Several dutch publishers have featured prominently in the South African book industry. They include JJ van Schaik, Gerrit Bakker, Cornells Struik and AA Balkema. But the one who was to transform that industry single-handedly was Balkema. 

August Aime Balkema (Guus to his friends) was born in 1906. Twenty-seven years later he opened a bookshop in Amsterdam, the famed "Huis aen de drie grachten" next door to the old premises of the Gemeentelijke Universiteit of Amsterdam. From the outset his customers were bookish people: academics, students and qualified professionals. Even in those pre-war years Balkema had his South African contacts - students like WEG Louw, WJ du P Erlank (Eitemal) and Ernst van Heerden.

Balkema was a diffident, retiring person with a shy laugh, almost a giggle. But behind this apparent otherworldliness, almost muddleheadedness, lay an iron will. During the German occupation of the Netherlands he produced fifty illegal publications "without approval", for he refused to submit to the dictates of the Kulturkammer. These books included not only poetry by major Dutch poets like A Roland Hoist and Marthinus Nijhoff, but also the writings of English and French authors, both languages being prohibited by the occupiers. All this was done in collaboration with Jan van Krimpen, probably the most eminent Dutch typographer and calligrapher of his day. (At the time his home was also a refuge for Jews.)

When Balkema decided to settle in South Africa after the war, he brought with him a background of locally unprecedented scope and sophistication. He started off as a book dealer in sought-after, rare items on all kinds of specialised subjects. That was no doubt how he came to know many of his later authors. Soon, however, he decided to venture into publishing as well and in 1946 his first book appeared: Vyjtig Gedigte van C. Louis Leipoldt, selected by WEG Louw and published on the occasion of the poet's 66th birthday.

This book pointed the way to two areas in which Balkema were to transform South African publishing. How come such a work was published by an unknown publisher, newly immigrated from the Netherlands, and not by Leipoldt's own publisher? The answer is obvious: there was just no interest in anything that was at all offbeat. The second rarity was that the book was set by hand by Van Krimpen and printed in the Netherlands by Job. Enschede and Sons in Haarlem. Typographically it was probably the finest work ever to have been published in South Africa at the time. The edition comprised 250 copies, of which only 200 were commercially available, so this imprint has become a treasured collector's piece.

It became a minor tradition in South Africa that Balkema would publish books which more established publishers had turned down. They included works like Die Vrou op die Skuit (Elise Muller), which won the Hertzog Prize; Jaffie (Eitemal); and Snel Dan Jare (CGS de Villiers). Because the publications were so superb, authors approached Balkema of their own accord and he published works like Jan Rabie's seminal 21, Ina Rousseau's first work, Die Verlate Tuin, and Uys Rrige's Ballade van die Groot Begeer. Ernst van Heerden and ID du Plessis, too, turned to Balkema. In 1958 he published the first Afrikaans anti-apartheid novel, Jan Rabie's Ons, die A/god - a book that evoked fierce and venomous criticism.

Balkema also published English literary works by people like Guy Butler and Anthony Delius.

Such was Balkema's status, after only a brief period that the official publication of the three volumes of Van Riebeeck's Daghregister in 1952 was entrusted to him.

Nasionale Boekhandel increasingly perceived Balkema as a threat and it took all kinds of steps to prevent a potential exodus of major writers. One was to establish a more challenging, adventurous publishing policy by means of new appointments. Another was to drastically improve its editing and printing by importing expertise and qualified people from overseas.

Although these measures meant that fewer Afrikaans writers offered their manuscripts to Balkema, he continued in the field where he was to play what was probably his most crucial role. Balkema not only helped South Africans to learn what good book production was about, but he also taught them to discover and value their heritage. For he soon found out that hardly anything had been published about Cape nature and culture. This led to an impressive number of tides, some presented by their authors but the majority initiated by Balkema himself.

While it is tempting to lapse into a catalogue of tides, the principal ones at least should be mentioned: R Lewcock's Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa, followed by Desiree Picton-Seymour's Victorian Buildings in South Africa; H Fransen and Mary Cook's Old Houses of the Cape; CA Luckhoff's Table Mountain; Frank and Edna Bradlow's masterly Thomas Bowler: His Life and His Work (a manuscript that had been turned down by one publisher after another); FL Alexander's Art in South Africa Since 1900; Esme Berman's Art and Artists in South Africa; Eve Palmer and Norah Pitman's Trees of South Africa and Trees of Southern Africa; du P Scholtz's Strat Caldecott; CC de Villiers's Geslagsregisters van die Ou Kaapse families (revised by C Pama, three volumes) and innumerable others. These books, almost without exception, can be described as standard works in their respective fields.

The most remarkable, brief chapter in Balkema's long and varied career was the episode with Cosmo de Bosdari, a London businessman of Italian origin who came to South Africa for health reasons. Balkema chanced to meet him and, even though De Bosdari had no previous experience as an author, historian or researcher, Balkema spotted the man's potential and persuaded him to write on topics about which the Englishman had hitherto been ignorant. De Bosdari, not a man who could sit around idly for long, seized on Balkema's proposal that he write a guide to Cape architecture and, as he put it in his foreword, "the initial impulse came not from exact knowledge, but from the lack of it".

The outcome was Cape Dutch Houses and Farms, a huge success, later supplemented by Hans Fransen (also at Balkema's request). Apart from Leipoldt's posthumously published 300 Years of Cape Wines, hardly anything had appeared on the subject and De Bosdari's Wines of the Cape did something to fill the gap.

But De Bosdari's most important book was Anton Anreith, again written at Balkema's request. To quote Hans Fransen (our translation): "In almost virtuoso English ... De Bosdari brings the whole fascinating transitional era from Dutch to English rule to life and paints the backdrop against which the sculptor's works were created also those of his architect collaborator Louis-Michel Thibault." Fransen is unquestionably right when he observes in the celebratory volume Liber Amicorumpro A.A. Balkema (our translation): "It has always been one of Balkema's talents as a publisher that, in areas where there were few experts, he simply caused experts to burgeon."

Apart from all these major books aimed at an intelligent lay readership, Balkema published several academic works like SA Louw's major Dialekver-menging en Taalontwikkeling, CA Liickhoff's Interne Geneeskunde and academic journals like Acta classica, Acta juridica and various other Actae. These were distributed worldwide.

As a rule he had only one assistant and did virtually everything himself. He never found it necessary to look for capital abroad: he brought out this whole array of major, expensive books without financial assistance.

Despite his insistence on quality typography, he was no hidebound traditionalist. He was one of the first local publishers to realise and exploit the potential of the IBM typewriter for ragged right setting, especially for academic publications. Everybody was surprised, but Balkema knew that technological innovations were essential.

In the early 1960s Balkema decided to stop his literary activities and offered his stock and backlist to Human & Rousseau.

Without Guus Balkema's input the South African book world is inconceivable. He returned to the Netherlands in 1986 and died in Rotterdam in 1996.


Please note: This biography is a modified extract from the following source: Human, K. (1999) “August Aime Balkema” from They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Published by Human and Rousseau.pp.442- 445. If you would like to contribute to this biography please click on the contribute tab.

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