Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa Print Culture and Publishing in Southern Africa

Print Culture and Publishing
in Southern Africa

Print Cultures South Africa

Book History in South Africa: Recent Developments and Prospects

Archie L. Dick

This article was first published in the Jaarboek voor Nederlandse boekgeschiedenis [The Yearbook for Dutch Book History], 2013: 153-162.

The history of the book has emerged as a productive site of inquiry and there have already been several special issues of journals, a few chapters in books, a handful of monographs, and an anthology on South Africa’s print, text, and book cultures. By comparison with book history in many countries this represents a growing but modest body of work, and there is still no institutional home for research and tuition programmes of book and print culture studies in South Africa. Plans for a research-driven Centre for the Book at the National Library of South Africa evaporated when its focus became presentist and development-oriented in the 1990s. Nonetheless, between 2001 and 2009 scholarly contributions included a few monographs, an edited collection of conference papers, and six special issues of South African academic journals in the fields of English literature, history, and librarianship. This article focuses primarily on work that appeared between 2010 and 2012, and sketches briefly some prospects for the future.

Recent developments

One of the advantages of not fixing the boundaries of book history in South Africa is recent scholarship that connects unintentionally with this field of study. The publications discussed here therefore represent new work that benefits book history in South Africa in different ways. Written culture in a colonial context: Africa and the Americas, 1500-1900 links the evidence of writing with issues of social and cultural significance.[1] Edited by Adrien Delmas and Nigel Penn, this collection brings together the histories of written culture and European expansion during the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It lifts studies of literacy, writing, books, and reading into the realms of transnational and interdisciplinary scholarship. Foregrounding the largely overlooked regions of Africa and the Americas, some implications for book history in South Africa and more general methodological challenges become evident.

One of the editors calls attention to the material dimensions of writing not just as the bedrock of historical studies but as a recent focus of cultural historians.[2] The shift from the idea of writing to that of inscription extended written cultures to include rock art, pictograms as well as oral performance as forms of proto-writing, breaking down such dichotomies as ‘civility/barbarism’ and ‘writing/orality’. This now brings several cultures, previously thought to have been without writing and studied ethnologically only, into the terrain of book history. The chapters dealing with South Africa cover the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries in the Cape, Natal, and Transvaal regions. Related to this theme and also published in 2011, Deciphering ancient minds: The mystery of San Bushmen rock art by David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis examine an even earlier period.[3] These scholars reveal how the analysis of rock paintings and engravings can produce key insights into San beliefs and patterns of thought. This is a little-known area of significance to all book historians. Lewis-Williams and Challis argue that the three registers of the Rosetta Stone find parallels in the study of San rock art. Their general approach, as that found in Written culture in a colonial context, resonate with transnationalism and cosmopolitanism as prominent features of South African book history.

Isabel Hofmeyr shows in the context of Indian Ocean print cultures, for example, that Gandhi’s press in South Africa circulated print across the Indian Ocean and ‘interpolated with cosmopolitanism in unexplored and interesting ways’.[4] In doing so, she draws on Mark Ravinder Frost’s work on public spheres in Indian Ocean port cities in which the intellectual elite circulated periodicals to nurture universalisms such as pan-Islam, pan-Buddhism, and Hindu reformism.[5] In a related article, Hofmeyr discusses transnational ideas of reading and theories of transnationalism more generally.[6] She uses Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, which sets out his key ideas on nonviolence and civil disobedience, and which is essentially a dialogue between a ‘Reader’ and an ‘Editor’ discussing how best British India should achieve home rule. Scholarly consensus is that the ‘Reader’ is an Indian extremist who wants to oppose colonial rule by force. In early prefaces of the book, which have now largely disappeared from contemporary editions, Gandhi however views the ‘Reader’ as the reader of the newspaper Indian Opinion that he edited in South Africa in the early twentieth century. Reinstating this South African reader in Gandhi's seminal text, Hofmeyr explores the possible implications of this ‘diasporic’ or ‘unlikely’ reader on Gandhi's thinking and on his ideas about Indian nationalism more generally.

