishers. She is the recipient of the 2012 Book History Essay Prize for her article “Book History in the African World: The State of the Discipline”, Book History, vol. 15, 2012: 248-300.

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