When the first Contrast appeared in December of 1960, the editor Jack Cope wrote the following notes as an introduction to the journal.
It may show some optimism or hardihood, if not a touch of impertinence, to start a new magazine in South Africa at this time. The answer, if there is any doubt, can come only from the pages of Contrast itself. To succeed, it must provide a flash-point for the vital currents moving everywhere. It must satisfy the demands of readers to be amused, or stimulated; provoke new ideas and challenge old and bring writers and artists together in their own field and on their own soil.
We will not be toastmasters to ourselves, and so Contrast makes its bow without ceremony. If it is to enjoy the good wishes of the public here and of critics abroad it must earn them. Its achievement will depend on the force, liveliness and wit of South Africa's writers and artists.
In a policy-ridden country, here in the first place is a magazine with no policy. Its aims may be difficult just because they are so simple&8212;to keep out of the rough and tumble of parties and groups and yet to cross all borders and to hold a balance even between conflicting opinions.
Writers in South Africa have pressing problems, whether they use Afrikaans, English or an African language and in whatever race or group they may fall. They need make no special plea on that account and in the long run evaluations will be applied to them that do not change much with time or from one country to another.
But there are features in the situation here for writer and reader alike that must be clear to all. We are living in the midst of our own drama. Unlike the casual onlooker in Rome, London or New York (or Accra for that matter) we stand, perhaps puny and beset by our own pride and by unseen powers, in the centre of our stage. Sometimes the amphitheatre is so quiet that a laugh or a whisper can be heard. At others the din is thunderous and the 'pity and terror', as Aristotle put it, creep in each man's flesh. In the stream of daily life, its happiness and pathos, its violence and lies, we ourselves are continually involved. Our performance as a whole, as well as in its minute details, cannot escape being criticised and judged.
To true artists nothing remains concealed and no heart is completely closed. In the final count, maybe, the most just and compassionate and also the strictest judges of this drama will be South Africans themselves. Given a voice and a hearing, and without restrictions except of skill and talent among a small nation, our writers and thinkers will continue to produce out of the heat of the day work deeper in value than we may realise.
If Contrast can draw reliably on them and help forward new stirrings evident on all sides its arrival in the world, though late, will have been a happy one.
When New Contrast 100 was published (December 1997), the editor, Michael King, wrote the following brief history of the first 100 issues.
If we choose to make a bit of a fuss about this issue of New Contrast, it is because not every literary magazine manages to publish 100 issues in uninterrupted sequence, over a 37 year span. As the incumbent Editor, I want to pay special tributes to the previous editors who are the real sustainers of this magazine; Jack Cope, Geoff Haresnape, Douglas Reid Skinner, and (even though he was not formally an editor) Mike Nicol.
The first issue of Contrast was published on 15 November 1960. During the year previous to that, a number of people in Cape Town had been discussing and finalising plans for a literary magazine, and the South African Literary Journal Ltd, a non-profit company limited by guarantee had been formally set up on 29 January 1960, with the intention of publishing a magazine. The seven signatories of the Articles of Association were Gerald Gordon, Montague Cohen, Anthony Delius, Jack Cope, Philip Segal, Sydney Clouts and Anthony Clarke. The proposed editorial board of the magazine was to include Anthony Delius, Jack Cope, Jan Rabie, Philip Segal, Nancy Baines, Kees Greshoff, Owen Williams and Anthony Clarke. The magazine, it was first decided, was to have been called Orbit, and then it was found that there was already in existence a magazine with that name, and the alternative suggested by Sydney Clouts, Terrapin, seems to have been outvoted at the first meeting of the SALJ, which agreed on the name Contrast, which had been suggested by Philip Segal. Jack Cope was elected chairman of the editorial board. The early meetings of the editorial board were held at Mr Gordon's chambers, and then at Clarke's Bookshop in Long Street.
