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Inside story: Publishing the book that rocked the Afrik...

Maverick Life

BOOKS

Inside story: Publishing the book that rocked the Afrikaner elite

The late publisher Jonathan Ball’s introduction to the 2012 edition of ‘The Super-Afrikaners’, the bestselling book that put Ball’s publishing house on the map in 1978.

Jonathan Ball, who established Jonathan Ball Publishers in 1976, died 3 April 2021. Here is his introduction from the 2012 edition of The Super-Afrikaners, the book that helped propel his publishing house into a pre-eminent cultural force in South Africa.

*

Publishing The Super-Afrikaners by Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom in 1978 remains a memorable moment in my long publishing career and a landmark in the history of Jonathan Ball Publishers. Perhaps even a landmark in South African book publishing.

I had left a good job at Macmillan specifically to publish South African history and politics, which they were too scared to do, preferring to kowtow to the apartheid regime, toeing the line so as not to jeopardise their school-book publishing interests. School-book publishers tend to do the bidding of any government in the interest of profit.

It was late 1976. In June of that year, Soweto had caught alight, literally and figuratively, with protests that would change South Africa forever. As a publisher, I wanted to play the role of midwife at the birth of stories that would emerge from a changing South Africa. So, with more enthusiasm than capital, I embarked on an adventure in publishing. 

Our first books were, as are our books today, true to our policy statement formulated by myself, but truth be known, a little plagiarised from one of the great British publishing houses in those far-off days when idealism and standards still held some sway and were not derisively laughed at. It read: ‘To publish books about South Africa that enlighten and entertain. Books of a liberal sanity that pander to neither left nor right nor to clever contemporary fashions in thinking …’

Notice that we called it a “policy statement”. We felt then that “mission statements” were for religious zealots and we also did not use the word “vision”, thinking, like Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, that “if you have a vision you should go and see a doctor”. And so it was that an array of books emanated, in their proud and colourful livery, from our modest offices in the Johannesburg industrial area of Selby. Henry Lever’s fine analysis South African Society, Hennie Kotze and Pierrie Hugo’s Oorlewing in Politieke Perspektief, the first liberal analysis of South Africa’s political prospects in those bleak days just after the Soweto riots and other books too numerous to mention.

Around 1977 the Johannesburg Sunday Times started running an exposé of the Broederbond – the hyper-secret Afrikaans, all-male “brotherhood”. Two intrepid staff members, Hans Strydom (news editor and assistant editor) and Ivor Wilkins (journalist), had found a deep-throat – forgive me – an informer. At clandestine meetings this informer was nervously providing Ivor Wilkins with cardboard boxes full of Broederbond documents, circulars, minutes, resolutions, plans and strategy documents as well as lists of members.

Hans and Ivor would pore over these and produce the facing leader-page pieces that each Sunday fascinated the nation, riveted my attention and piqued my publishing instincts.

I wasted no time in contacting them. The Sunday Times was the flagship title of South African Associated Newspapers. Times Media hadn’t yet even been thought of. South African Associated Newspapers remains a better name for this newspaper group than any of the subsequent names they have called themselves. What an extraordinary thing the ego of a new wave of management is with its name changes, visions, mission statements, etc. Now we have Avusa [which became Times Media again, and is now Arena Holdings – ed.].

South African Associated Newspapers was based in Main Street, conveniently close to the Fed, a pub where the liberal imbibing of a variety of libations helped to oil the human machinery of the group when deadlines had been met and it was left to the great presses in the bowels of the building to do their work. This remains an essential therapy for journalists to this day.

Many a meeting between Strydom, Wilkins and I would take place at the Fed but I am moving ahead of myself.

My first meeting with Hans and Ivor was arranged at the Carlton Hotel, now devoured and destroyed by the new Johannesburg at no great loss to architectural history. We used to call it “the new Carlton” because there was one before it, an elegant old building beloved of our parents and grandparents but, like anything of architectural merit in Johannesburg, it had been torn down to be replaced by this new brutal monstrosity of concrete and glass. We met in a ground-floor restaurant which was the trendy place of the moment, always packed to the rafters. I’ll bet no one even remembers its name now. Johannesburg is like that.

