Minutes of the 98th Annual General Meeting of the Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents (VRS) held at Ravenswood House, Hatfield Street, Gardens at 17h30 on Thursday 23rd November 2017.

  1. Welcome and apologies

The Chair, Prof Howard Phillips, welcomed the members present. Apologies were recorded. As the Treasurer, Mr Danie de Villiers, was unwell, the bookkeeper, Mr Sakkie Nieuwoudt, would explain the Society’s financial position and answer questions.

Prof Phillips expressed the Society’s sincere and profound thanks to Patrick and Siobhan Esnouf who had made their beautiful home available for the meeting.

  1. In Memoriam

Members stood for a minute’s silence whilst the Chairman read out the list of members who had passed away since the previous AGM.

  1. Confirmation of the minutes of the 97th AGM held on 6 December 2016.

Copies of the minutes were available at the AGM. Acceptance of the minutes was proposed by Mr Ken Evans and seconded by Dr Sandy Shell.  The minutes were accepted by all without discussion.

  1. Matters arising from the minutes


  1. Report of the Treasurer

Financial documentation was available to members: the auditor’s report (to the end of 2016) and provisional financial results projected to the end of 2017.

In the absence of the Treasurer, Prof Phillips gave a short overview of the current financial position of the Society. He then called on the bookkeeper, Mr Sakkie Nieuwoudt to brief members.

Mr Nieuwoudt noted that in the last two years the surplus had improved and increased to R35 000. Publication costs were constantly rising and membership fees had been increased to cover these costs. Financial statements had been audited, and finances were well controlled. Accumulated funds were in good order. During 2017 interest had been added to the Frank Bradlow Memorial Fund.

Replying to a query regarding long- and short-term investments, Mr Nieuwoudt stated that the investments were sound. In answer to a question from the floor, Dr Anton Ehlers explained that the donation from Mr Chris Otto (which had come via Stellenbosch University’s History Department) towards the publication costs of this year’s volume, had no conditions attached to it.

Mr Nieuwoudt also noted that the Society submitted an annual tax return, but that there was a nil assessment as the Society was registered as a non-profit organisation.

Answering a question from the floor, Prof Phillips explained that the Frank Bradlow Memorial Trust had been made over to the Society. The funding from it covered the cost of illustrations in the Society’s volumes.

Acceptance of the Treasurer’s report, proposed by Prof Alan Morris, was unanimous.

  1. Report of the Chair

Delivering the annual report, Prof Phillips said that it had been an extremely active year. He thanked the administrative staff, the Executive Committee and Council members for their support and activities. The forthcoming centenary year would be even more onerous.

The year had hardly begun when, out of the blue and at short notice, the Society received the prestigious Archives Advocacy Award for 2016-17 from the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs. The award citation, in referring to the Society, noted that “Without its valuable work, much history would be hidden”. The award took the form of a ceramic calabash and a framed certificate. Both were displayed. Two initiatives flowed directly from the award. A discussion with the Director of the Western Cape Archives Service about collaboration between the Society and the Archive Service led to an invitation to have a stall in the Archives building during Archives Week in May. Furthermore, a meeting with the head of the Western Cape Library Service confirmed collaboration between the Service and the Society. Participation in events at Fish Hoek Public Library was consequently being planned.

The sale of second-hand volumes via our newsletter had been very successful. Thirty-five of the single volumes on sale had attracted buyers, and further volumes would be advertised for sale in forthcoming newsletters.

A new departure has been the concluding of an agreement with Kwela Books (an imprint of the Media 24/NASPERS group) whereby a soft-cover version of the 2016 volume, From Cattle-Herding to Editor’s Chair, would be published. Kwela Books has market penetration in areas such as Soweto where the Society has very little or no profile. Kwela will pay the Society 10% of sales earnings.

Preparations for the centenary year in 2018 are underway. The first event will be a series of lectures at UCT’s Summer School in January. Convened by Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen, five speakers will talk on major themes running through our 100 volumes.

An exhibition titled “100 Years of the VRS” will be held at the National Library as part of the Library’s own bicentenary celebration as the Society is in many ways a child of the South African Public Library, the precursor of the National Library.

Exactly 100 years after the establishment of the Society, on 29 August 2018, our exhibition at the National Library will be opened and a walk up Queen Victoria Street to the Centre for the Book, where our office is located, will be undertaken, followed by our high-profile centenary celebration in the Centre’s main hall.

Associated with these events will be a VRS 100 Fundraising Appeal and a recruitment drive to increase membership, as this has been slipping downwards for some time. The Society presently had only 642 members, 83 less than in 2016. The quality of the Society’s volumes remains unquestioned and is acknowledged, but our marketing needs to be improved.