Tracing even earlier transnational elements in South Africa’s book history, Achmat Davids identifies one source of the Afrikaans language to the Cape Muslims who had their origins in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean rim.[7] The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims from 1815 to 1915 overturns the view that Afrikaans was a ‘European transplantation’ that ‘developed gradually out of Dutch dialects’.[8] This English translation of Davids’ original Masters degree dissertation shows that the recognition of Afrikaans as a ‘separate’ language was thanks to ‘a group of men from Paarl in the Western Cape who in the late nineteenth century attempted to broaden the functional uses of Afrikaans’ in what became the ‘so-called ‘First Afrikaans Language Movement’.[9]

One of Davids’ main objectives was to create a standard system of transliterating the Arabic script of Arabic-Afrikaans texts into roman script to demonstrate that the Cape Muslim community wrote as they spoke. This demonstrates that Arabic-Afrikaans texts are similar to audio-recordings, and that they preserved the original sounds of Muslim Afrikaans. Davids shows how Muslim Afrikaans speakers adapted the Arabic alphabet and Muslim ‘rules of reading’ to preserve their own unique sounds. He achieved this through a system of transliteration that could produce the actual sounds of past speakers. This translation comes more than twenty years after Davids completed his research, and Gerald Groenewald suggests that he was actually an ‘early South African practitioner of what is now called “book history”’.[10]

The translation of Davids’ dissertation into English comes fortuitously for book history in South Africa when jawi (Arabic-Malay) and Arabic-Afrikaans texts are being analysed in greater detail. Saarah Jappie explains that these texts were translations of Arabic literature into the vernacular Malay and Cape Dutch languages using the Arabic script to ensure that they could be easily read by worshippers and learners.[11] Copies of the texts are called ajami manuscripts to indicate that Arabic script is used to write in another language. The earliest ajami manuscripts were called jawi when the Malay language was widely used at the Cape, and from 1826 the ajami manuscripts appeared in the Dutch-Afrikaans language.               

Following Davids’ cue, Jappie emphasizes the broader social and historical contexts of the manuscripts instead of philological methods that focus primarily on their content. She shows how the manuscripts are ‘objects with dynamic lives, accruing history and taking on different social functions as the contexts around them develop’.[12] Demonstrating this approach, she traces the roles of the manuscripts and kietaabs (books) from their ‘lives’ as practical objects in the educational, medicinal, and communicative practices of the early Cape Muslim community to their use today in heritage, identity, and genealogical projects. The study of the Cape Muslim ajami manuscripts is part of the larger Timbuktu Manuscripts Project and an African ajami network that includes experts from Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Niger, South Africa, Poland, and Norway.[13]

South African historian Shamiel Jeppie, for example, recently analysed Malian Islamic scholar Bularaf’s personal archive. Bularaf was born in 1864 in south-western Morocco, but by 1907 he established himself in Timbuktu and started his archive repository. He had a place for copyists and for checking copies, and a unit for making covers for the loose leaves of writing.[14] He made space for copyists to work with an original beside them while copying onto a blank page. He not only paid for the paper, pens, and ink but also the copyists for their travel costs and sometimes the owners for lending the originals. Bularaf had no aversion to printing and in fact arranged for several books to be printed. Printing itself had been around since the French colonial presence in the region a century earlier. As a copyist himself, Bularaf added his own interpellations in texts when it involved the region whose local conditions he knew better. These practices, albeit locally distinctive, resonated with wider Islamic ‘cultures of scholarship’.[15] The protection from destruction of the Timbuktu manuscripts has re-emerged as a critical concern for scholars in the light of the unstable political situation in Mali and the North African region more generally.

Also linking book history concerns with present-day culture and politics, Ashwin Desai’s Reading revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island[16] comes crucially at a time when textbooks and libraries are being destroyed in South Africa.[17] As a sociologist he may not view his work as book history, but it actually progresses the field by showing how we can connect the past with the present, and it links print culture with political critique. By the time that apartheid was unravelling, political prisoners had turned Robben Island prison into a university and a library. Many who arrived as illiterates and left as book collectors often left behind some of their own literary treasures to fan the fires of the reading revolution they had started. Desai samples prisoners who signed off on their favourite passages from prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam’s disguised copy of William Shakespeare: The complete works before he was released. He weaves a compelling narrative about Shakespeare’s reception and audiences on the island, and about reading more generally in apartheid’s most forbidding jail. An attractive feature is the range of Shakespearian genres, forms, and themes from which prisoners, representing a range of anti-apartheid organizations, selected their favourite passages.

