Books that MatterDavid Philip Publishers has shared an excerpt from Books That Matter: David Philip Publishers During the Apartheid Years, a memoir by Marie Philip.
David Philip Publishers was established in 1971, with the aim of publishing “books that matter for Southern Africa” and challenging mainstream apartheid thinking.
In 1992, Nadine Gordimer of the founders: “David and Marie Philip started an independent publishing firm in South Africa during some of the darkest days of censorship. Their unintimidated aim was to publish good books. In spite of all odds, they have come of age as among not only the bravest but also the most highly regarded of our publishers. I am happy to be on their list.”
In the excerpt, Philip explains the problems of censorship that David Philip Publishers met with during the 1970s and 80s. With some work, they were able to get “previously banned writing unbanned on the grounds of ‘literary merit’”, and then re-issue the books. Additionally, the South African rights to international banned – and recently unbanned – books were relatively easy to acquire, as overseas publishers “were seldom eager to get involved in any way with the South African authorities”.
Philip also recalls how they lured Wole Soyinka to their stable, during the 1980 Frankfurt Book Fair, and made the transition to the computer age in 1982.

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Censorship had led over the sixties and seventies to what David called the ‘unbridgeable gap’ in the South African literature that would have been identifying the black experience at first hand. There’s a telling quotation from Solzhenitsyn (quoted in Justin Cartwright: This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited p. 36) – ‘Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience … from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.’ This is what the censors were contriving to eradicate in the South African experience, citing it always as a threat to security. Books could be submitted to Publications Committees – mainly by customs or by the police – and, since 1974, if banned could be taken on appeal not to the courts but to the arch-conservative Publications Appeal Board. Once the grip of the Board loosened under Professor JCW van Rooyen in 1980, we could try in some small measure to fill that gap again, by getting previously banned writing unbanned on the grounds of ‘literary merit’ and republishing it in the Africasouth Paperbacks series. Jonathan, in order to select, obtained permission to read a long list of such books in the South African Library, where they were allowed to be kept under restriction. The Publications Appeal Board sat in Pretoria, and we were able to apply to the brilliant and always supportive help of Professor John Dugard, at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits, to take our selected books on appeal and get them unbanned. Then we could reissue.

An irony was that most of the banned books had first been published outside the country and submitted to the censors by customs or the police. To publish in Africasouth we had then to get South African rights from the original overseas publishers. As they were seldom eager to get involved in any way with the South African authorities, that was not difficult. In this way the list built, and although the books couldn’t hope now to retrieve the freshness of their first conception, nevertheless they helped to fill in the experiences of those times. 1982 saw the resurrection of The Will to Die by Can Themba; Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o; Transvaal Episode by Harry Bloom; Chocolates for My Wife by Todd Matshikiza, etc (see Appendix).

It was not intended that the series would remain limited to the unbanned books. To quote from a later catalogue description, it ‘includes important works of southern African literature that are at present available only in hardback or are out of print or not readily accessible or “banned”; there is also provision for new writing. The books are not only those whose worth has become acknowledged but also interesting and significant works that need rescue from neglect. Among the titles are a number of books recently “unbanned”, after having been sent by the publisher for review.

A title we were particularly pleased to add to the Africasouth list did not come from a South African writer but from the Nigerian (later Nobel Laureate) Wole Soyinka. In 1980 it was Africa Year at the Frankfurt Book Fair and he’d come to visit his original publisher Rex Collings at the stand we shared, to tell him that he and other African publishers were going to demonstrate against South African publishers displaying books there. Rex said, ‘You wouldn’t demonstrate against David and Marie, would you? Come and look at their books.’ So he looked, and then said firmly, ‘We’ll demonstrate against all of them except Ravan and David Philip.’ And then he told us we could have the South African rights for his next book, which was Ake: The Years of Childhood. We first imported hardback stock from Rex the following year, and then did our own Africasouth edition.

Frankfurt was indeed important to us, more so year by year. From the beginning it had seemed to us important for our authors and also for us to sell international rights for our books, whether of territory in English or of translation. It would not only possibly extend our print runs but would give the book a wider resonance than if it were published in South Africa only. The Frankfurt Book Fair was the key to the introductions we needed to do this. It was demanding and exhausting, but the demands were different from our day-to-day pressures of publishing at home, where the shadow of a divided society hung over everything. It provided a breath of different air, quite apart from the stimulus of meeting publishers and ideas from around the world, and a sense of support in what we were doing.

The dates of the Buchmesse, held in the vast trade fair grounds in eight separate display halls, varied within October each year but the pattern was always the same: Tuesday was set-up day, where publishers found their allotted stands (open-fronted cubicles) amidst a chaos of packing materials, dust and unrolling carpets, and hoped to find there the furniture they’d ordered and the boxes of their books and advertising material for display. Rex and we had a longstanding agreement (approved later by James Currey when he joined us in 1985) that we in Cape Town would do the ordering of the furniture and that we need not have spotlights inside the stand (too hot and bright) but certainly we needed a fridge. DPP books had of course to come from Cape Town and had to be despatched quite some time before, through the services of a shipping agent specialising in consolidating the needs of whichever South African publishers were taking part. The German organisation of the Buchmesse was impeccable – the efficiency, the smooth running of it all, never ceased to amaze us. Apparent chaos on Tuesday, everything elegantly in place and spotless on Wednesday. The corollary was, needless to say, the bureaucracy: you had to get those forms in and payments made by due date in March or you had no stand, no entry in catalogue or Who’s Who of publishers. In fact, you’d lost your place!