After the initial, get-acquainted pleasantries I came straight out with my proposal which I had, in any event, hinted at on the phone at the time of setting up the meeting.

I wanted a full and comprehensive book on the Broederbond, backed by their documents and by additional research. I would pay each author an advance against future royalties of R25,000, something unheard of in South Africa at a time when publishers did not pay advances.

They thought about this and, like the decent men they always proved themselves to be (good journalists, not those from the gutter press, are usually good men and women because they have thought about and have often seen life with all its vagaries and moral dilemmas in the raw), they quizzed me to find out whether I knew what I was letting myself in for. They warned me that these were powerful men, these Broeders, with influence that spread far, wide and deep into South African society. Such men would not welcome a book exposing their secret doings. They were capable of malevolence. 

Already the editor of the Sunday Times was threatening to spike their articles, saying that it was enough… the public had had enough. They knew this not to be the case and they speculated (subsequently to be proven true) that he was being got at.

They said they wanted to think about it. I was confident they would do it, especially with the imminent prospect of having their articles spiked. Twenty-five thousand rands was also a respectable amount in those far-off days.

The next day they accepted the offer and a contract was drawn up. Then the work began, hardest for them by far because they were the ones who, while holding full-time, senior jobs in journalism, had to work deep into the night like raw-eyed vultures at their typewriters churning out the words. My task, while easier, was rather complex.

Strydom and Wilkins, though colleagues, were substantially different characters. Strydom, dressed in the gear of a Boer veldkornet, would look not in the least out of place and Wilkins, got up as a British subaltern, would appear equally appropriate. I am truly sorry to have to use an image like this from our fractured past but I can think of no other that so perfectly captures their appearance and demeanour, and even aspects of their respective characters: Strydom, dogged and obstinate, a man on a mission to expose this organisation that he believed so damaged his people and their prospects in a future South Africa; Wilkins, urbane, self-contained, pursuing a good story while doing good, solid work to counteract the force of an anti-liberal secret society, but not a man on a mission.

And what of me? I was a publisher to the marrow and I had a bestseller gestating in the minds of two remarkable, and in those days, old-school journalists. I was helping to prick the bloated and pompous balloons of power. Stirring the pot. There is nothing I like better. And, what is more, after much debate and a thousand options I came up with the title The Super-Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond.

It was an intense time. We met frequently. Lunch at The Fed, lunch at the News Café in Melville, at Hans’s house where his charming wife Gertie would provide us with comfort food and always remained calm in the face of whatever rages and squabbles had arisen, with her common sense and ability to calm her husband. I remember endless drinks at Hans’s bar under the stairs at his house in Melville.

The squabbles were invariably over the book’s structure, who would write which chapters, both authors quite naturally wanting to do the more interesting sections, the “sexier” bits. 

The bar under the stairs at Hans’s house (just a stone’s throw from where the Broederbond was founded in the Melville koppies) became a second home to me. I would spend many nights each week drinking whisky with Hans and talking, sometimes deep into the night. Ivor would join us, though less frequently, because I think he respected his liver more than Hans and I did ours. 

Hans needed these meetings. He needed constant encouragement and for me to maintain a lively interest in the book, which I did. It was my lead title and I had far more than I could afford invested in it already, but I needed to keep showing him that my interest was not flagging. On this subject, Hans’s wife Gertie played a massive role in encouraging and quite literally wheedling the book out of her husband. She calmed him, fed him, poured his whiskies and endlessly listened to him: “Ja, ou ma’tjie. Dit was ook jou boek. Jy was die derde skrywer.”

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times editor, Tertius Myburgh, called time on the Sunday Times articles. He spiked them.

