(Delivered online at HiPSA AGM, 17 November 2021)
In the Western World it is popularly believed that the Mandarin word for crisis (weiqi) consists of two words combined, ‘wei’ meaning ‘disaster’ and ‘qi’ meaning opportunity. In other words, a crisis presents danger but also opportunity. However, Mandarin linguists disagree with this interpretation and label it wishful thinking among Westerners in search of Oriental wisdom. But I have to tell you that HiPSA’s experience in the past year in a time of plague, does suggest that the two, crisis and opportunity, often do go together. This apparent link forms a dominant theme running through this report.
Let me illustrate:
- Publicity: Lockdown restrictions certainly did deprive us of face-to-face platforms where we could publicize our society, recruit new members and sell our volumes at book fairs, historical conferences, heritage festivals and book launches. On the other hand, Zoom has allowed us to secure publicity beyond local limits, via webinars and occasions like tonight’s book launch. Perhaps book sales and new members signed up tonight will reveal that such an opportunity has been seized with good effect. No pressure, of course!
- Deliveries: COVID-19 significantly worsened the Post Office’s already limping capacity to deliver volumes to our members timeously and in good condition, especially beyond the W. Cape. To mitigate this problem we have, at the suggestion of one of our longstanding members, Professor Jane Carruthers of Johannesburg, been able to negotiate an experimental arrangement with one of our stalwart supporters, Protea Bookshops. In terms of this, its branches in Stellenbosch and Pretoria Hatfield will act as collection points for those members who choose to receive their annual volume in this way. From Protea’s perspective this will mean more book-buying people will come into these two shops and may emerge carrying not just their 2021 HiPSA volume. From our point of view it will mean that these members will receive their volume sooner and in undamaged form. May I urge the 26 members who are taking part in this trial to give us feedback so we can determine whether to roll out this arrangement in other cities with Protea branches next year. The fact that another 101 members have opted to have their annual volume delivered by courier (at their own expense) or to collect it themselves underlines the pressing need for a more reliable and efficient delivery system. Meanwhile, may I thank Protea Bookshops very sincerely for offering us this collection arrangement. I hope that it turns out to yield a win-win situation.
- The Phoenix Donation: Another crisis which created an unanticipated opportunity, this time to show our appreciation for many favours over the years, came in April this year, when an appalling fire destroyed UCT’s Jagger Library and with it thousands of books housed there. To show support for UCT which has been our steady friend in a host of ways for 103 years, we immediately offered the University 79 of our volumes from backstock, reprints and e-books to replace the set which had been reduced to ashes. For obvious reasons, we called it ‘The Phoenix Donation’. In response, a senior UCT librarian wrote, ‘We are grateful for HiPSA’s thoughtful offer … [W]e appreciate [it] and would like to have the donations … [once] we have equipped interim premises … and can resume normal functioning.’ A friend in need is a friend indeed.
- Trials of Slavery Online: Another problem which we were able to turn into a benefit arose when a team of historians of slavery, with the assistance of Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, asked us to make feely available for teaching and research the text of our 2005 volume, Trials of Slavery, which consists of a selection of 18th Century trial records of cases involving slaves. The problem was that the volume was still in print and that we still had a significant number of hardcopies on our shelves. If we agreed to make the text freely available as an opensource document, demand for these hardcopies would dry up overnight. After protracted negotiations, Stanford bought most of the hardcopy volumes from us and donated them to the Slave Lodge in Cape Town to give to schools visiting it. A win-win situation, I think, due in no small measure to the lateral thinking of Professor Grant Parker of Stanford and his team.
Yet, not all of our difficulties have we been able to turn into opportunities to secure a positive outcome.
As you have heard, we have lost two key members of our administrative team, our book-keeper, Sakkie Nieuwoudt, and our assistant administrator, Sandra Commerford. The Exco is trying to find replacements for them while our administrator, Rolf Proske, and our treasurer, Danie de Villiers, hold the fort. If you know of anyone who might fill these shoes, especially that of Sandra Commerford, please contact us. To Rolf and Danie go our sincere gratitude for stepping in at no notice whatsoever. The rest of the Council (especially Elizabeth van Heyningen and Ian Farlam) must be thanked too for their ready support during some trying times this year.
Secondly in terms of difficulties unresolved, our membership continues to slip downwards – 543 paid-up members as against 577 last year – though we did gain 26 new members and sales to non-members did indeed remain high. In fact, over 250 non-members bought individual volumes from us, i.e. almost half the number of paid-up members HiPSA has, which leaves us with the challenge of how to turn such casual, one-off purchasers into members.
On the other hand, some positive outcomes have not been created by crises, but are the product of hard work and excellent scholarship strongly supported by HiPSA. The best example occurred just 10 days ago, when our 2020 volume, Sol Plaatje: A Life in Letters, edited by Brian Willan and Sabata-mpho Mokae, was announced as joint winner of the SA Literary Association’s Creative Non-Fiction Award. In making the award, SALA spoke of how it ‘unearthed hidden treasures that best explain Plaatje for the all-round activist he was …. [The volume] adds another layer to the understanding of Plaatje as a literary figure and visionary. It’s a beautiful book for the future, not only a South African story but a story for the continent.’
HiPSA warmly congratulates the editors, Brian and Sabata, for winning this award with such a fine example of high-quality scholarship and for allowing us to bask in their success too. It is the first time one of our volumes has won such a prestigious award. I am delighted to tell you that at least one of the editors is present virtually tonight, so may I ask Brian to unmute himself and to reflect briefly on their project.
Thinking about what SALA called beautiful books for the future, I can tell you that, all things being equal, our 2022 volume will be devoted to documents relating to the pioneering mass South African trade union, the ICU from 1919-1941, to be followed in subsequent years by volumes of the reminiscences of F.S. Malan, Jan Smuts’ number 2, on San Genocide in the 1860s and on the Letters of Lord Buxton during his time as Governor-General of South Africa 1914-1920.
As for reprints, whether in 2022 we will reprint the Duminy Diaries or Dr Andrew Smith’s Diary of the Expedition for Exploring Central Africa 1834-6 we will decide next month. If you have a strong preference for one or the other, you have until 1 December to let us know.
You have heard that the future holds plenty of opportunities for HiPSA to continue its 103-year old mission of printing or reprinting ‘rare and valuable books, pamphlets and documents relating to the history of southern Africa‘. Let us hope that we can do so without having to go through more crises first.