After the first issue had been published (2000 copies printed), the financial position was assessed, and approaches were made to a number of funding agencies for support. The publication of the second issue was delayed until more money could be raised. As the money came in, decisions were made about proceeding. I raise these points here because some of the people and institutions which helped Contrast then are still supporting us, and their faith in the magazine, and their willingness to put their good faith into action is a significant part of the reason why New Contrast is still going.
After ten years, 25 issues had been published. It appears that at that time there were 611 paid up subscribers, and the CNA ordered a further 270 copies for sale through its outlets. The magazine was making a loss on each issue, and it was only because of patrons' funding that the magazine continued.
After twenty years, Jack Cope announced his decision to leave South Africa for England. Geoffrey Haresnape was appointed Editor at the end of 1980. The financial worries continued. Various donors maintained their steady support, but printing costs continued to rise sharply, and there were approaches made by outside publishers to take over the magazine – approaches which the SALJ turned down.
Geoff Haresnape edited the magazine until 1989, when he announced to the Board that he intended to stand down as Editor. At that stage, various options regarding the future of Contrast were discussed, and the Directors agreed finally on the following. Contrast would incorporate the magazine UpStream (started by Alan James, and then edited by Douglas Reid Skinner), and the SALJ would continue publishing under the control of the Directors of the SALJ, the resultant combined magazine which was to be called New Contrast, with Douglas Reid Skinner as its editor. What this proposal made possible was the reduction of the costs of publishing the magazine because Douglas Skinner was able, through desk top publishing, to reduce the dependence of the magazine on commercial printing firms. New Contrast started appearing four times a year, and has maintained that rate since then. Douglas Skinner also launched as a supplement to New Contrastf, a tabloid format newspaper called the South African Literary Review.
In 1992, Douglas Skinner moved to England, and there was a wobble in the control of the magazine. During October, it became clear that some alternative structure needed to be put in place to protect the magazine, and a Directors' meetings in February 1993 came to certain decisions. The Minutes of this meeting indicated that the current financial position of the magazine was the worst it had ever been. Mike Nicol and Jill Gallimore took on the production of the magazine, aided by a group of Associate Editors which included Damon Galgut, Daniel Hugo, Stephen Watson, and Michael King. The South African Literary Review was discontinued. Fund raising efforts were redoubled, and the subscribers' list was promoted. New bookkeeping and auditing arrangements were made, and by the end of 1994, the corner had been turned, and New Contrast settled into a more stable position. There was no formally appointed editor until the middle of 1996, when the Associate Editors agreed that the magazine would benefit by having someone centrally responsible for decision making again, as had been the case previously under Cope, Haresnape and Skinner. Michael King was appointed Editor in July 1996. Contrast and New Contrast have shared a philosophy which has consistently underpinned decisions about its structure and editorial policy. Geoff Haresnape presented a paper in 1983 called 'Keeping out of the laagers: Editing Contrast in the 1980s', and the view presented there of non-partisan independence has been the distinguishing hall-mark and strength of the magazine all along. New Contrast does not espouse any causes, nor does it advocate to others what their view of literature or the purposes of literature should be. We make available for publication what the editors at the time regard as suitable and satisfying, and we try to avoid being advocates for any clique or faction within the South African literary environment. Our present policy is to rotate the editors of the sections of the magazine (Poetry, Fiction and Reviews) so as to allow for different emphases and priorities. Contrast under Jack Cope often expressed views about censorship, holding that it was not the function of the state to decide what writers wanted to, or were able to express. This view has been consistently held by the other editors as well.
What have been the strengths of Contrast and New Contrast, as we see them? First, the controlling structure of the SALJ, which has been able to assert the right kind of stability and control. Secondly, the quality, perserverance and commitment of the editors who have kept going when the going was tough. Thirdly, its independence, and the fact that it does not answer to anybody except itself. Fourthly, it has established itself as a reputable and credible functioning organisation. Fifthly, Contrast and New Contrast have regularly published the work of new writers, who in many cases have gone on to become important figures in the South African literary scene. Lastly, it answers a need, which is that people who write poems and stories want to see their work published, and New Contrast does that. And will go on doing that.