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Republic of South Africa

(Cape of Good Hope Provincial Division)

Case No: 2430/05

In the matter between
PAUL LOUW Third Applicant
h/a PROTEA BOEKHUIS First Respondent
JOHN C KANNEMEYER Second Respondent



The second respondent herein is an academic at the University of Stellenbosch. Together with several students in the Afrikaans and Nederlands Department at the said university he compiled and edited a book entitled “Ek ken jou goed genoeg … Die briefwisseling tussen N P Van Wyk Louw en W E G Louw 1936 tot 1939”. The first respondent is the publisher of the book. As the title suggests, the book contains the exchange of letters between the two Louws who were brothers. The applicants in this matter are some members of their family who, it seems, are unhappy that the personal and private correspondence of the brothers is being placed in this form in the public arena. The reasons for their unhappiness are set out later in this judgment. In these proceedings they seek an interim interdict restraining the first respondent from selling or distributing the book and other related relief. The said respondent has agreed to stop selling the book pending the finalisation of this aspect of the dispute.

Mr P J J De Jager, SC, together with Mr C A C Korf, appeared on behalf of the first respondent. At the outset of the hearing they submitted that extensive excerpts from these letters have been published already in a number of earlier books. The letters, they argue, are already in the public domain. Some of these books were made available to the court. Though perusing these books may have been of limited value in the ultimate determination of this matter, it is a tremendous learning experience for anyone unfamiliar with the impact of the thinking of the Louw brothers on a significant layer of South African society for many decades in the last century.

There is no dispute amongst the parties with regard to the contribution of Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw (“Van Wyk Louw”) and his brother William Ewart Gladstone Louw (“W E G Louw”) to the philosophical intellectual and literary heritage of the Afrikaner. The extent and influence of the Louw brothers on Afrikaner thought during the past seventy years was undoubtedly significant. Van Wyk Louw, in particular, played a huge role in shaping Afrikaner thinking or as De Jager, SC, puts it “the world view of the liberal Afrikaner during the twentieth century”. His poetry, prose and philosophical writing continue to impact upon intellectual discourse in South Africa.

The letters contained in second respondent’s book were written during the period 1936 – 1939. The Louw brothers, at that stage already, had established themselves as leading Afrikaner intellectuals and writers. Van Wyk Louw then resided in Cape Town, whereas the younger brother, W E G Louw, was studying at an university in Amsterdam. It is apparent from the letters that their relationship was an extremely close one.

The contents of the letters vary from inconsequential personal news to passionate debates on contemporary issues. Mr N F Rautenbach, who appeared on behalf of the applicants, contended that the letters “skew” the reputation of the authors. He argued that certain comments and thoughts expressed in the letters, if not properly understood in their context, would shock the modern reader. This complaint also underpins the applicants’ unhappiness with regard to the publication of the book. In their view the publication results in prejudice to them in that in the course of the correspondence the Louw brothers express anti-semitic views, appear enamoured with the national-socialism of Hitler’s Germany, entertain notions of racial separation and use terminology in this regard which is inappropriate in present-day society. They also complain of the intensely private nature of some of the letters, especially those dealing with the breakdown of Van Wyk Louw’s marriage and his deep love for Truida, who later became his second wife. The debate between the brothers in this respect is intense and acrimonious. The applicants furthermore contend that these letters were not meant for publication and their literary standard falls short of the standards set by the authors in their own publications.

Some of the views expressed in these letters are indeed unpalatable in modern society. They were, however, written in a complex historical setting. De Jager, SC, suggests that the initial views of the Louw brothers “… developed into the most tolerant, liberal and open-minded lifeview (sic) at more or less the same speed as they grew in stature…” This court is unable to comment upon that statement. It is, however, apparent from the letters that they were not dogmatic and their views changed in response to the changing world situation. W E G Louw’s earlier admiration of Nazi Germany rapidly ended and on 1 August 1939 he wrote:

“Die gebeurtenisse van die vorige Maart-maand was, wat my betref, die laaste afrekening met Duitsland. Ek het daardie liefde finaal afgesweer en erken in Duitsland ‘n imperialisme net so vernietigend en nog wreder as die Britse. Wat die nasionaal-sosialisme ookal mag wees of word, Europees is dit nie meer nie.”
These fascinating letters are of obvious historical and literary significance and it is unlikely that an uninformed reader, stumbling upon the book, would simply focus upon the “sensationalists parts”, if such, as Rautenbach suggests. The peculiar context in which the letters are written is apparent even upon a cursory reading of the book.