The book progressed slowly. It was delivered to us chapter by chapter. Our editor Alison Lowry (now chief executive of Penguin) would read it, and I would read it. The material was riveting but how would we structure all this disparate editorial on so many aspects of South African society? Bear in mind that the Broederbond’s tentacles reached into every corner of the country and its structure: schools, sport, universities, the professions, agriculture, the press, the judiciary, arts and cultural organisations and, of course, it dominated every department of state at national and provincial level.

I think I came up with the idea of breaking the book into three sections. I also think that from then on we all found it easier to think of the way forward within this structure, while Alison did the best she could to make the styles of the two authors not differ too jarringly.

The best and most telling response was from one of the big Afrikaans printing and publishing groups. Their rep, a gentleman and a man with whom I frequently took lunch, roared with laughter when I asked him to print it. “I can’t do it but you’ve no idea how much I’d like to.”

But a much, much bigger motive for speeding up the book arose. We heard that someone else was working on a rival book at the same time – the seasoned old Broeder-baiter, Hennie Serfontein.

Now, I have always been philosophical about competition. I try to do things better than competitors. But Hans was very put out imagining months of work pipped at the post. He wanted to hurry the book. He wanted to do a quick first volume to be followed by the rest of the book at a later date. All bad ideas, although very understandable under the circumstances.

The only thing to do was to put our heads down and produce the best possible book as quickly as possible without compromising its quality.

At about this time I started receiving disconcerting telephone calls at my office. A cultured, even refined Afrikaans voice would ask why I was getting involved in “all this” and was I aware of possible consequences? I adopted the stance that if he wouldn’t tell me his name I wouldn’t talk to him. I maintained this stance even when the voice changed and became more aggressive and the threats more pointed without ever actually becoming direct death threats.

This wasn’t comfortable. At the time South Africa was a country in which things happened to people.

Most importantly at around this time, at the suggestion of Hans and Ivor, I made contact with Kelsey Stuart, the man who, quite literally, wrote the book on press law. He agreed to read the manuscript and to act for us should the need arise. I was thrilled. Stuart was a cool customer and I discovered only later with what pleasure and satisfaction he worked on this book but I am again getting ahead of myself.

At this time I started to make sales calls, as did Nick Britt, our sales manager, but only to our most trusted customers as we feared the possibility of someone seeking an interdict to prevent publication of the book.

One of the more interesting sales calls I made was to sell the book in advance of publication to the managing director of Exclusive Books, its founder, the celebrated Philip Joseph. 

Exclusive Books, now ubiquitous, had only one branch at the time, in Kotze Street in Hillbrow. Philip was known to all as PJ, but never to his face – to his face he was always “Mr Joseph”. A dapper man always impeccably turned out in a three-piece Savile Row suit, he spoke in a clipped and precise English accent. He had seen service in the war in the RAF and, rumour had it, in the Battle of Britain.

PJ occupied an imposing office in a building around the corner from his shop to which I made my way with a mock-up of the book’s cover. This was top secret as was the whole project, but the cover indicated the most secret aspect of it all. Its principal design feature was simply the title THE SUPER-AFRIKANERS: INSIDE THE AFRIKANER BROEDERBOND, but this was set against rows of type running diagonally, these being a section of the thousands of names of Broederbond members we would publish in an index to the book.

For fear of an interdict we were keeping the book as much under wraps as possible but the 12,000 names we were publishing were sheer dynamite.

When I explained the project to PJ he sat silent and riveted, deep in thought. I then showed him the dust jacket and I think he gasped at the prospect of 12,000 names. 

Then he spoke. My admiration for this man knows few bounds, so do not misinterpret what I say. The fact is that he had quite a pompous manner and, in his precise upper-class English, he said words to this effect: “My dear boy, what you and these fellows are doing is quite remarkable. This may be the most important book I have sold in my time as a bookseller. It is a remarkable piece of publishing and I will give it my full support on one condition: that I have your assurance that it has been vetted by an able and appropriately qualified lawyer.”

I explained that Kelsey Stuart was on our side.