These passages provide a springboard into each prisoner’s personal journey as a reader. They also encapsulate an aspect of his character and political outlook.  Desai follows some of the readers after their release from Robben Island prison and into their post-1994 lives. This feature gives the book its special significance. Inequalities in the new South Africa’s education system, which Desai attributes to poor economic choices and political compromises, have left some of the reading revolutionaries disillusioned.  Others seek to re-ignite the revolutionary spark of Robben Island through reading programmes in poverty-stricken townships.

Uncovering book and reading cultures like those of the Robben Island political prisoners is the theme of Archie Dick’s The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures.[18] Dick shows how book and reading cultures in South Africa’s past emerged, survived or even thrived ‘despite the ways in which controlling and repressive regimes have sought to destroy or limit the impact of reading and writing for their own purposes’.[19]  Despite the widely-held belief that there is either a poor reading culture or none at all, this book demonstrates that ordinary South Africans have always read and wrote. By looking at junctures in South Africa’s history we find examples of common readers and writers among Cape slaves, free blacks, and mission-based workers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ordinary readers and writers were active also in the twentieth century among school learners, soldiers, Soweto exiles, community activists, and political prisoners. They often read in ways that defied the strategies of elites and authorities that sought to control what they read. Contestations about what, where, and how to read led to acts of censorship, book burning, book theft, and subversive reading and writing. Surprising discoveries include the earliest official statistics of working class literacy, and the popularity of Charles Dickens across South Africa’s class, colour, and political divisions.

The case studies in Dick’s book suggest that many gaps in South African book history remain. Elizabeth le Roux’s work both identifies and closes some of these gaps. Her literature reviews of print culture and book history studies in South Africa and Africa more generally are comprehensive, and she has undertaken the first study of the country’s university presses during the apartheid period. Recognizing the need for foundational texts, she mapped the growth of book history in South Africa.[20] Of the work on the African continent that Le Roux has been able to track down much is still descriptive, although some theoretical models have emerged in the past decade. Her overview presents ‘a sampling of the most significant work’ that also highlights recent trends.[21]

Le Roux has looked also at aspects of scholarly publishing in South Africa,[22] but her work on the university presses in the colonial and apartheid periods fills a gap in the country’s book and publishing history. Of the roles played by university presses in the apartheid era, she notes that they were ‘neither clearly anti-apartheid, nor neatly collaborationist’.[23] University presses, she argues, can reveal much about academic freedom in an oppressive society, and about how they relate to political shifts. Le Roux critiques the Oxford University Press model that guided the early development of South African university presses, which largely promoted the academic and research aims of the universities they served. A trenchant analysis of Oxford University Press itself during the apartheid period comes from Caroline Davis. She explains how it sacrificed its liberal outlook to secure its commercial position when it came increasingly to depend on profits from the ‘publication of Bantu Education approved texts, which led to an avoidance of the publication of “controversial” or anti-apartheid texts’.[24]

Bringing together similar case studies and overviews of book history in South Africa is Andrew van der Vlies’s anthology Print, text, and book cultures in South Africa.[25] His introductory essay systematically maps the conceptual terrain of the field of study and demonstrates its relevance to South Africa’s literary and cultural history.[26] Including contributions from prominent scholars in English and African literature, history, librarianship and publishing studies, it offers revisions of previously published work, as well as new essays covering topics on colonial and missionary print cultures, orature and the image of the book in autochthonous languages, book collections, transnational histories of the book, print and circulation, censorship, and the politics of educational publishing. Effectively, this collection takes the measure of book history scholarship in South Africa and may become a primer for students.

Novelty, interdisciplinarity, relevance to public policy, and an awareness of its location in Africa appear therefore to characterize South Africa’s modest book history profile. Some of these qualities already distinguished the failed effort by South African writer J.M. Coetzee to start ‘The Book in Africa’ course in 1980 for undergraduate students at the University of Cape Town. Peter McDonald explains that this specialist option in the African Literature programme planned to explore ‘environmental pressures of all kinds on writers, the economics of publishing and distributing literary works, [and] the nature of the readership of literary works’, and that the course would require ‘a certain amount of bibliographical ferreting and a certain amount of practical investigative research’.[27] Some of the practical work required students to locate bookshops in the Cape Peninsula and libraries in the black townships. They would also investigate small literary magazines, the practices of apartheid censors, the Heinemann African Writers series, and compare themes and the readers of West African Onitsha market literature and South Africa’s photo-novels.[28] One can only speculate what book history in South Africa may have looked like today had more than just one student enrolled for Coetzee’s course.

