Brian Skupin

ebersohn_wessel_smallIn the 1970s South African Wessel Ebersohn started writing thrillers set in that country’s harsh apartheid society. His critically acclaimed series about Yudel Gordon, a prison psychologist, was successful enough to allow him to write full-time.

But Ebersohn’s books were clearly antiapartheid (one is based on the Stephen Biko case). He was repeatedly harassed by the police, his books were later banned, and for a time he was forced into hiding. Ebersohn describes the situation:

“In 1986, when the South African troubles were at their height, Miriam and I had had enough. On the one hand, members of the resistance were being murdered by agents of the authorities and, on the other, township mobs were burning suspected informers alive by the necklace method."

“We fled the entire scene and spent six years in the Knysna Forest.”

In the Knysna Forest, Miriam started a bird hospital and animal sanctuary. Ebersohn wrote for various publications to pay the bills.

Photo: Tes Ebersohn; (Below) The groundbreaking
South African magazine founded by the Ebersohns

Whenever he was working on a business article Miriam helped him do the research. She soon realized that most of the start-up businesses she researched were out of business after a year. At that time there was no place in South Africa for small entrepreneurs—especially the poor and young people—to get information or sensible advice. The Ebersohns discussed creating a magazine that could make a difference by helping people, and the whole country, succeed.

Although they were repeatedly turned down for loans, they refused to let go of the idea. Their son and daughter put their own plans on hold to help.

Just before Christmas in 1994, the same year that apartheid ended, Miriam sold the first advance ad for the magazine, and soon afterward they had enough advance sales to cover the printing. To their dismay, however, no publisher would go to press without cash up front. Succeed-march-2011-cover-250In spring 1995, the Ebersohns talked to businessman Martin Dannheiser, an old friend. They offered him a 50 percent share if he would co-sign payment of the first printing. The next day Dannheiser called back and the entire family crowded around the phone. “Wessel, you know, you don’t need a partner, they are just a problem. What you need is a friend.” They were deeply disappointed. But then he said, “I spoke to the printer last night and told him I would guarantee the printing for a year.”

That was all they needed. The first issue came out in May 1995 and Succeed Magazine quickly became one of the most successful magazines in South Africa. The Ebersohns give away thousands of copies in poor and inner city areas, and make a special effort to provide jobs to women and to blacks.

What about Wessel Ebersohn’s crime fiction? When we spoke to him, he said, “It was our starting of Succeed Magazine that stopped my fiction writing. I do hope to return to it in 2005. As for Yudel Gordon, yes, I think I’d like to revive my clever friend.” [Read the review of Ebersohn's latest Yudel Gordon thriller The October Killings in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #118.]

“The end of apartheid certainly did change things, but my country remains one of the most violent on earth and there is plenty for Yudel to get his teeth into.”

Wessel Ebersohn Reading List

A Lonely Place to Die (1979)
Divide the Night (1981)
Closed Circle (1990)
The October Killings (2011)

The Centurion (1977)
Store Up the Anger (1981)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #86.