He asked if he could summon two of his key staff members. I agreed, on condition that they were sworn to confidentiality. I knew them all and trusted them. I think it was Ester Jacobson (Richards) and Keith Spooner-Reid who duly arrived.

I was invited to do my sales pitch again which I did with alacrity. PJ followed by making his two key staff members aware of the extent to which he felt committed to the book. 

After some whispered conversation they ordered a thousand copies.

As we got closer to a completed manuscript new obstacles reared up all around us. Our call for printers to quote had them all (all, not some) running a mile. I most admired the ones who were honest.

The typical reaction was: “Jon, we won’t print this. No major Afrikaans company will give us another job.”

When you have to be a coward it takes a certain courage to admit that you are being one.

The best and most telling response was from one of the big Afrikaans printing and publishing groups. Their rep, a gentleman and a man with whom I frequently took lunch, roared with laughter when I asked him to print it. “I can’t do it but you’ve no idea how much I’d like to.”

I believed him and was coming to realise how many Afrikaners resented the Broederbond. As an elite organisation it excluded many of them – those who had married an English-speaking woman, been to an English school, had got divorced or did not have the right church affiliations.

I have already observed that no printers wanted to print the book. I don’t want to belabour the point but need to add that, anticipating this reaction, I had in my possession a letter from my bankers, The Standard Bank of South Africa, guaranteeing my ability to pay. So all the printers (being most of them) who said, “You are a small publisher, it’s a big print run, we are scared you won’t be able to pay”, were presented with a copy of this letter.

They still refused to print and would be dismissed summarily. I have a way with contempt.

I naturally wanted the Sunday Times to run extracts but needed money. The book owed me R50,000 by way of royalty advances, a soon-to-be-received printing bill, a binding bill and all the design and make-ready costs would soon be due. Some competition for the extracts would be a good thing.

Finally we found a printer, not a free-spirited champion of freedom of the press, but a jobbing printer in Doornfontein who needed the money. He was on the verge of going bankrupt and subsequently did. Although he could print he could not bind the book because they were not book printers. One of the essential things that makes a printer a book printer is the capacity to bind books. Printing at a printer and binding at a binder had already gone out with the ark and was far too expensive.

We had no choice.

It would be printed by the soon-to-be-bankrupt Everton Offset in Johannesburg and bound by Wallach’s in Pretoria who were prepared to bind but not to print, the legal liability being completely different for the two parts of the process. Printers were liable for what they printed. For Wallach’s, situated in Pretoria, to print the book would have been commercial suicide. They would, however, go bankrupt, after many years in business, only a few months later. I must record in writing of all these printer bankruptcies that things were tough in South Africa at that time: interest rates were in the early 20s and it was not easy funding businesses of any kind, but especially not those requiring expensive capital equipment like printers.

But Everton would print and a few days later our excitement was difficult to contain as the book spilled off the presses. The smell of the ink and the clatter of the machines have always held a special meaning and significance for me.

“Publish and be damned!” “… if it’s the truth and in the public interest, publish and be damned!”

I knew with every fibre of my being that this was the truth, and few exposés could have been more in the public interest and, which is quite different, of interest to the public.

But there were still hurdles to overcome. We had to move the large printer’s quires, piles of printed paper, on pallets from Doornfontein to Pretoria where they would be folded, sewn, cut, trimmed, and then bound.

This was not an easy task. We hired a truck which our own sales chief, Nick Britt, drove laden with our precious cargo. Back and forth to Pretoria Nick went in a response over and above the call of duty. Deep into the night he drove while we awaited the arrival of each cargo load to keep the binding line running.

Then something happened that fuelled much conspiracy-related speculation. The binding line broke. Someone’s done this deliberately? This line has never broken before. What the hell is going on? Recriminations, whispered accusations and the sombre, ominous silence of the factory – with Monday’s deadline fast approaching and Hennie Serfontein’s book selling in the shops.

