I joined Ravan Press as a social studies editor in 1984. The press was then operating from an old house in Berea, practically the last house left in a neighbourhood of flats and hotels. On my first morning, Chris van Wyk, the editor of Staffrider, showed me around the office. After he’d introduced me to the people in sales and dispatch, we went into a small back garden and crossed a patch of lawn to a coach house backing on to the service alley. It was an incongruous building, a relic of the early days of the city, now serving as a store room.
I followed Chris up a wooden ladder into the attic. This awkward space, which must have been meant for hay bales and harnesses, was crammed with books in teetering piles, Muriel at Metropolitan, Call Me Not a Man, Dusklands – the hardcover edition, which had not sold well – back issues of the Spro-cas reports and Staffrider.
A little high-rise Hillbrow made of books and magazines. That evening I took home a set of the magazines, including the banned issues retrieved from mislabelled boxes, and over the next few weeks, while I was finding my feet in the house, I read them from cover to cover.
When Staffrider first appeared in 1979, I had found it strident and humourless. As a member of the Lionel Abrahams writing group, my first published work naturally ended up in The Bloody Horse and Sesame, which were altogether more suburban than Staffrider. But a young person’s ideas can change radically in five years. By 1984, I had spent a year abroad and I had discovered the light political touch of writers like Herbert, Kundera and Kiš. My sense of the country and my place in it had shifted. I pored over the five volumes of Staffrider in my Yeoville flat as if they might offer me a job description along with some solutions to the dilemmas of a young writer.
The most striking thing about the magazine, even today, is its sense of place. The topography is clearly more important than the typography. Every contributor is tagged to a town or township, sometimes to a cultural group (the Kwanza Creative Society of Mabopane East, the Guyo Book Club, Sibasa). The first editorial made it clear that this arrangement aimed to support writers with a ‘direct line’ to their communities, although those writing and publishing as ‘unattached individuals’ were also welcome. The idea was to reflect and reinforce community mobilisation around culture in the wake of ’76.
For an individual in search of symbolic attachment, as I was, Staffrider held out a simple promise. Here was a South Africa in which Meadowlands and Morningside were on the same page, where Douglas Livingstone of Durban and Mango Tshabangu of Jabavu were side by side, with nothing between them but a stretch of paper and a 1-point rule. The resonance of such a simple idea is almost impossible to recapture now, but in the demented, divided space of apartheid it was bracing. All the other borders the magazine crossed between fiction and autobiography, written and spoken word, lyrical flight and social documentary rest on that first idealistic gesture. The magazine belongs to all who live in it.
Of course, it was more complicated than that. The lines between writers and their ‘communities’ are no clearer than anyone else’s. As Mike Kirkwood later pointed out (Ten Years of Staffrider, Ravan Press, 1988), the design principle ‘conferred “community” on writers living in a state of blissful anomie’. The real differences in politics and aesthetics could not be resolved in the layout. In time many of the quieter voices fell silent, drowned out – or feeling that way – and the magazine became repetitive. It has its share of half-baked prose and overcooked poetry. Yet it was never merely a political megaphone. There was always room in its pages for Shabbir Banoobhai’s delicate poems, Joel Matlou’s surrealist folktales, Njabulo Ndebele’s supple essays.
The magazine was an expression of its time in other ways. Chris van Wyk was editor, writing teacher, mentor and friend to more writers than I can remember, especially the beginners. He spent half his time at the kitchen table or on a rickety bench in the garden, drinking coffee and talking with some poet who had come all the way from Evaton or beyond, the handwritten work spread out between them. That was the hallmark of the submissions: written in longhand in ballpoint in a school exercise book. In the end, all this talking and advising was bad business: a commercial publishing house is not meant to be a writing school. But it was good in every other way.
For readers, literary magazines come and go, drifting from the bedside table to the back of a cupboard or the dustbin soon enough. In publishing houses, the archive, the short shelf of publications growing year by year, painfully slowly, concentrating a ridiculous amount of effort into a confined space, has a dense, enduring presence. At Ravan, Staffrider was the truest expression of the publishing house’s history and spirit. The magazines were part of the furniture: you found them under your coffee mug at the end of the day. Twenty years later, they are still amazingly familiar to me. The sight of one in a second-hand dealer plunges me into another time and place.
Volume 3, Number 2 (June 1980), which celebrated Zimbabwean independence, has Paul Weinberg’s photo of Comrade Bernard, a young ZANLA guerrilla commander, on the cover. There is a comment from him inside: ‘All I want to see happen is true liberation, the suffering ended and a country that serves its people.’ This particular issue was incorrectly billed as Volume 3, Number 1 on the cover, and the mistake had to be corrected by hand: someone went through all the copies and stuck a patch of paper with a handwritten correction over the typo. These little bandaids move me as much as anything the magazine ever published.