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OBITUARY | Publisher Jonathan Ball, 69, challenged the establishment and oppressive politics


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OBITUARY | Publisher Jonathan Ball, 69, challenged the establishment and oppressive politics

Photo by Bloomberg

6th April 2021

By: News24Wire


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Jonathan Ball, eminent South African book publisher, died on 3 April at his home in Cape Town. He was 69 years old.

Born in Johannesburg to a Catholic family in 1951, he was schooled at Highlands North Boys High before completing his national service with the South African Air Force in 1970.


He landed his first job with Collier-Macmillan, headed up by Ad Donker, who went on to start Ad Donker Publishers and who would become a formative influence in Ball's life.

In 1972, he joined the publishing house Macmillan and was soon promoted to sales director.


It was from that vantage point that he observed the unfolding political changes in South Africa.

In June 1976, a watershed year, Ball took the decision to start out as an independent publisher.

Short on capital, and without the benefit of much more than a suit and an agreeable brother – David, who backed the company at the start – he set out "to publish books of a liberal sanity" that took on the establishment and challenged the oppressive political climate of the day.

In the backyard of David's industrial workshop in Selby, Johannesburg, Ball was soon joined by Alison Lowry, who became his editor-in-chief, and Jonathan Ball Publishers was launched.

In 1978, he published the book that would, in many ways, make public and permanent his principles.

The Super-Afrikaners, written by journalists Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom, for the first time exposed the Afrikaner Broederbond and listed the names of the members of the ultra-secret and powerful society that loomed over all aspects of South African life.

The book was an instant bestseller, so much so that Ball and his sedulous sales director, Nick Britt, worked night and day on the print binding line because anyone within reach of the Broederbond had refused to bind the book.

They eventually found a near-bankrupt and broken line, but it needed their help to get the book bound.

The publication caused a sensation and culminated in menacing visits from the security police.

This would not be the last government, nor the last thugs, to visit Ball's door.

The decade ended with a coup for Ball when he jumped upon the rights to publish Thomas Pakenham's distinguished book, The Boer War, in South Africa.

It forged lifelong friendships with Pakenham and his publisher, George Weidenfeld, cementing Weidenfeld & Nicolson as a permanent feature of JBP's lists in South Africa.

It was also the start of a more considerable business that spanned not only own publishing, but also representation as an agent of UK and US publishers in the country.

This, at a time when the economy was ever more challenging.

The 1980s were bruising for Ball. He entered a deal with UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton which failed for him, ending in his departure from the joint venture.

A year later, he restarted the company with new backing, buying back his catalogue and name; a move that would prove decisive for the future.

By the end of the decade, his credentials as a publisher of liberal books intact, he published not only for a wide audience, but landed the most important political books of the time.

Opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, liberal stalwart Helen Suzman and many more joined his stable.

He also bought Ad Donker, adding not only a splendid list, but coming full circle from where he started.

In 1992, Ball sold the business to Naspers. With complete editorial and broad executive control, he could, for the first time, exercise his residual ambitions. After acquiring HarperCollins, who were divesting, he ran one of the biggest trade publishers in the country.

The celebrated transition in South Africa changed little in his publishing.

Ball soon found the flaws in the new political establishment and published with the same vigour, sticking to his principles.

Former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein's After the Party, which focuses on the Arms Deal as an example of how the ANC's internal decline began.

He would go on to publish the definitive political books of the time, ranging from Mark Gevisser's biography of Thabo Mbeki, A Dream Deferred, to the shattering exposé on Jacob Zuma, Zuma Exposed, by journalist Adriaan Basson.

He launched Jonny Steinberg, and published every one of his books, securing two Alan Paton awards along the way.

At times exercising his volcanic, albeit short-lived, rage, but more often an entertaining humour, Ball lunched and dined celebrated authors, celebrities and staff with equal enthusiasm.

Quick-witted and fiercely well-read, he would present any table with a smorgasbord of topics that very often – but not always – involved an obscure aspect of his ever-wider reading.

Ball despised social media and found sound bites offensive. He required of you to engage in argument, to state your case, and defend your ground.

When he formally retired in 2015, after 45 years in publishing, he had not only defined political publishing in the country, but had created the leading publisher and book distributor in South Africa.

And, after barely one month's holiday, he continued on as a publisher-at-large, an office he held to the end.

His wife, Pam, died in 2018, leaving an unfillable void in his life.

Ultimately, Ball found enjoyment only in the things he had done for his entire life, and he continued doing it.

He is survived by his stepchildren, Belinda, Jamie and Jono, and two grandchildren.

Written by Eugene Ashton, chief executive of Jonathan Ball Publishers


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