The South African publisher, Adriaan Donker, died in the early hours of Tuesday July 16 at his home in Rooi Els. A publisher trained in Holland and the United States, Donker arrived in South Africa in 1966 to begin a branch of Macmillan Publishers. In 1973 he began Ad Donker (Johannesburg), a publishing company committed to South African literature.
In the early 1970s it was difficult to be published, in English, in this country.
Authors such as a Nadine Gordimer had made their reputations abroad. Local writers had to rely on publishers whose focus was school textbooks or the coffee table market. Together with other pioneering local publishers Ravan Press and David Philip, Donker recognised the changing temper of the times: times that in the 1970s awaited a literary “renaissance” in South Africa.
Instead of looking over his shoulder at the British or American scene, Donker published the first anthology of the new black poetry, or Soweto poetry, To Whom It May Concern (1973). This landmark collection lent prominence to voices that became synonymous with a new wave, a new South Africa: Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Mafika Gwala. In a poetry series that not only kept alive established poets but also encouraged new talent, Donker published Roy Campbell, William Plomer, Guy Butler, Douglas Livingstone and Christopher van Wyk. His list included the work of Olive Schreiner, Sol T Plaatje, Bessie Head, Athol Fugard and Sheila Roberts.
When censorship in the 1980s insisted that certain writers remain banned under the Internal Security Act, Donker republished the then proscribed Bloke Modisane’s Blame Me on History, a classic of the Sophiatown years.
He also published Dikobe wa Mogale’s collection of poems, A Baptism of Fire, in 1984, the year in which Mogale (pen name of the African National Congress parliamentarian Ben Martins) was jailed under charges of terrorism. Donker acted on his philosophy that books should free the mind of bigotry and explore our common, though complex, humanity.
How to publish good literature in South Africa without subsidy? Donker published commercially successful books like Food from the Veld partly to cross-subsidise literature.
After having sold his company to Jonathan Ball Publishers, he was persuaded to return from France to start the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of Natal. During his term as director (1996-1998), he displayed his rare combination of artistic, administrative and financial insight to create a hub of intercultural activity in the annual Poetry Africa Festival, the Time of the Writer Festival and the Durban International Film Festival.
In 2000 the University conferred on Donker an honorary doctorate in recognition of his “promotion of the written word, for the present and future progress of the human imagination in South Africa”.
Towards the end of his tenure as director of the Centre for Creative Arts, Donker suffered a heart attack from which he never fully recovered. His spirit lives on in the words of a writer whom he admired, Herman Hesse: “The thinking, the essence, expressed in books is not dead. It is alive in the world.”