South African Academic Publisher Reaches 100 Milestone. A Rare and Significant Event

Over the past month, my email has provided two contrasting examples of the state of scholarly publishing in African countries. One was an invitation to celebrate the centenary of Wits University Press in South Africa. The other, an academic report on the disappearance of Nigerian university presses. Between these two extremes, there are only a few functional African university presses in 2022 – a recent survey found only 15 of 52 active presses that still claim to be functioning.

The situation is similar in other universities in the South, such as India and Latin America, where most university presses operate as printers rather than publishers. All the more reason, then, to celebrate the longevity – and importance – of a publisher like Wits University Press.

Active academic publishers are important because they provide a platform for research from a specific region. Scholars from the Global South often go unnoticed and unseen, even in scholarships focused on their own countries and areas of expertise. As Mary Jay of the African Book Collective notes:

You can earn a degree in African Studies without reading a single book published in Africa.

Local university presses are the primary channel for these scholars to participate in broader debates and conversations, through books and journals.

If that sounds like a political justification for university presses, it is. Politics has always influenced scholarly publishing: who creates a press, who funds and who is published. The history of a publisher like Wits University Press is influenced as much by politics as by intellectual traditions.

ancient history

Colonial South Africa became a Union with a white minority government in 1910. Wits University Press was established in 1922, the same year as its parent institution, the University of the Witwatersrand. The decision reflects how the university wanted to be perceived – as a new center of learning and research that could, over time, compare itself to colonial models. (The University of Melbourne may have thought the same, establishing Australia’s oldest university press the same year.) The first title, The National Resources of South Africa by economics professor Robert Lehfeldt, exemplifies the mission : that research carried out by eminent local scholars on Africa could be conducted and published in this country.

The first published title.
Spirit University Press

The books that followed seem to confirm this early belief that a South African university press could make its mark if it focused on local expertise. Titles ranged from South African designs to drumming to the citrus industry. The list of publications was inevitably affected by a changing political context, and also often shaped by idiosyncratic individual interests or academic priorities.

In the early decades, the primary focus of publications was the so-called “Native Question” and race relations. For example, a founding member of the publications committee of Wits University Press, JD Rheinallt Jones, was a social reform advocate who established the South African Institute of Race Relations. Prominent social scientists have published some of their most important research in the press, including Desmond Cole and Phillip Tobias.

Apartheid and censorship

Apartheid policies began to be entrenched by the white minority government from 1948 with harsh racial laws separating South African society and controlling the flow of information. The usual author profile at Wits University Press was, of course, white and male.

Outstanding black authors include the Reverend John Henderson Soga in 1930 and the range of writers published in the flagship Bantu Treasury series launched by the press. This journal and the journal Bantu Studies (now African Studies) were created by Clement Doke of the University’s Department of Bantu Studies. His collaboration and friendship with Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, Wits’ first black scholar, provided a fertile basis for a list of publications in linguistics, dictionaries, ethnography and literature. In tougher times, the Bantu Treasury Series would keep the press afloat. Titles began to be prescribed for schools of Bantu education and teacher training colleges from the 1950s, and large orders were the main source of income for at least two decades.

An old man leans forward in a chair as a photographer takes his picture.
Paleontologist Phillip Tobias was one of the authors published by Wits University Press.
Adrian Steirn www.21Icons.com via Getty Images

With censorship more heavily enforced from the 1960s, the more radical and well-known South African authors tended to publish abroad. There was a widespread perception that university presses would not take chances with controversial texts and could not secure an author wide circulation and readership.

It is true that Wits University Press was not a political publisher – some of its most enduring titles include Trees and Shrubs of the Witwatersrand (1964) and South African Frogs: A Complete Guide (1979). But by the 1970s state repression could no longer be ignored, and the Wits University Press publication list increasingly included studies of unions, labor, and the law that served as substitutes for overtly political books. Within a decade, the press could aptly describe itself as a “progressive publisher for a new South Africa”.

What else should be done

Wits University Press now attracts leading local scholars who emphasize the social sciences and humanities rather than the early natural sciences. The huge expansion in the number and profile of academics in South Africa is reflected in stricter peer review and selection policies, rather than an unsustainable increase in titles. And the current preoccupation of most university presses – technological developments that have changed publishing processes and formats – has been embraced. However, inequalities remain.

Will Wits University Press last another 100 years? The biggest lingering threat has been there from the very beginning: visibility and relevance. Or rather, how a South African university press can make itself visible and demonstrate its relevance in often indifferent and highly competitive international markets. The press actively explored co-publishing and distribution deals in North America and Europe.

The West continues to dominate published scholarship on Africa. The solution is more visible research in Africa. Wits University Press has long been part of this solution.