VAN RIEBEECK SOCIETY: 97th ANNUAL REPORT (2016)

(PRESENTED BY PROFESSOR HOWARD PHILLIPS, 6 DECEMBER 2016)

 

Let me begin with two expressions of thanks: one to our host and VRS member, Patrick Esnouf, and his staff here at Ravenswood House for allowing us to use his elegant, historical building and its garden for our 2016 AGM and book launch, and the second to the principal of the neighbouring Cape Town High School, Emilton Cloete, who has generously lent us chairs and table for tonight’s function. In both cases, the kindness has been given willingly and free of charge. We will have no problem in turning this into a VRS tradition. May I ask for a round of applause as a mark of our sincerely-felt gratitude.

This has been a year of two new faces in the VRS office and, as a result, a year of considerable administrative reform, even revolution. Driven by our new treasurer, Danie de Villiers, and executed with him by our administrators, Rolf Proske and Sandra Commerford, our financial and marketing records and membership database have been streamlined, and a start made to overhauling our website. Given that the website is our shop-window to the world, this upgrading of its turn-of-the-century format is necessary.

Given the extent of these reforms, it is just as well that we still have had Sandra Commerford on board, for she has been the keeper of the VRS’s administrative memory, knowhow and practices. My heartfelt thanks goes to all three of them – along with our temporary volunteer, Tony Westby Nunn, a replacement for whom we are still seeking – for wrestling so determinedly with a wave of administrative innovation. It has been a steep learning curve for us all, and still is. Instituting the new administrative system is work in progress, but it is a goal worth striving for, so as to render the VRS a slicker organization. Fortunately, Danie, as an ex-SASOL man, is well skilled at oiling engines.

If that is what has been happening in the VRS’s engine-room, on the stairs up to the main deck future volumes have been lining up neatly:

·       Die briewe van President Steyn van die Vrystaat for 2017 – the centenary of his death last week passed unnoticed;

·       Oral accounts of the great Spanish flu epidemic in 2018, 100 years after that devastating event;

·       The letters of the pioneering black journalist, novelist and politician, Sol Plaatje in 2019;

And then, I am not sure in what order, the diary of the Eastern Cape missionary, the Reverend James Laing; volume 2 of Francois le Vaillant’s Travels into the Interior of Africa; Louis Anthing’s report on San genocide in the northern Cape in 1860-1; and selections from the ICU’s (the Industrial & Commercial Union) papers. If my arithmetic is correct, that will take us to 2023, seven years hence. Talk about forward planning!

But what will the Society be like in 2023?

For one thing, it will have to have recruited many new members: our paid-up membership of 694 this year is down by 34 on the 728 of last year, even though we enrolled 32 new members. For another thing, the Society will have to be financially secure and, thirdly, it will have to be marketing its products in an even more digital world than that of 2016.

To accomplish these aims, action must be taken now. You have already heard about the upgrading of our administrative and financial systems and our website. With a similar eye on the future, we have digitized our 2015 volume about Russian visitors to the Cape and are about to market it as an e-book. Forward thinking has also produced a recommendation from the outgoing Council to its successor to re-name the VRS when we reach our centenary in 2018, to render its name less off-putting to would-be members and sponsors, and to mark that centenary by undertaking several once-in-100-years fundraising activities. Lively possibilities certainly lie ahead. I hope that the new Council will seize them and push them ahead with zest.

Finally, let me express my gratitude to the outgoing Council members for their varied contributions over the years. Four of them – Con de Wet (who has given 24 years of service to the Society), Abner Nyamende (who has served 6 years on Council), Sandra Klopper and Jane Carruthers (3 years each) – are formally retiring, but I hope that, informally at least, they will remain on call to provide advice and, occasionally, action. Veral Con de Wet moet vir bedrywigheid gereed bly want hy is die mede-redakteur van volgende jaar se boek, Die Briewe van Oud-president M. T. Steyn van die Vrystaat. Con de Wet het al ‘n belangrike aandeel in een van ons vorige boeke, Trials of Slavery gehad en vir dit, vir sy aankomende boek en vir amper ‘n kwarteeu se diens vir die VRV, moet ek vir hom hartelik dankie se^. Ons waardeer dit alles baie.

I must also single out for special thanks the 5 members of Exco –Elizabeth van Heyningen, Danie de Villiers, Sandy Shell, Ian Farlam and Chris van de Merwe – who readily gave of their time, insightfulness and experience to help me tackle knotty problems. They all deserve a grateful round of applause.   

I have enjoyed chairing the VRS for the last fifteen years, steering it in new directions and meeting the challenges which following such a course has produced. It has been a creative, taxing and fulfilling task. I daresay it will be no less so during the next three years.