The letters written with regard to Van Wyk Louw’s love-life have been in the public domain for some time. In any event, the suggestion that they would cause offence seventy years later is somewhat far-fetched. The letters provide an absorbing account of the relationship between the brothers and perceptions of morality then prevalent.

The submission by Rautenbach that the letters written in the first person have “a raw and jarring effect on the mind of a reader” is entirely without merit. In these letters the Louw brothers communicate in a candid, passionate and eloquent manner and the letters provide an unusual insight into their lives and times. With regard to the literary merit of the book, Professor Liesbeth Botha, the Executive Director: Innovation and Commercialization at the University of Stellenbosch, comments as follows in a letter written to first applicant:

“Dis egter ook óns mening (soos dié van Nicol Stassen wat Herman Gilliomee en Jaap Steyn se menings ingewin het) dat ‘die boek iets unieks bied wat nie net aanvullend of illustratief is ten opsigte van die werke waarin die briewe reeds bekendgestel is … nie’ (my ma, Elize Botha, se woorde). Sy sê ook: In ‘Ek ken jou goed genoeg… verskyn die briewe egter in ‘n volledige, ononderbroke reeks, sodat die aard en betekenis daarvan met veel groter impak tot die leser spreek. Hulle vorm hier ‘n onvervangbare, afgeronde hoofstuk in die lewensloop van albei die broers. Om hul so kronologies te lees, dat die leser deel in die seldsame intensiteit van die verhouding tussen die broers, maar ook in die eb en vloed wat die verhouding gekenmerk het.’ Daarom sal ons nie graag die boek van die rakke wil laat verwyder nie.”
I especially agree with the view that the book has a greater impact because of the manner in which it has been compiled and is presented.

I am accordingly unpersuaded that the publication of the book causes any prejudice or irreparable harm to the applicants or the image and standing of the Louw brothers.

Though the suggestion of prejudice was introduced and dealt with to a considerable extent on the applicants’ papers, Rautenbach argued that it was not necessary for this court to deal with issues of irreparable harm or the balance of convenience as the applicants are entitled to a final interdict. He submitted, that once a clear right is established and there is a threat of infringement which is likely to continue, the applicants would be entitled to seek final relief.

A temporary interdict, pending the institution of an action, was sought in applicants’ notice of motion. For the purposes of such a relief it is sufficient for the applicants to establish the right they assert prima facie even though it may still be open to some doubt.

Without deciding whether the applicants would be entitled to final relief or otherwise, it is convenient to deal with the matter by determining whether the applicants are the owners of the copyright in respect of the letters published by the second respondent.

All the unpublished letters of the Louw brothers have been under the control and in the possession of the University of Stellenbosch since the 1970’s. The letters have been available for research and bona fide students and academics have had access to them. A number of books containing extensive quotes from these letters have been published.

It appears that the documents are at University of Stellenbosch at the instance of the Louw brothers or their families. Van Wyk Louw died on 18 June 1970. His will provided that:

“Om my outeursregte en aandele in outeursregte verder in trust te hou en om die inkomste daarvan ten behoewe van my kinders of hul wettige afstammelinge by plaasvervulling per stirpes aan te wend totdat sodanige outeursregte en aandele in outeursregte geen verdere inkomste lewer nie of totdat my Administrateurs dit in hul diskresie besluit dat die trust be-eindig sal word wanneer die outeursregte en aandele in outeursregte sal toekom aan my kinders in gelyke dele of hul wettige afstammelinge by plaasvervulling per stirpes.”
On 9 June 1974 the Trust Bank in its capacity as trustee of the NP Van Wyk Louw Testamentêre Trust, with the consent of Truida Louw, the surviving spouse of the late Van Wyk Louw, and some of the applicants, assigned to the University of Stellenbosch all the unpublished documents of the deceased on the following conditions:
“1. Dat as erkenning vir die besondere rol wat Wyle NICOLAAS PETRUS VAN WYK LOUW in die Afrikaanse letterkunde en geesteslewe in sy breedste sin gespeel het, dra die Bewilligers hiermee oor aan die Universiteit in ewigdurende bruikleen al hulle regte, titel en belang in en ten opsigte van alle dokumente en stukke na die oorledene se dood gevind wat regstreeks of onregstreeks betrekking het op sy literêre werk en welke dokumente en stukke reeds in besit is van die Universiteit, uitgesonder enige honoraris of outeursaandeel wat mag toeval ten opsigte van enige reeds gepubliseerde of nog gepubliseer te word letterkundige werke van enige aard.

