95th Annual Report of the Chairman of the Van Riebeeck Society

Delivered by Professor Howard Phillips at the AGM of the VRS on 9 August 2014 at the Kalk Bay Community Centre


Our venerable society has been very active since our last AGM in September 2013, in ways which are not commonly found among 96-year olds. Indeed, in the last two months our activities have reached almost hyperactive levels, requiring many extra hours of input from Council members and staff. These activities included:

·                     running a stall for all 3 days of the South African International Book Fair at the Convention Centre in Cape Town in mid-June, thanks to the efforts of 8 dedicated volunteers, viz. Nigel Amschwand, Tanya Barben, François Cleophas, Sandra Commerford, Stephen Craven, Cora Ovens, Yvonne Reynolds and me, along with the welcome technical support of Arne Schafer.  During those 3 days, we sold 23 volumes and enrolled 12 new members, but still ended up with a short-term loss of R4471. However, if those 12 new members remain on our books for 3 years, our presence at the fair this year will actually have yielded a profit. Next year the fair will move to Johannesburg, so we will probably not have a presence there; when it returns to Cape Town in 2016, we will have to weigh up the pros and cons of operating a stall again very soberly;

·                     having a table at the biennial conference of the South African Historical Association in Durban at the end of June, where Council members Anton Ehlers and Johan Wassermann and their team of student helpers spread the word about the VRS to the next generation of southern African historians;

·                     arranging a visit for our members to the PaarlMedia printing works on 17 June to see our 2014 volume, literally, rolling off the press. The visit left such an illuminating imprint on those who attended that perhaps we should make this an annual ‘book harvest’ outing;

·                     organizing 4 launches of this year’s volume in locations as widespread as Cradock, Grahamstown Port Elizabeth and (today) Kalk Bay. For the 3 functions in the Eastern Cape we readily acknowledge support from the Schreiner Karoo Writers’ Festival team in Cradock, the Director and staff of the Cory Library in Grahamstown and of Emile Badenhorst at the Bay World Museum in Port Elizabeth. Our grateful thanks go too, to Solms-Delta Wines for helping to oil proceedings in Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, to Tracy Randle for facilitating this liquid donation in the first place, and to two Council members, Nick Southey and Tanya Barben (along with her husband Heinz), who willingly went many extra miles for the Society in the Eastern Cape by transporting boxes of books and Blanc de Blancs to the launches there.

I should point out that in doing this, Tanya and Nick were following in the footsteps of another willing Council member, Elizabeth van Heyningen, who did much the same, but single-handedly, last year when our 2013 volume, the journal of Ensign Beutler’s 1752 expedition to the Eastern Cape, was launched in both Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth. In her expedition to the Eastern Cape, Elizabeth sold 43 volumes and enrolled 19 new members; this year’s foray by Tanya, Nick and me saw 23 volumes sold and 14 new members enrolled, making a total for the two years of 33 new members and 66 volumes sold during our launches there. It will perhaps be a wise strategy for us to focus our marketing efforts in the next few years on other provinces, one by one.

Our new Eastern Cape members have boosted out total membership today to 1178, of whom 715 are paid up. Eleven months ago, at the time of our 2013 AGM, the figures stood at 1130 members, of whom 761 were paid up.

What lies ahead for these 1178 members?

In the pipeline are rich and revealing volumes like:

·                     the Eastern Cape Journals of the Rev. James Laing, 1830–36

·                     die briewe van president MT Steyn van die OVS

·                     the second volume of François le Vaillant’s Travels into the Interior of Africa

·                     Louis Anthing’s reports on the genocide of the San in the northern Karoo, 1861–3

·                     the papers of Samuel Eusebius Hudson, a pre-1820 British settler

·                     oral testimony recalling the great Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918

·                     Richard Selope Thema’s autobiography, ‘Out of Darkness: From Cattle-Herding to Editor’s Chair’

We are also investigating the publication of our volumes as E-books as well as in the standard hardcopy format, but have found it necessary to proceed with great circumspection as we weigh up taking on responsibility for digitizing and selling the electronic books ourselves or rather handing this task entirely over to a commercial publisher who will pay us a share of its income from sales.

Looking even further ahead, we are aware that in 4 years’ time the VRS will turn 100. We need to think imaginatively about how best to mark this centennial milestone. One idea might be to use this occasion to launch a special VRS 2018 endowment fund to help sustain the Society for its next 100 years. We are very open to all suggestions from today onwards and will extend a similar invitation for ideas to all our members in our newsletter. The Council will consider these early next year.

The members of this Council have provided me with a reliable source of support, bright ideas and commitment all through its first year in office and for this I wish to thank each councillor very sincerely; but in particular I wish to single out for my thanks Elizabeth van Heyningen (vice-chair) and Piet Westra (treasurer) for shouldering with aplomb, skill and zeal the additional tasks I have imposed on them. Those three characteristics – aplomb, skill and zeal – are equally the hallmarks of the modus operandi of our indefatigable secretary, Cora Ovens, who, with her assistants, Sandra Commerford and Emile Shreve, has seen to the day-to-day operation of the VRS with great efficiency and 100% commitment. For Cora, no task on behalf of the VRS is too much to ask. To use a computer analogy, I would call her our 24/7 server. Thank you, Cora, for your devotion to the VRS and for going many extra miles on its behalf.

With this competent and deeply committed team in place, the VRS can look forward to a very robust year ahead.