With Juta celebrating 150 years of trading in 2003, the company represents one of the great romantic sagas in the history of publishing in Africa.

From humble beginnings as a family business sometimes struggling to survive and, as recent as the late nineties, going through traumatic times of change, it has grown to a publishing house of note with an unsurpassed reputation in the legal field.

In the words of a former CEO, James Duncan: "The history of the company encompasses world wars, local wars, depressions, famine and disaster – anything but peace and boundless prosperity – yet we have survived and prospered. I am sure we shall, together, continue to do so…we have a broad and liberal outlook on life and can adapt to any reasonable changes in the world around us."

Said at the beginning of the nineties, the words can be seen as homage to the unadorned spirit of integrity and quality, to the sheer grit and enterprise showed by the founders, Jan Carel Juta and the four generations of Duncans who followed him. The remarkable Duncan family played the leading role in Juta for nearly 100 of its 150 years.

When gold was discovered on Witwatersrand in 1886, the company had within months transported a tin shack as well as a supply of books to Johannesburg, via Kimberley. The farsighted purchase of a plot on the corner of Pritchard and Loveday Streets for ₤ 200, led to the spot to this day being known as Juta's Corner.

In October 1901, a devastating fire laid waste to the Colonial Mutual Building in Adderley Street, Cape Town. The building had housed the "once handsome Juta store" – as a newspaper described it. The store was completely destroyed and all stock along with it. The next day, an advertisement by Juta blandly announced to customers that orders placed may be "somewhat delayed…but would be filled!" From this crippling blow, the company struggled back onto its feet. It was three years before they could move back to the Adderley Street premises again.

Today the small bookshop in Cape Town, where on a good day 150 years ago one-time notary clerk Jan Carel Juta, from Zalt Bommel in the Netherlands, expectantly awaited his first clients, Juta has grown into a company of five operating divisions, employing close to 300 people across the country.

Buoyed by what present CEO Rory Wilson calls Juta’s vision "to become South Africa’s leading seller and publisher of knowledge", the company is growing new markets and expanding on all fronts.

In October 2002, 277 staff members from all divisions countrywide, gathered together at the Newlands Rugby Stadium to attend the first Juta Summit, under the theme: "Our Dreams of Greatness: The next 150 years."

From an average of approximately 120 new titles per annum, this financial year, Juta aims to put more than 500 titles on bookshelves and, mostly, in schools.

Juta Gariep, a merger between Juta Education and Gariep Publishing, a subsidiary of Klett, Germany’s largest school textbook publisher, competes in the South African schools market.

Juta Academic, winner of the coveted SEFIKA award for best academic publisher in 2000, specialises in tertiary titles.

The prestigious Juta Law publishes not only the well-known South African Law Reports, to be seen on the shelves of just about each and every lawyer in the country, but also in both electronic and print format. Some of the leading judges and legal experts in the country are engaged as authors and collaborators.

Juta Bookshops, the oldest indigenous bookseller in South Africa, and a new division, Juta Double Storey, which publishes books of a general nature, make up the rest.

It all started when 29-year-old Jan Carel Juta and his bride, Louise, arrived from London in September, having been told by his seafaring brother, Coenraad Jacobus, of the beautiful scenery and opportunities at the southern point of the African continent.

In London they had en route visited Louise's journalist brother who with his family lived in the poverty-stricken Dean Street area of Soho. The intense, bearded man smiled his agreement when the precise Jan Carel suggested helpfully that he could supplement his income by writing for De Zuid-Afrikaan, the bilingual pro-Dutch newspaper in English-dominated Cape Town, with which Jan Carel had already made contact.

Later the great social revolutionary Karl Marx, father of Communism, described his new brother-in-law as "Ein so braver und verständiger Kerl ist er""What a good and sensible chap." A contribution by him in De Zuid-Afrikaan had indeed been traced.

The Karl Marx ghost would much later be resurrected to try and embarrass Juta – by none other than Ds Koot Vorster, hardline rightwing brother of Premier John Vorster, who in the seventies accused the company of Communist sympathies.

Jan Carel had experience of the book trade in Holland and at first intended representing the Dutch printing firm Kolff and Co in Cape Town but quickly saw opportunities in branching out on his own. The shop, "JC Juta, Bookseller and Stationer", according to an advertisement in De Zuid-Afrikaan, sold Bibles, hymn- and school books, periodicals imported by mail steamer, and, in addition, ladies writing desks, pen-knives, porcelain slates, Havana cigars and genuine eau de cologne!

Described as energetic and strong-willed, Jan Carel spent thirty years at the Cape and, although not the first publisher, has been described as the father of publishing in South Africa, producing numerous works of merit in Dutch as well as English, including one on history by Thomas Bowler.

The strong legal connection in Juta had its origins in 1860 when Jan Carel started specialising in the production of quality legal works and law reports. This legal connection was drawn right through to the modern day, culminating in a Juta director, Graeme Duncan KC, elder brother to one-time CEO Douglas Duncan and one of South Africa’s most famous legal lights, representing the opposition in three great constitutional cases, including the infamous 1952 High Court of Parliament.

Jan Carel fell ill in 1883 and died in London three years later, only 62. Before he left Cape Town he passed the reins to two talented young managers, Jacobus Cuypers and Thomas Mullins Duncan. Thomas was only 37 and the first of the Duncans to get a foothold in the company. Jan Carel’s son, later Sir Henry Juta, became Judge President of the Supreme Court and Speaker in the House of Assembly. But the lavish lifestyle of Sir Henry and his wife nearly bankrupted Juta’s and when another Thomas Duncan took over in 1909 they fought for eight years to pay off huge mortgages and debt.

Before the end of the century, Juta had bookshops in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Grahamstown, King Williams Town, Uitenhage and Stellenbosch.

In 1953 the company moved from the city to the old Weetbix factory in Wynberg and in 1977 to the present office premises at Wetton.

Article by Wessel de Kock, Author

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Copyright Juta & Co, Ltd 2003