No one would fix a binding line at that time of night. Many wouldn’t fix it in the morning either as it would be Saturday and, in any event, Wallach’s was in trouble with its creditors, so perhaps even getting it fixed on Monday would be difficult.

I wracked my brain and phoned my brother who suggested I call a friend of his who was a whizz with machines and studying engineering at Wits. With some convincing, knowing that students can always use a little extra cash, I got Keith Foster to come over to Pretoria.

The whole team of printers and binders sceptically watched him walk around the binding line and look at its myriad components. Who was this snotkop from Wits and how could he fix it where they had failed? Their comments and mutters attested to not only their scepticism but also to the irritation they felt at having someone brought in above them.

Looking at them and shaking his head Keith called me over: “Get rid of all these guys,” he insisted, “and you go and sit with them in the office as well.”

I withdrew with the muttering crew and we sat and waited. Precious time was slipping by. And yet more time. While the others muttered and moaned that nothing could be done and they should be allowed to go home for the weekend I watched Keith walking along the binding line. Prodding here, bending to look there. Time passed.

Then a clatter. Just a short, jerky clatter. Then another and then the whole glorious industrial symphony of a binding line going full speed filled the air.

It was a fine moment. Cheers and handshakes were offered all round. Even the former sulkers swallowed their pride and got on with the job in hand.

Binding continued throughout the weekend and without further problems we were delivering the first books into key bookshops when they opened their doors on Monday.

We needed to do this as we had bound ourselves to a deadline because an interesting situation had arisen with the two newspaper groups when they heard a book on the Broederbond was soon to appear.

The Argus Company contacted me wanting to run extracts of the book. I said that I would consider this but would require more money than the derisory amounts newspapers offered in those days and frankly still do. When Tertius Myburgh heard of this competitor’s interest through his formidable grapevine he contacted me in a real state of near panic. A formidably charming man, he brought the full weight of it to bear along with a bit of threatening… that I would never get a Sunday Times serial again… He was able to wield the carrot and the stick in the same breath with considerable aplomb, all his points interspersed with his boyish laughter.

I naturally wanted the Sunday Times to run extracts but needed money. The book owed me R50,000 by way of royalty advances, a soon-to-be-received printing bill, a binding bill and all the design and make-ready costs would soon be due. Some competition for the extracts would be a good thing.

This was especially the case because the two newspaper groups treated book publishers with the utmost contempt. When you had a book that interested them they wanted to pay a pittance (or nothing at all) and then gut the book. This situation still pertains to this day, 34 years later, and has been a retarding factor in the development of a viable publishing industry in South Africa.

Anyway, this situation blew up into an edgy one between the two groups and there were cross-shareholdings linking them. I think the matter was settled up at the level (if one can refer to it in that way) of Greaser McPherson, chairman of Argus, and Clive Kinsley and Tertius Myburgh of SAAN.

Hans Strydom continued his journalistic career, wrote another fascinating book for me entitled For Volk and Führer on Robey Leibbrandt, the boxer recruited by the Nazis at the Berlin Olympics and sent back to South Africa to disrupt the war effort. He was thwarted by the intrepid Jan Taljaard. The book made a marvellous film produced by Manie van Rensburg which he called, rather lamely I thought, The Fourth Reich.

Myburgh had spiked the exposé earlier. The political risk of the whole situation was now sanitised by a book from a third party and he couldn’t abide the thought of “his two journalists” being serialised by a rival newspaper group. I was made, by the standards of the day, a substantial offer for three extracts, told to shut up, and Argus immediately and mysteriously dropped out of the bidding.

The Sunday Times was going ahead with the first extract on an agreed Sunday – thus the need for us to release the book on the Monday or risk seeing our massive publicity promoting Serfontein’s book instead of our own.

Thus the tension at the disconcerting binding-line breakdown on the Friday before publication.

But all went well from the moment the book hit the shops. It sold like proverbial hot-cakes. We were delivering to some of the bigger outlets every other day. Booksellers, never very courageous, either politically or with their advance orders, were besieging our telephone lines.

