Annual Report of the Chair of VRS for 2015


Delivered by Professor Howard Phillips at AGM at Ravenswood House, 28 January 2016)


2015 was a difficult year for the VRS. The chief sources of this difficulties were ill-health, both personal and institutional.

The institutional ill-health has been that afflicting the SA Post Office which has become increasingly unreliable as a deliverer of our books, yet has charged more and more to do so. ‘Delivering less for more’ might well be its all too accurate mantra! In our particular case, the price of sending a 1 kilogram book by post has nearly doubled, from R22.80 to R40.80. This is one of main reasons why our annual subscription had to be raised this year. If you want something really concrete to worry about at night on behalf of the VRS, the faltering, expensive SA Post Office will be an appropriate topic because the distribution of our volumes depends almost entirely on it, as using commercial couriers is even costlier. The VRS will have to think innovatively out of the box to address this looming problem.

The second kind of ill-health which struck the Society in 2015 was personal.

This saw the volume it had planned to publish in 2015, the E. Cape Journals of the Rev. James Laing, put on hold because of acute illness in the family of the editor. Failing health also led to the resignations of two pillars of the Society, our treasurer, Piet Westra, and our administrator, Cora Ovens, and to the resignations of both of our office volunteers, Emil Shreve and Jean Redelinghuys. Moreover, our Council member from KZN, the enthusiastic and creative Johan Wassermann, also resigned as he moved to Pretoria.

 Happily, we have been able to find two able successors to Piet Westra and Cora Ovens, Danie de Villiers and Rolf Proske. Danie has already shown plenty of zeal and hard-headed insight in managing our finances since taking over as treasurer in June, while Rolf is being blooded tonight. Taking the minutes of this AGM is his first VRS task. May both of you flourish in your new positions!

Both Danie and Rolf have big shoes to fill. Piet Westra served the VRS as treasurer for 33 years (1982-2015) and in that time grew our funds prodigiously through shrewd investment and well-judged financial planning. That the VRS has been able to perform its core business of publishing so successfully since the 1980s is because it has rested on the firm financial foundation laid by Piet.  In its tribute to him on his resignation, the VRS Council correctly paid tribute to his ‘financial skills and named him as a major source of wisdom and profit.’

Equally pivotal to the Society’s success has been Cora Ovens who joined us in 2006. So all-encompassing has been her efficient, up-and-doing, dedicated contribution as our administrator, events-organizer, zealous bookseller, newsletter compiler, website and Facebook editor, negotiator with bookshops and printers and series editor that it is quite likely that a future history of the VRS will label the era before she became our administrator in 2006 as B. C. – that is, ‘before Cora’.

To signal our deep gratitude to these two stalwarts of the Society for jobs very well done, I wish to hand them each a token of our appreciation. They well deserve such recognition.

I also wish to thank very sincerely our two part-time office assistants who stepped into the administrative breach readily when Cora’s condition began to deteriorate suddenly, Sandra Commerford and Jackie Loos. It has been re-assuring to know that I could count on them unhesitatingly to undertake all manner of chores at short notice. Moreover, Jackie went an extra mile for the VRS by devoting two of her regular ‘The Way We Were’ articles in the Cape Argus to the VRS. Unhappily, Jackie will be leaving her position with us at the end of next month, so if anyone is willing to volunteer their time one morning a week to help out in the office, please contact us asap. We need the assistance.

Despite all of these difficulties, we did sign up 38 new members in 2015, but simultaneously lost 49 to death, downscaling and immigration. Currently our membership stands at 1129 (cf. 1178 in 2014), of whom 707 are paid up. The 422 unpaid up members, though they do not receive an annual volume, do cost us something as many do not have e-mail and thus newsletters sent to them incur printing and postage fees. We are therefore considering sending a final notice to all those who last paid their subscription in 2012 and if there is no response, then removing them as members altogether. If we did this today, our total membership would drop to a disconcerting 975.

In part, recruiting those 38 new members is a tribute to having a stall at a number of historical conferences, book-fairs and festivals and to public lectures and radio interviews given by Council members. For their input in this regard, thanks must go to Elizabeth van Heyningen, Sandy Shell, François Cleophas, Johan Wassermann and Susie Newton-King. We hope that Boris Gorelik’s lectures at the UCT Summer School this week, a second launch of his volume there at lunchtime tomorrow and a third launch at Bookdealers in Johannesburg on 11 February will swell our numbers in similar fashion. For our participation in the Summer School we thank its director, Medeé Rall.

Another way in which we are trying to secure new members is by going the e-book route. We have had our 2015 volume digitized in the hope that such a version may be a cost-effective means of marketing the book in Russia. The e-book market is one which we are just beginning to explore and no doubt we will have to make ad hoc decisions about doing so as we proceed. It is an experiment tentatively in progress.

Anything but tentative is the list of volumes in the pipeline: Rev. James Laing’s E. Cape journal, the autobiography of the pioneering African journalist Selope Thema, the letters of President Steyn of the OFS, the letters of the early African nationalist and literary figure Sol Plaatje, an oral history of the Spanish flu pandemic and the second volume of François Le Vaillant’s epic Travels into the Interior of Africa. Publishing all of these will take us until 2021. 2021 will, of course, see us already well into the second century of our existence for we will turn 100 in 2018. How we should mark this centenary has been exercising the minds of your Council for some time. A special VRS 100 fund-raising appeal to secure our financial future for the next 100 years, a targeted recruiting drive, a celebratory banquet, a centennial volume, ‘The Best of the VRS’, and a special VRS 100 wine from Riebeeck Cellars have all been suggested. We will weigh up the pros and cons of each and this year pursue those likely to yield the best results. However, the suggestion book is not yet closed, so if you have bright, practical ideas or a willingness to assist, please contact our office very soon.

To sum up, we met the serious challenges which confronted us in 2015 through a mixture of energy, creativity and lateral thinking. For providing ample supplies of these commodities I wish to place on record my gratitude to my Council and in particular to my executive committee, Elizabeth van Heyningen, Danie de Villiers, Sandy Shell, Chris v.d. Merwe and Ian Farlam. We are bruised and sometimes breathless, but unbowed. At the risk of tempting fate (and perhaps others closer to home), I would say that, despite our serious difficulties in 2015, #VRS (Van Remains Standing).