Progressive publishing – the Ravan Press experience

KC JOURNAL NO 24 JULY 2010

Nerisha Baldevu* complied a brief history of Ravan Press and its participation in the struggle against Apartheid through progressive publishing

Ravan Press, the publishing house that grew out of Spro-Cas (the Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society) was founded in 1972. The founding members were Peter Randall, Danie van Zyl and Beyers Naude, all members of the Christian Institute. The significance of Ravan’s history and its contribution to the cultural and political life of South Africa lies in the several hundred titles and new writers it published in the first 25 years of its existence.

The period of the founding of Ravan Press was marked by severe Apartheid state repression of all opposition, including publishing. With the banning of political organisations in the 60s, the Black Consciousness movement and individuals like Steve Biko, as well as the written and spoken word, became its prime target.

In this context only harmless writings of both black and white South Africans were published. The wave of protest writing in the early 70s, especially in verse, coincided with the emergence of small, independent publishers. Ravan Press, David Phillip and Ad Donker came into existence at roughly the same time, independent of each other. Phillip and Donker were commercial ventures, aimed at profitability. Ravan was based on idealism – the profit motive did not feature at all.

Publishing and struggle

Ravan’s early years laid the foundation for the expansion of publishing, especially in fiction and poetry. Ravan became the main vehicle for an emerging group of creative writers – predominantly black – whose works would otherwise have not seen publication.

The five years following the founding of Ravan Press saw the rise of Black Consciousness and the trade union movement. In these early years, Ravan Press suffered constant harassment and many of its titles were banned. In 1973-74, the directors were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act, but the charges were never proved. In 1977, Peter Randall, along with other members of the Christian Institute and leading figures in the black consciousness movement, was banned and had to sever all connection with Ravan Press and publishing.

Mike Kirkwood became director in 1978 and by then the seeds for future growth had been laid. Ravan Press was part of that section of society engaged in changing the social system. Ravan produced books that informed the struggles taking place, recovering history, entering the debates of the day, and creating a climate in which the new society could be discussed. The changes in the society were reflected in the shifts in emphasis in its publishing programme over the years. The earlier focus on racial issues reflected the political thought of the 70s, and this shifted later to a class-oriented analysis of the society. Although the emphases shifted, Ravan’s aims remained unchanged: to publish work that challenged apartheid ideology and had a role to play in the transformation of South Africa towards a democratic, non-racial and unitary state.

New forms or genres

The 80s saw remarkable publishing creativity and energy. In the field of literature, both Staffrider magazine and the Staffrider series of books released the enormous well of angry yet creative energies bottled up in South Africa’s townships. A new literary genre or form rapidly developed, often involving both a window on township life and experience, and a powerful political protest against apartheid in all its manifestations. Ravan authors such as Njabulo Ndebele, Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Achmat Dangor, Wally Serote, Ellen Kuswayo and Mafika Gwala led from the front.

During this period in South African literature there was no shortage of writing: the problem was rather how to reach the appropriate readership. Thus the early editions of Staffrider were distributed in townships through informal networks organized by the contributors. This method was successful in reaching a wide audience, but there were problems with the loss of revenue from sales and police harassment of the distributors. The informal network was eventually replaced by standard bookshop distribution.

Ravan was also involved in the publication of more established authors which a combination of apartheid ideology and commercialism had withheld from many South African readers. As a result, the writings of Es’kia Mphahlele, Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Casey Motsitsi, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Christopher Hope (to mention a few) appeared under Ravan’s imprint.

But it was also a time of intense community, political, intellectual and working class revival and, as in the past, Ravan’s publishing both prefigured, and reflected this. The embryonic labour movement of the 1970s gave birth to a vibrant and dynamic trade unionism, which culminated in the formation of Cosatu in the mid-80s. Ongoing township-based resistance to all forms of apartheid rule, and state control and repression, left the foundations of society even more fragile than before.

This was the context in which Ravan published critical, reflective and radical studies of both contemporary South African society and its history. Ravan cast a probing light onto every aspect of social existence with the aim of interpreting, analysing, understanding and subjecting everything to a radical reassessment.

Children’s books

A second, slightly calmer area of publishing co-existed. Quality books for South Africa’s children, free of the influences of racism, sexism and Euro-centrism gradually emerged as a larger area of Ravan’s publishing programme. Literacy materials and readings for the newly literate, skills for better language and writings for those learning English as a second language, and materials appropriate for supplementary use in school and non-formal education, slowly and quietly entered Ravan’s list. The context in which Ravan operated was an exceptionally difficult one. The industry as a whole was indifferent to the contributions being made – a contribution which demonstrated the narrowness, conservativism and lack of insight of most other publishers booksellers. The book industry was hostile to Ravan and its initiatives. The state was antagonistic to Ravan and this manifested itself in repetitive banning and confiscation of books, general harassment and intimidation, interference in the infrastructure necessary for normal business operations and physical attacks on Ravan’s premises and property.

In addition, Ravan’s extremely limited financial resources meant that the hard skills necessary to run the business side of publishing ventures were difficult to acquire. Those who worked for Ravan – and they included some of the most talented editors and publishers South Africa has produced – often found themselves forced into roles not appropriate to their skills, interests and commitments.

Restructuring

In this period, Ravan was restructured along democratic and participatory lines, dispensing with all hierachy, and instituting a staff collective as Ravan’s day-to-day governing body. This was in line with the general egalitarian thinking in the broad movement opposed to apartheid, which Ravan identified with strongly.

Ravan began to restructure at much the same time as the socio-political fabric of South Africa itself began to change dramatically. The February 1990 unbannings radically altered the terrain within which progressive, indigenous anti-apartheid publishing took place. Almost overnight, some of the symbols, issues and modes of operation which had influenced nearly two decades of oppositional publishing seemed inappropriate. Some of the principles which had guided much of Ravan’s publishing – especially in the fields of fiction and contemporary politics – were becoming outdated in the new context.

Ravan’s first two decades were dominated by opposition to apartheid and to intellectual intolerance. But the 1990s brought a range of new challenges, based fundamentally on critical engagement with, rather than simple opposition to, the mainstream of society. To some extent, this also involved consideration of publishing for reconstruction and transformation, rather than opposition. Although committed to critical, socially relevant publishing, the 1990s were not kind to publishing in general, or to Ravan in particular. Ravan Press was later taken over by Pan MacMillan.


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