In 1907 the first South African Who’s Who was published by The South African Who’s Who Publishing Company in Durban. This amazing publishing company belonged to Ken Donaldson who was also the editor as well as the proprietor.
By 1909 the 3rd issue of Who’s Who was proving to be an amazing publication yet also differed somewhat from other books of a similar nature whereby who’s featured mainly aristocracy.
As regards omissions for that year, there were lots, but these begun to get less from year to year. In this volume room had been found for close on two thousand new biographies, mostly illustrated, and several had been crowded out.
In 1910 Ken Donaldson, editor and publisher of the South Africa Who’s Who the only illustrated Biographical Sketch Book of South Africans featured, in his 4th edition of the publication, men from the mines. He personally visited every mine on the Rand and interviewed where possible every member of staff. I must include here that staff would be considered at monthly paid and not the actual miners underground.
The 5th issue in 1911 contains nearly 4,000 biographies, mostly illustrated. Critics were reminded that the books consists mainly of Colonists and consequently did not exhibit that exclusiveness associated with similar publications devoted to older countries, where class distinctions were more defined. The idea of the photographs was his own and suggested that these make the volume doubly interesting. Donaldson mentioned that it would be impossible to circularise everyone who should be in such a work.
By the sixth issue in 1912 Ken labelled himself as a “Book Canvasser”. Under the watchful eyes of many critics the public was quick to point fingers and remark why there were no butchers or bakers listed yet some of the richest and noblest men in the country were. He tried to incorporate as many different professions as possible and even tried to go as far as finding an executioner. His gumption took him straight to one of the most popular living men at the time The King of England. His Majesty’s Equerry in a letter from Buckingham Palace, dated 9th November 1911 read “Dear Donaldson, the King has given his photograph for publication…..etc” Donaldson did not want to brag too much about this new addition but did mention that he was a shipmate of both the King and his Equerry before he came to South Africa 23 years previously.
Copyright issues were already rife then. Ken requested, that anyone who appeared in a British related publication or any other “similar volume”, to be careful not to send him such a biography but to supply original matter, and so to avoid any possibility of infringement of Copyright.
In 1913 Donaldson found it difficult to chronicle the biographies of prominent South Africans only. It was even more difficult to define what prominence or aristocracy is, than what it is not. For instance, it is not idleness, possession of wealth, position, title, ancestry, culture or fame. One writer has it, “There is no aristocracy, but the aristocracy of character,” and most people are familiar with Burns’ dictum,” The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for a’ that,” from which it would appear that too much is made of the “guinea stamp” and not enough of the “gowd.” The grandest characters are invariably the humblest, least selfish, and the biggest lovers of their fellows.
As originator of, and first in the world to publish, an illustrated “Who’s Who” Ken Donaldson considered it impossible to lay too much value on the illustration. In view of the large number of subscribers who yearly decide to have his book, including insertion of their biographical sketches and photos; and who it is discovered when the time comes for sending copy to the printers have never sent their photos, or given the arranged sitting to the photographer, he could only say that if they will give the sitting, their photos will appear alongside of their particulars in the next edition of the annual. He was a hard businessman and refused to be penalized by cancelling subscriptions because they have forgotten, or for any other reason, have not given the necessary sitting.
Despite the fact that this book is copyright, the South African and World’s Press advised that they could make any extracts, or reproduce any portraits appearing, but only on condition that the source of such information or photo so reproduced was acknowledged.
By 1915 Ken had been requested to add a business section to the “South African Who’s Who” but also found that it was also an almost impossible task owing to the amount of additional labour required. After the issue of the last edition in July, 1913, he decided to put forward the date of publication from July to January, and thus gain the extra six months necessary to make the innovation and produce the volume in January that year.
In a first attempt of this kind it has been impossible to furnish details of all the best known firms, and no one is more conscious of its omissions in this respect other than Ken Donaldson himself.
By 1925 Who’s Who was the only illustrated Who’s Who in the world, that fact added to its completeness and undoubted authority makes it a book of reference which every business man should have at hand.
1939 saw the last publication of the separation of the social and business entries of Who’s Who. That decision was not made hastily and was at the request of most of the subscribers.
In 1940 a major increase in paid advertising begun to sustain the revenue to continue with the publication. A major depression was looming and the economy was not good. That same year instructions were received from the Admiralty and the Defence Department to remove graphic images of personnel for the duration of War.
The 1948 post war edition of Who’s Who is by far the largest of all the Who’s Who books published. The book had many new features added and some of the old ones which were discontinued during the war were revived again. Needless to say that through these additions, the book had considerably increased in size as well as in content matter, many hundreds of new biographies, much more information about Government Departments, details about some of the Educational Institutions of the Union, as well as an alphabetical and a classified index, were just some of these new features referred to.
As promised in the previous year, a further addition was made to Who’s Who in South Africa was the photo section “Between 50 & 60 years ago” appeared. This covered Cape Town and Johannesburg. Ken Donaldson at that time said that he hoped to be able to add further to this series the following year by including Durban or Pretoria.
So many new Institutions had lately been formed and others had changed their names, it was found necessary to revise the list of abbreviations. The following year Ken also hoped that the next year the section ” Guide to the Armed Forces”, would be incorporated, but through the post-war changes these departments were undergoing major changes and it was it impossible to give accurate information and, therefore, decided to suspend this feature.
For nearly a century, Who’s Who of Southern Africa has researched and documented the biographies of noteworthy individuals in various fields of expertise. The last edition in 2006, being the 99th, finalises the showcase of contemporary and eminent achievers in a modern society. Biographical information within the fore-mentioned sections includes names, education, current and previous occupations, works, societal memberships, awards, personal information and contact details.
Since 1907, Who’s Who of Southern Africa has proved itself to be a powerful research and networking tool and this 2006 edition, continues to be an interesting reference and biographical encyclopaedia of leading personalities. Contact me for a quotation to look up on any of the 100 publications.
By Heather MacAlister
Acknowledgement & Sources: Who’s Who of South Africa books 1907 – 2006