Various comments came from the floor. It was suggested that history departments at universities could be fertile fields for recruitment of younger members. However, Prof Phillips  stated that, while the Society has donated volumes as prizes to such departments to draw students into becoming members, only three new student members had been signed up as a result in ten years.

Mr Louis Rood noted that there ought to be great potential for collaboration with all public libraries in the country, not just those in the Western Cape.

Acceptance of the Chair’s report was proposed by Ms Tanya Barben and seconded by Dr Sandy Shell.

  1. Motion 

“That the name of the Society be altered to:  ‘Historical Publications Southern Africa (Formerly the van Riebeeck Society)/Historiese Publikasies Suider-Afrika (Voorheen die van Riebeeck-Vereniging).

Retired Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Ian Farlam took over proceedings at this point. He noted that point 11(a) stated that the laws of the Society could only be amended by a two-thirds majority of those present at a General Meeting of the Society, after consideration by Council. The motion had already been considered by Council which had supported it.

The motion was then formally proposed by the Chair. Prof Phillips said that the issue of the name of the Society had been raised by him 17 years ago, and he had been told not to be hasty. He did not think that it was being hasty to raise this issue again now, 17 years later. The name was, he said, inaccurate and misleading as the connotation was that the focus of the Society was the Cape, with a particular focus on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The question of rebranding the Society had been discussed in Council which felt that another misleading name should be avoided. The suggested new name – Historical Publications Southern Africa, or HIPSA – while bland, is descriptive and accurate. At the same time, Prof Phillips noted that it was unsatisfactory to turn our backs on our history. In this respect it was proposed to attach “formerly the Van Riebeeck Society/voorheen die Van Riebeeck- Vereniging” to the new name. A further factor was that results of online searches would for some time be linked to the search term “Van Riebeeck Society”.  He felt that, while we should not be embarrassed about where we came from, the Society needed a name for its future which was broader in ambit.

Professor Phillips’ proposal was seconded by Prof Chris van der Merwe who stated that when the Society was founded, the name “Van Riebeeck” was chosen as it was not considered to be alienating or controversial. This was no longer so.

Sir Rupert Bromley thanked the Chair for an excellent speech. He felt that, unfortunately, the new name was bland and not “catchy”. Mr Louis Rood said he fully supported the rebranding and that the name “Van Riebeeck” had become a symbol of colonialism, and had a negative impact on the recruitment of new members. The new name was pragmatic and sensible.

A general discussion ensued. A member opposing the motion felt that the name change was pandering to populist elements. In response, Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen noted that South Africa had become a more embracing society and there was a need to reflect that, which the new name would do. A number of members speaking from the floor supported the motion, and mention was made of the fact that the name often proved to be an embarrassment and was an impediment to the Society’s acceptance. Mr Piet Westra added that he had been contacted by some people who had been opposed to the change, and that older members might find the change unacceptable.

Prof Chris van der Merwe stated that an overwhelming majority of members had, in an online survey, indicated that they were in favour of the name change. Prof Phillips said that of 142 members who had replied, 97 were in favour, 12 against and 33 had accepted the change but felt that another name should be considered.

Mr John Rennie brought up the question of labelling our volumes in some of the country’s other official languages, a suggestion which Prof Phillips felt could be implemented through a combination of imagination and practicality, but the name change was a priority now. The change had been discussed for 16 years and the upcoming centenary provided an opportunity to effect this.

A vote was taken, in which 32 members voted in favour and 1 against. Judge Farlam noted that 20 members had provided proxy votes giving the Chair their vote. Consequently, he declared that the motion was carried by far more than the 66% which a constitutional change in terms of clause 11(a) required. The new name would be phased in over the coming months.

8. Any Other Business

Dr Steven Craven thanked Prof Phillips and the Executive Committee for their sterling work. He had some reservations about the format of Kwela Books as publications in its ‘Pocket Revolutionaries’ series lacked an index. Prof Phillips replied that the question of an index had been discussed with Kwela; it maintained that its readership did not want an index.

Dr van Heyningen formally thanked Prof Phillips for his work.

Prof Phillips announced with regret that some copies of the current annual volume, Seleksies uit die Briewe van President M.T. Steyn, 1904-1910/Selected Letters of President M.T. Steyn 1904-1910, had been found to be blemished or stained, and he appealed to members to check their copies and report such faults if found. A message about this would be sent to all members. The Society is not paying the printers until a satisfactory outcome is achieved.

The matter of digital publications was discussed. Prof Phillips felt that electronic books posed no threat to traditional hard copy publications. An approach by Elsevier to digitise our volumes had been rejected as being financially unacceptable.

In conclusion, Prof Phillips said that it had been an historic meeting. The Society’s name would be changed after the 100th volume was published, and would thus be phased in during the course of the next two years. The first volume bearing the HiPSA imprint would appear as Series III/1 in 2019.

There being no other matters raised, the meeting closed at 18h25.