2018 was a year marked by culmination and transformation.

CULMINATION because we reached our century, celebrating this in a number of memorable ways:

  • by organizing a UCT Summer School course, ‘Witnesses to South African history’, convened by Elizabeth van Heyningen, which shop-windowed the contribution to the writing of South Africa’s history by our publications;
  • by publishing two volumes in the year to bring the number of volumes produced under our imprint to 100 (or 106 if we include Jan van Riebeeck’s journals which appeared under our auspices but not as part of our standard series);
  • by holding grand centennial functions in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg, the latter two put together by our Gauteng Council member, Nick Southey, and the former made possible by the ready efforts of our administrators, Rolf Proske and Sandra Commerford, and the members of my Council, to all of whom go our sincere thanks;
  • by mounting an exhibition on the VRS’s history at the Cape Town campus of the NLSA which is where our founding meeting was held in 1918;
  • by launching a fund-raising appeal to raise funds to help sustain the Society for the next 100 years: to date it totals R562,900, but it remains open for further contributions as we are striving to reach a total of R600,000.

TRANSFORMATION as we gear up for our next century by:

  • re-branding our Society as HiPSA (formerly the VRS/voorheen die VRV);
  • adopting a logo which, at the suggestion of one of our members, is based on the ceramic calabash sculpture which we received for winning the Western Cape Cultural Affairs Department’s Archives Advocacy Award in 2017;
  • comprehensively re-vamping our website, in which our multi-skilled treasurer, Danie de Villiers, took the initiative;
  • collaborating with Media 24/Naspers in its publication in soft-cover format of one of our recent volumes, From Cattle-herding to Editor’s Chair: The Unfinished Autobiography of Richard Victor Selope Thema under its Kwela ‘Pocket Revolutionaries’ imprint, from which we have received royalties of R3003.11 to date.

In the wider public sphere our editors and translators have been very energetic in promoting their volumes. Elizabeth van Heyningen, Con de Wet and Chris van der Merwe have spoken to audiences in Swellendam, Montagu, Hermanus, Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Bloemfontein about the Selected Letters of President M.T. Steyn, while the Society also ran promotional stalls at the Western Cape Archives Week, the South African Oral History Society conference, the Stellenbosch Woordfees and the Fish Hoek Public Library. Our thanks go to all Council members involved, especially Elizabeth van Heyningen, Chris van der Merwe, Francois Cleophas and our administrator, Rolf Proske, for giving of their time and knowledge to spread the word about our volumes.

There will be more such activities as the Spanish flu spreads through the country. Two weeks ago I co-presented a UCT Summer School course on the epidemic, while on Monday I opened an exhibition on this topic at the Montagu Museum. Both were accompanied by launches of In a Time of Plague. A word of thanks is due to the organizers for the invitation to speak under their auspices.

From what both the treasurer and I have outlined, it would seem that the Society is thriving despite its age. However, if we probe deeper, there is cause for concern about our future.

Firstly, as some of you will know from personal experience, our reliance on the SA Post Office for delivery of our books has often meant long delays in members receiving our volumes, or even in their not receiving them at all. Although both we and the affected members have been driven almost to distraction by these service delivery failures, we are reluctant to resort to courier services because this would require us to raise our subscription appreciably, so we are faced with a conundrum in this regard which may well force us to choose the lesser of two unappealing options.

Secondly, our membership continues to decline steadily, from 763 in 2017 to 706 in 2018. Although we signed up 55 new members in 2018, we lost 45 to death, resignations and downscaling. At times it feels as if we are playing snakes and ladders! In a bid to counteract the loss through downscaling, we are toying with the idea of introducing a new category of ‘downscaled’ membership, viz. a reduced fee membership which will entitle such members to receive our annual volume in electronic form only. We will be interested to hear your opinion of this idea.

Perhaps this proposal will slow our loss of downscaling members, but it is clear that this is not sufficient. We must recruit new members too. We need both as we embark on our second century and begin Series III in our publication series.

Howard Phillips.

12 January 2019.