Starting a literary publishing project in South Africa is a silly idea – readership, as all publishers and booksellers will tell you, is low. But my idea to start Strandwolf Press was inspired by the Rhodesmustfall movement and the young group who had started the literary magazine Prufrock (they brought new hope and energy into South African Literature).
These two events gave me the idea that there might just be a renewed interest in African literature and the texts of the past. Many of these I realised where not available – so why not make them!
Certainly the Rhodesmustfall movement instilled in me a desire to reassess our history. And this moment converged with finding, in Clarke’s Bookshop on Long Street, a copy of Olive Schreiner’s Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (Clarke’s is a place I have gone to always with a sense of potential new discoveries for nearly 30 years! I guess I grow old and I shall soon wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled). As I read the first pages of Schreiner’s take down of Rhodes, standing at the shelves, what struck me was that Schreiner was in someway the first fallist in African literature.
From Schreiner my interests then moved to Sol Plaatje and finding a copy of Brian Willan’s incredible biography (published in 1984) at Blank Books in Woodstock I would soon become obsessed with the first SG of the ANC. And then while on a holiday in Plettenberg Bay (yes sadly I had to go to the vacation destination of my privileged tribe) at about the same time I made two interesting discoveries.
One was the discovery, in a second-hand bookstore, of a version of Mhudi published by Tim Couzens and Stephen Gray with illustrations by Cecil Skotnes – the book’s text and the spelling of people’s names was, I noticed, different to the Penguin copy I had. The other was that while paging through Sol Plaatje Selected Writings, I had bought at the Book Lounge (where else! Also we redesigned their site), I noticed that the picture of a man called Henry Burton had an uncanny resemblance to the grandmother of the woman I was staying with. ‘What was your grandmother’s maiden name again?’ I asked.
‘Burton,’ she replied.
Burton it turned out had been a friend of Plaatje’s and was the first minister of Native Affairs in South Africa – and who says we don’t have a very complicated history in this country.
Well these two issues converged into becoming a research obsession for three years. And in many ways they have led to me writing the book on the history of corruption in South Africa with my friend Nick Dall, which will hopefully be out early next year. Of course hanging over Chad and my publishing project, Strandwolf, has always been the cautionary tale that came with Couzens and Gray’s edition of Mhudi. Published by an imprint called Quagga Press (a South African specific animal like the Strandwolf) the imprint only managed to ever publish one book, Mhudi, before going out of business. To date our imprint has gone one better, publishing two books!
Hopefully we will make it to four this year! But…