2. Die Universiteitsbibliotekaris van die Universiteit vir die tyd synde sal voormelde dokumente en stukke in sy uitsluitlike diskresie bewaar en gebruik of laat gebruik op sodanige wyse dat dit bevorderlik is vir die Universiteit, die Afrikaanse letterkunde in die algemeen en die nagedagtenis van die oorledene.”

W E G Louw died in and during 1980. It appears that some of his documents were already in the possession of the University of Stellenbosch. In respect of any documents still in his possession, his will stipulated that:
“Ek bemaak ook alle persoonlike en letterkundige dokumente, manuskripte, briewe en enige ander stukke wat van belang is vir die letterkundige studie wat na my dood in my besit gevind mag word aan die Carnegie-Biblioteek van die Universiteit van Stellenbosch vir bewaring in ‘n manuskripkamer of versameling.”
Upon his death the said documents were handed over to the University of Stellenbosch by his widow.

The letters which emanate from the N P Van Wyk Louw Testamentêre Trust or the estate of the late W E G Louw or handed over to the university by either of the brothers during the course of their lifetime, are currently lawfully in the possession of the University of Stellenbosch. It is apparent that both brothers and their families were not averse to the university being the custodian of their literary heritage.

The letters are literary works protected by copyright legislation. Copyright, or ownership thereof, is transferable by testamentary disposition. It is also possible to transfer some or all of the acts which the owner of the copyright has the exclusive right to control, save that such assignment must be done in writing. Van Wyk Louw bequeathed his copyright in unpublished work to the aforementioned trust. The trust thereafter assigned all its right, title or interest in respect of the unpublished documents to the University of Stellenbosch. The applicants retained their right to claim royalties. The right to give permission for the use of the documents was also assigned to the University.

The relevant section of W E G Louw’s will quoted above determines the ownership of the copyright in respect of his unpublished work. Unlike his published works which form “die restant van my boedel” bequeathed to his sons, W E G Louw quite clearly had a different intention with regard to his letters, manuscripts and other unpublished work. These were left to the University of Stellenbosch or the copyright in respect of the unpublished letters passed on to the University and not his sons.

Rautenbach’s contentions with regard to the precise documents in the possession of each of the parties when they died or when copyright was assigned are, to some extent, confusing and do not assist in the resolution of this matter.

The arguments advanced by De Jager, SC, in respect of the locus standi of some of the applicants are not without merit. However, in the light of the conclusion to which I come herein, it is unnecessary to deal with this matter in any detail or at all.

It seems that the right to grant permission to publish the letters of Van Wyk Louw or W E G Louw vested in the University of Stellenbosch and not the applicants. They, accordingly, failed to establish a prima facie right.

The second respondent initially sought the permission of first applicant to publish the letters. The first applicant’s response was not a negative one and reads as follows:

“Ek het nie beginselbesware teen die publikasie (…) nie, hoewel ek of Reinet seker wel graag eers die manuskrip van die brieweboek sal wil lees om seker te maak dat ons as familie gelukkig is met die inhoud en dat dit nie te persoonlik is nie – miskien sal ons hier en daar ‘n sinnetjie of paragraaf wil skrap. Die briewe is destyds natuurlik nie geskryf met die oog op latere openbaarmaking nie, en daarbenewens was my pa en W E G mense wat hul privaatheid op prys gestel het. Andersins kan dit in die openbare belang wees om hul gedagtes en kosbare insigte bekend te maak, veral teen die agtergrond van die kulturele krisis waarin Afrikaans en die voortbestaan daarvan beland het.”
During April 2004 the first respondent was eventually advised that the applicants were against the publication of the letters. Their opposition was not premised upon any claims to copyright but rather upon the perceived belief of harm to the reputation of the Louw brothers.

The University of Stellenbosch was joined as a party to these proceedings. Their view appears from the letter of Professor Liesbeth Botha, supra. It is apparent that the University is unhappy with the manner in which second respondent has dealt with the matter. However, they appreciate the value of the book to Afrikaans literature and would not wish to see its sale and distribution stopped. They do not oppose the publication of the letters.

The applicants’ failure to establish a prima facie right results in the order which I make. If I had any discretion in this matter I would have come to a similar conclusion. This book is a work of substantial literary merit and its unusual and interesting contents enrich Afrikaans, if not South African, literature.

The respondents do not seek any costs order, if successful.

In the result, the application is dismissed. There is no order as to costs.


LitNet: 28 Maart 2006

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