There might be some general meetings arranged for Tuesday, like Rights Managers, or North/South debates, or much later, Electronic Rights, but the main business of the Fair would begin on the Wednesday. We’d learnt by now to make appointments well before with other publishers – those to whom we hoped to sell rights of future or current books, or those who wanted to sell to us. Appointments were made half-hourly from Wednesday to Sunday. Usually one of us would go and the other would mind our half of the stand. David said wryly, after our last visit in 1999, that we’d been to Frankfurt for 23 years running – and that’s what it felt like.

Financially it was affordable (in fact we couldn’t afford not to go) because we’d tumbled to the advantages of being registered exporters – not only tax advantages but cash grants too. Even to us, so desperate were the authorities to earn foreign currency. They were truly ambivalent – our books might be threatened with censorship and banning within South Africa, but the same authorities were quite happy to subsidise us with such tax advantages to sell the books outside the country. The official South African stand would even have welcomed them for display amongst the proteas, but we were not prepared to offer the books for that purpose.

With the excellent 5-stops airfares that were at that time available (no extra charge for any three stopovers on the way), we were usually able to take a short break somewhere to or from the Book Fair. It was vital to write up our notes before we got back to the office and on one occasion, 1982, we were planning to do that in Rome, having booked at a Roman Catholic convent recommended by a friend, the Foyer Unitas, which was very inexpensive, welcomed visitors to Rome, Catholic or not, and informed them and showed them around Rome. We knew it was near the Piazza Navona, hardly a difficult address, but the taxi drove us round and round in the dark, eventually depositing us in front of a decrepit-looking building. Full of doubts and very tired, we took a shaky, mediaeval lift which opened at last on a bright reception room with a smiling nun waiting to welcome us. With enormous relief I put my handluggage heavily down on the marble floor – and heard an ominous scrunch that I ignored. Only too soon, however, as we were being shown down the corridor to our room, fluid began to drip out of the case, and a cheerful elderly nun bustling past said, ‘That’s a very nice smell – gin, isn’t it?’ Indeed it was, a litre bottle bought at the dutyfree at the airport in Johannesburg and not favoured or used at all in Frankfurt. Embarrassingly the drips became a flood, but the nuns rallied round with bathmats and towels.


An event that seemed of momentous importance was DPP’s launch into the computer age, and so it was, considering all the changes that were consequently to come to publishing in the future. Right now, however, what drove us to the leap in 1982 was that the time had come for computerised invoicing and statements. How to afford a computer when funds were so very tight? It was somehow decided that I should be the one to go into the City to negotiate a loan of R14 000, and although I was successful I had the strong feeling that the suited businessmen I persuaded were waiting only for my nervous dignity to go out of the door before they collapsed with laughter. Nevertheless, we bought our Commodore Business Machine, very much guided by Stephen Tooke, who had come with us from Scott Road to the new offices. Computers were right up his street, and indeed he later made them his career. He knew whom to ask and who should design the invoicing and statement modules, and he then ran the system for us.

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About the book

South Africa in the 1970s was a divided and increasingly traumatised country, seemingly permanently in the toils of apartheid, and with little space available for open discussion of apartheid policies or awareness of just what those policies were meaning in the lives of people.

It was in this context that David Philip, a South African already involved for several years in publishing, became convinced there must be more opportunity for books with informed discussion and debate to be written and published within the country. He persuaded his wife Marie, also with publishing experience, that they could together set up their own independent publishing company, to publish ‘Books that matter for Southern Africa’ – in social history, politics, literature, or whatever, good of their kind and ready to challenge mainstream apartheid thinking.

This is an anecdotal account – a memoir – of the lows and highs of a small, cheerful, underfunded but vibrant ‘oppositional’ publishing company, David Philip Publishers, from the year 1971 through to the birth of the new South Africa.

About the author and subject

David and Marie Philip, South Africans of many generations, were both born and schooled in Cape Town. David, after a short spell in the army at the end of WWII, went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, in those heady post-war years of material shortages but amongst students of many different ages and backgrounds. He loved all of it – CS Lewis as his tutor in English, cricket on soft green fields, long summer evenings – but his plan and desire was always to get into publishing back in South Africa.

Marie (then Marie van Ryneveld) met him briefly during those years but her plan was different: she graduated from the University of Cape Town in an eclectic mixture of languages and Constitutional History and Law, maybe to do something vaguely diplomatic but above all to write and to travel, first to Paris. In the meantime she agreed to a temporary job as an assistant to David over Christmas in the small bookshop he was setting up in Cape Town for the Stationers, Galvin and Sales. From there each in turn found employment with the local branches of international publishers – Marie with Longmans Green, and David with the Oxford University Press.

They were married in 1953. By the time they retired in 1999 from David Philip Publishers, the company they had set up together in 1971, they had not only been living, working, and playing with words together for more than 40 years, but had jointly been in the book trade for nearly 100 years.


Book details

Books That Matter: David Philip Publishers During the Apartheid Years by Marie Philip
EAN: 9781485622871