What is evident though is that South African and non-South African scholars are actually investigating some of the themes on Coetzee’s course list. The United States-based scholar Lily Saint, for example, has investigated the reading of ‘Western’ or cowboy photo-comics of the middle and late apartheid periods. She claims that ‘narrative and aesthetic conventions of the form reinforced yet simultaneously disturbed the apartheid state’s fantasy of total segregation.’[29] Moreover, through reading practices black and white South Africans could have contact in the ‘imaginative and affective spheres even while apartheid doctrine attempted to prevent it.’[30] Photo-comics were therefore not just distracting and ‘light’ reading; they also functioned politically. More recently, Saint has looked at the notorious apartheid passbooks as books, examining the ways in which they ‘narrated lives and conditioned various political and racial modes of subjectivity’.[31]  Using literary and other techniques, she argues that despite the aims of controlling the everyday lives of South Africans, passbooks actually failed to do so in ways that apartheid authorities intended.

Had Coetzee’s course flourished in the 1980s, there may have been more South African literary scholars doing book history today. That they are now starting to recognize its value is perhaps best expressed by Sarah Duff who notes in a review of Van der Vlies’ collection that ‘when literary analysis is grounded in an understanding of the material circumstances in which texts are produced, it has the potential to shed light on the ways in which books and other publications are implicated in the creation of identities, and in the production and maintenance of power’.[32] She insists, however, that book historians should include popular forms of publishing and popular fiction or risk ‘a tiny and elite print and book culture in South Africa’.


Book history in South Africa is in its early phase of development, but the prospects for growth are good. Some departments of history, literature, and publishing studies at universities feature book history themes as special topics, but these initiatives are driven by individuals instead of being curriculum-based. The number of South African scholars working both self-consciously and ‘accidentally’ in this field is growing, and collaboration with book history scholars abroad has strengthened international research networks. A recent example is Print, publishing, and cultural production in South Africa, 1948-2012, which is a British Academy research project funded under the International Partnership and Mobility Scheme 2012-13.[33]This project establishes a long-term research partnership between the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes University and the Publishing Studies programme at the University of Pretoria. It examines the production, dissemination and reception of the book in South Africa, with a special focus on the role of print culture in constituting national identities during the apartheid and post-apartheid periods. The programme included participation in ‘The Book in Africa’, an International Symposium held on 20 October 2012 at the Institute for English Studies, Senate House, University of London, and a research visit by Archie Dick and Beth le Roux to the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies. Caroline Davis and Sarah Hughes will visit the University of Pretoria in May 2013.

The most significant step forward for book history in South Africa would be a teaching programme at a research-intensive university, or a research centre that focuses on book history and/or print and digital cultures.  Another way forward would be to connect South Africa’s manuscript, book and print culture scholars to existing centres or projects in Africa with broader but germane research themes. One possibility is the Africa Codicology Institute, but its website has been under construction for some time and therefore remains elusive. A more likely possibility may be the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project located with the Institute of Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town.The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project,or the South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, was officially launched in 2003.[34] A major achievement of this project was the new library-archive building, which was inaugurated in Timbuktu in January 2009. The project is dedicated to research various aspects of writing and reading the handwritten works of Timbuktu and beyond. Training young researchers is an integral part of its work. This project includes a sub-project on ‘Book history in Africa’, and provides an opportunity for strengthening the transnational outlook of South African book history.

The prospects for a more stable growth path for book history is kept alive also in a seminar series arranged as a partnership between the Institut Francais d’Afrique du Sud (IFAS) and the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria. The seminar series will involve the cooperation of scholars from the University of Cape Town, Wits University, and the University of Johannesburg. International speakers will feature in the seminars that will take place once a month, alternating between IFAS and the University of Pretoria.[35] What is therefore certain is that the interest in book history is deeper and the circle of scholars is wider. The next phase of development will establish book history’s place on the map of South African and international scholarship. 

[1] A. Delmas and N. Penn (eds.), Written culture in a colonial context: Africa and the Americas, 1500-1900.  Cape Town 2011.

[2] A. Delmas, ‘Introduction: The written word and the world’, in: Delmas and Penn, Written culture, xx.

[3] D. Lewis-Williams and S. Challis, Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushmen Rock Art. London 2011.

[4] I. Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s printing press: Indian Ocean print cultures and cosmopolitanisms’, in: I. Hofmeyr and M. Williams (eds.), South Africa and India: Shaping the Global South. Johannesburg 2011, 10.

