Whichever doctor said that when you reach the venerable age of 98, you should be taking things easy was clearly not thinking of the VRS, for the 98th year of our existence, which has just ended, has been a very active – almost hyperactive – year.

Our administrators, Rolf Proske and Sandra Commerford, the six members of the Executive Committee, and all 16 members of the Council know from personal experience the extent of such hyperactivity. So I thank them all for sharing this burden with me in 2017 and, in anticipation, for doing so even more so in our forthcoming centenary year. Not that 2017 has been all about planning for next year’s landmark year, but this has certainly exercised our minds greatly.

However, the year started off in a quite different direction and on a very high note when, entirely out of the blue, the VRS received the prestigious Archives Advocacy Award for 2016-17 from the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs at a glittering ceremony in Somerset West. The award citation read:

‘The Van Riebeeck Society, founded in 1918, has done a lot of good work over many years promoting archives by publishing transcribed primary sources. In this way, the society has made available archival sources to many people and has made the public aware of the richness of history and sources available. The publications are prestigious, with contributors from a wide variety of experts in their field and are available in libraries across the world. Without their valuable work, much history would be hidden.’

The award itself took the form of a ceramic calabash and a framed certificate. We are looking for ideas as to how and where to display them to the best advantage.

This very public affirmation of what we have been doing methodically and meticulously since 1918 was very heartening indeed, and from it flowed two fresh initiatives:

(i)        A discussion with the Director of the Western Cape Archives Service about collaboration between us to make the Society better known through the medium of the Archive Service. The first fruit of this was an invitation to have a stall in foyer of the W. Cape Archives during Archives week in May;

(ii)       A meeting with the head of the Western Cape Library Service along the same lines, although this time the medium will be the 474 libraries in the province. We were offered free publicity in the Library Service’s in-house journal, the Cape Librarian, and the opportunity to have our flyers distributed to these libraries by the Service and to give talks there about our books. So, if your local library has a Friends society, suggest to them that they invite the VRS around for a talk.

Pursuing this idea, Rolf Proske arranged with his local library in Fish Hoek for a VRS information table to be set up there on Saturday morning and also secured an invitation for us to participate in Fish Hoek’s ‘Blown Away by Books’ Festival in March next year. In like fashion, through the good offices of a Council member, Ian Farlam, we have been invited to participate in the Hermanus FynArts Festival.

Two other public events where we had a bookish presence were the conference to mark the sinking of the troopship ‘Mendi’ in 1917 and the Kenilworth Village Fair, but at neither did we sell any of our volumes or sign up new members.

Far more successful has been our sale of second-hand VRS volumes via our newsletter. 35 of the single volumes on sale attracted buyers and in 8 of these cases lots will have to be drawn as there is more than one would-be purchaser. Our administrators will process these orders in the next fortnight. We will be advertising more second-hand volumes for sale in our next newsletters.

Yet another new departure has been concluding an agreement with Kwela Books which is in the Media24/NASPERS stable, whereby it will re-publish in an entirely different, soft-cover format our 2016 volume, From Cattle-Herding to Editor’s Chair: The Unfinished Autobiography and Writings of Richard Victor Selope Thema. Kwela targets a very different readership from ours and has market penetration in places like Soweto, New Brighton and Umlazi where, to put it mildly, the VRS does not have a high profile. In return for the use of our text, Kwela will pay us 10% of what it earns through sales. This is an experiment which, we hope, will take our Society into new reading terrains as we have ensured that the Kwela volume will contain a page with information about us and how to join the Society.

And, as if what I have outlined has not been enough to keep us busy in our 98th year, we have been hard at work planning VRS 100, our centenary in 2018.

The first event in our centenary year will be a series of lectures at UCT’s Summer School in January 2018, entitled ‘Witnesses to South African History’. Convened by Elizabeth van Heyningen, 4 speakers will talk on major themes running through many of our 100 volumes, viz. slavery, botany, the indigenous population and war, while Elizabeth herself will stand back and reflect on the importance of VRS volumes as sources on southern Africa’s past.

This will be followed by an exhibition on ‘100 Years of the VRS’, which will be held at the National Library of South Africa in the Company Gardens as part of its own bicentenary exhibition because, in many ways, the VRS is a child of the old South African Public Library. The VRS was founded in 1918 on the initiative of the Library’s then-Director Alan Lloyd, with a member of the Library’s Board, John X. Merriman, as the first chairman. Indeed, to this day, the Library retains the right to nominate one representative to the VRS Council.

Exactly 100 years since our birth, on 29 August 2018, we will formally open the exhibition at the Library and then walk up Queen Victoria Street to the Centre for the Book (where our office is housed) to hold our high-profile centenary celebration in its main hall.

Associated with these centenary events will be a Longevity Fundraising Appeal to sustain the Society for the next 100 years and a recruitment drive to increase our membership which has been slipping downwards for some time. Today, paid-up members number 642, as against 725 in 2016, which means that we have lost 83 members since 2016, even though we signed up 22 new members. 26 of the 83 either died or resigned. 57 have not (yet) paid their subscription for 2017.

The quality of our volumes remains unquestioned. We sold 194 volumes in 2017 and 73 reprints. It is in selling ourselves that we need to improve.

Howard Phillips.

23 November 2017.