Adriaan Donker
1933 - 2002


Adriaan Donker

Date of Birth: 5 December 1933
Date of Death: July 2002
Place of Birth: Rotterdam
Place of Death:  
Gender: Male

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Early Life:
Born in Rotterdam on 5 December 1933. He came from an established publishing family. In his youth, he experienced the oppressive brutality of the German occupation force in Holland, and the family home was a haven to hiding Jews.

Largely to publish new avant-garde poetry of his friends, Donker founded his own publishing company. It subsequently failed, and he went on to Germany, England and the United States learning about publishing. The European branch of the American academic publishing company Collier Macmillan employed him, and in 1966 he became managing director of their South African business, aged 33. A distinguished publisher, he eventually started his own company A Donker in 1973.


  Sources for this biography
Barron, C. (2002). ‘Adriaan Donker: Pioneer of South African Literature’

Having immersed himself in the world of South African literature, he now had a vehicle for publishing the good work of many South African poets and writers, of all races. This was an important moment for literature in this country, as well as the politics of publishing, as Barron explains: “When he started, the only hope South Africans writing in English had of getting anything other than school textbooks or coffee table books into print was to be published overseas and then imported back into South Africa. The chances of this happening were remote and so most indigenous literature of any merit was stifled at birth. The interests of established publishers in the country were confined to selling the work of overseas writers and making as much money as they could out of the school and university market. As a result, little creative literature born from the soil of South Africa and exploring the complex emotions at work in the country was coming through.”

From his first financial success in To Whom It May Concern, a collection of Soweto poetry which no publisher would touch out of fear that it would be banned, Donker introduced Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote and many unknown black writers. He also attracted the attention of the apartheid government. Bloke Modisane, banned at the time, was published by Donker when his now well-known Sophiatown writing Blame me on History came to light. A Christopher van Wyk poem about deaths in detention, which Donker published, earned him security police interrogation.

Barron further identifies the brave stand of this resolute character: “Although later a member of the ANC in exile, Donker was first and foremost a man of literature, not politics, and he resisted attempts to use his company as a channel for political propaganda. He refused overseas funding because this would jeopardize his independence. He was a publisher, he said, not an NGO.” Indeed his publishing of the work of Guy Butler, Douglas Livingstone and Athol Fugard as well as Food from the Veld, Snakes of Southern Africa and Poisonous Plants in SA Gardens and Parks indicates not only a fine taste for literature but also an astute business mind. Donker also had a close connection with the Market Theatre in Johannesburg’s Newtown, and published it’s history and many of the plays staged there.

In 1990 Jonathan Ball Publishers bought out Donker and for the next five years he lived on a farm in France. In 1996, he became the founding director of the University of Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts.

Donker was not appreciated by all, as Barron recounts: “He was frugal with money and not particularly generous to his writers, who learnt to read the fine print of contracts very carefully. But it was probably this mean streak that kept his firm afloat when so many others went under. … Breyten Breytenbach was writer in residence at the university and when Donker encouraged him to do more to earn his keep, Breytenbach retorted that he was sick of being pushed around by a Dutch shopkeeper. Donker did not renew his contract.”

Later Life:
When he died in July 2002 at age 68 at his Rooi Els home in the southern Cape, Donker left two children from his first marriage, his wife, Karin, and a stepchild.

- South African History Online -