[5] M.R Frost, ‘That great ocean of idealism: the Tagore circle and the idea of Asia, 1900-1920’, in: A. Jamal and S. Moorthy (eds.), Indian Ocean Studies: cultural, social and political perspectives. New York 2009; M.R Frost, ‘To Durban via Singapore and other colonial port-cities: an historical journey across the Indian Ocean in search of cosmopolitanism, 1869-1919’, in: P. Gupta [et al.] (eds.), Eyes across the water: Navigating the Indian Ocean. New Delhi 2009.

[6] I. Hofmeyr, ‘Violent Texts, Vulnerable Readers: Hind Swaraj and Its South African Audiences’, in: Public Culture: An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies 23 (2011), 285-297.

[7] A. Davids, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims from 1815 to 1915. Edited by H. Willemse and S.E. Dangor. Pretoria 2011.

[8] G. Groenewald, ‘Review of A. Davids The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims from 1815 to 1915. Edited by H. Willemse and S.E. Dangor. Pretoria 2011’, in: New Contree 62 (2011), 182.

[9] Groenewald, ‘Review of A. Davids’, 182-3.

[10] Groenewald, ‘Review of A. Davids’, 185.

[11] S. Jappie, ‘From the madrasah to the museum: The social life of the kietaabs of Cape Town’, in: History in Africa, 38 (2011), 369-399; S. Jappie, ‘Jawi Dari Jauh: “Malays” in South Africa through text’, in: Indonesia and the Malay World, 40 (2012), 143-159.

[12] Jappie, ‘From the madrasah to the museum’, 374.

[13] Projects: Available at: (Accessed 26 October 2012).

[14] S. Jeppie, ‘History for Timbuktu: Ahmad Bulʻarāf, archives and the place of the past’, in: History in Africa, 38 (2011), 401-416.

[15] Jeppie, ‘History for Timbuktu’, 413-4.

[16] A. Desai, Reading revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island. Pretoria 2012.

[17] Public protector looking into destruction of Limpopo textbooks. Available at: (Accessed 30 July 2012); for the burning of libraries, see: Burning of the Ratanda Library. Available at: (Accessed 30 July 2012.

[18] A.L. Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures. Toronto 2012.

[19] C. van Onselen, ‘Review of The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures by Archie Dick. Toronto: University of Toronto Press’, in: Quarterly bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, 66 (2012), 41.

[20] E. le Roux, ‘The accidental growth of book history: A literature review of print culture and book history studies in South Africa’, in: Mousaion, 30 (2012), forthcoming.

[21] E. le Roux, ‘Book history in the African world: The state of the discipline’, in: Book History, 15 (2012): 248–300.

[22] E. le Roux, ‘The ‘politics’ and practice of peer review in South Africa’, in: S. Ngobeni (ed.), Scholarly Publishing in Africa: Opportunities and Impediments. Pretoria 2010, 315–326; E. le Roux, ‘Does the North read the South? The case of South African scholarly publishers’, in: B. Benwell [et al] (eds.), Postcolonial Audiences: Readers, Viewers and Reception. Oxford 2012, 73–85.

[23] E. le Roux, ‘The university as publisher: Towards a history of South African university presses’, in: Van der Vlies (ed.), Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, 437.

[24] C. Davis, ‘Histories of publishing under apartheid: Oxford University Press in South Africa’, in: Journal of Southern African Studies, 37 (2011), 79.

[25] A. van der Vlies (ed.), Print, text, and book cultures in South Africa. Johannesburg 2012.

[26] Van der Vlies (ed.), Print, text, and book cultures in South Africa, 16-48.

[27] P. McDonald, ‘The Book in South Africa’, in: D. Atwell and D. Attridge, (eds.), The Cambridge History of South African Literature. Cambridge 2012, 800.

[28] Idem.

[29] L. Saint, ‘Not Western: Race, reading and the South African photocomic’, in: Journal of Southern African studies, 36 (2010), 939.

[30] Idem.

[31] L. Saint, ‘Reading subjects: passbooks, literature and apartheid’, in: Social dynamics, 38 (2012), 117-133.

[32] S.E. Duff, ‘Reviews: On the matter of books’. Available at: (Accessed 31 January 2013).

[33] For more information, see:

[34] For more information, see:

[35] For more information, see:


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