On the Monday after the Monday of publication the lawyers’ letters started to arrive from all over the country. Within a matter of four or five days there were half a dozen or so irate letters from angry and wounded Broeders.

I will not deny that this was discombobulating and not a little nerve-wracking.

After the fourth or fifth letter I contacted Kelsey Stuart. Ever the cool customer, he said, “Let a few more arrive and then bring them down to the office.”

I was to do this each week for four or five weeks as 27 writs arrived in all.

“Sir, what are you saying to them?” I asked. These were not the days when 28-year-olds spoke familiarly to older men, especially distinguished older men.

He favoured me with one of his rare smiles. “I will look after them all and I don’t want you to lose any sleep. I will tell them that by their own admission the organisation is a cultural organisation for the male elite of Afrikanerdom. How can making people aware of the immense influence they exert be in any way offensive? I will close by inviting them to meet me and my counsel in court. I think few of them are likely to want to do so.”

What of the consequences of the book? What happened post publication? I have recently again been asked this question by a young filmmaker who thinks the whole story of the book may make a movie along the lines of All the President’s Men, the Bernstein and Woodward Watergate story.

The answer to this is I don’t know and I can’t hazard an answer, especially as any such speculation about its impact could sound portentous coming from a publisher who, when young, thought he could change the world but now knows he can’t.

Hermann Giliomee, the historian, however, wrote in his book The Afrikaners: A Biography of a People:

“… a second shock for the nationalist elite was the publication in 1978 of two books on the Afrikaner Broederbond, one of which included an almost complete list of the secret organisation’s members. It listed 13,262 members in 914 divisions in 1980 [sic]. The organization’s influence, always overrated by scholars, was already on the wane, and the publication of members’ lists removed the aura of secrecy.”

Change was taking place apace in South Africa. Perhaps it removed a brick or two in the wall that was apartheid.

We all moved on. Ivor married a charming girl and, like the Owl and the Pussycat, they sailed off on a pea-green sea, landing up eventually in New Zealand, where they now live.

Hans Strydom continued his journalistic career, wrote another fascinating book for me entitled For Volk and Führer on Robey Leibbrandt, the boxer recruited by the Nazis at the Berlin Olympics and sent back to South Africa to disrupt the war effort. He was thwarted by the intrepid Jan Taljaard. The book made a marvellous film produced by Manie van Rensburg which he called, rather lamely I thought, The Fourth Reich.

Hans, later, after his retirement from the Sunday Times, perhaps imagining life to be better on the publishing rather than the writing side of books, started a publishing company called Scripta Africana which reprinted books on the Boer War, including several bestsellers. He died in March 2004.

But back to the immediate aftermath of publication. Some weeks passed and I did not get a bill from Kelsey Stewart. I had paid him an interim amount and I made an appointment to see him to ask how much I still owed. Nothing, he said. He’d not had so much fun for years and wouldn’t have missed it for anything. 

There is a direct line from Kelsey Stuart to the lawyers I use today. He trained a generation of press lawyers.

Many books have been published about South Africa under our imprint since that time. All of them, in their various ways, exciting to us as publishers but we waited a long time for one with the political impact of The Super-Afrikaners.

Driven also to expose the abuse of power, Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP, preferring truth to power, wrote After the Party, an exposé of the ANC government and the Arms Deal.

I continue, with a team of dedicated colleagues, to publish books about South Africa.

Jonathan Ball

Umbria, May 2012 DM

The Super-Afrikaners is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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  • One of the books that shaped my future and the way I look at life. We were at high school, we even found 1 of our teachers in the list and used to phone him at midnight with a handkerchief over the phone. “Die broeders ontmoet vanaand in die stadsaal.” in as husky voice possible. Swearing, we laughed.

  • The book gave me a disdain of similar organizations, free masons etc. It is these types of org .that are dangerous. Agendas proliferate, politicians I regard in the same ilk. We were controlled, even our thinking. Oppression is instituted via them. SA can be great if all people work for the common good.

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