University press publishing, while often associated with the promotion of academic freedom, may be situated between the poles of resistance and complicity when considering intellectual responses to apartheid. Yet the history of this form of scholarly publishing has largely been ignored thus far, due to a perception that it had little to tell us about either apartheid or the struggle against it. However, the social history of South Africa’s university presses – at Wits, Natal and Unisa, in particular – provides a new angle for examining academic freedom and knowledge production during the apartheid era. Using a hybrid methodology including archival research, historical bibliography, and political sociology, this study aims to examine the origins, publishing lists and philosophies of the university presses through the lens of a continuum of intellectual responses: ranging from collaboration and complicity, to opposition and dissidence. Results show that, over time, the positions and publishing strategies adopted by the South African university presses shifted, becoming more liberal. It is argued, however, that the university presses should not be considered oppositional or anti-apartheid publishers, in part because they did not resist the censorship regime of the government, and in part because they operated within the constraints of publicly funded, bureaucratic institutions of higher education. They nonetheless produced an important, if under-valued, body of work and provided a platform for a variety of academic opinions. Moreover, the university presses faced a variety of challenges in their struggle to survive over the years, including financial pressures, international competition, and wavering institutional support. But perhaps the greatest challenge was a delicate balancing act: an attempt to promote academic freedom within a climate of political repression, censorship and ideology. The study demonstrates the significance of publishing history for an examination of broader issues of social history, as well as the applicability of a wide range of methodological tools for the field of Book History.