The Literature Police

About the Website

Book cover for Wopko JensmaThe site is divided into six main sections. The Webnotes, which provide the most direct link to the book itself, comprise a series of extended annotations, cued by lower-case letters in the book, offering further information or developing some aspects of the argument. The Bibliography and Chronology sections simply duplicate what is also available in the book. The three other main sections incorporate new material.

The section entitled Censor Biographies comprises a series of brief biographical sketches of just over forty notable or especially influential censors. More details about some of them can also be found in the documents relating to the membership of the two main censorship boards in the 1960s and early 1970s and in the censor application forms (follow the links entitled Dekker Board Membership, Kruger Board Membership, and Censor Application Form in the Documents).

The Documents section contains thirty-four original documents in PDF format. These include the materials mentioned above as well as a selected sample of censorship reports, the text of various censorship Acts dating from the 1930s to the 1970s, and a section from the Government Gazette for April 1966 identifying a range of banned writers, journalists and political activists. I have generally tried to select documents originally produced in English, but some are inevitably in Afrikaans only. The originals of the censorship reports, the censor application forms, and the board membership details are held at the Western Cape Provincial Archives and Records (WCPA) in Cape Town, South Africa (see Links).

The Database constitutes the largest and most interactive section of the site. It represents the most complete record to date of decisions the censors made about works that can be identified as belonging to the corpus of South African literature published during the apartheid era, though it also includes some arguably non-literary titles by leading political figures (e.g. essays by Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko). It gives details relating to just over 450 decisions, some of which were reviewed, and is searchable by, among others, author, publisher, date and outcome. It is worth noting that it covers books only. It does not include decisions relating to literary magazines.

The Database is necessarily provisional and it makes no claims to being comprehensive. This is in part because the records on which it is based are themselves not wholly reliable. The most credible and detailed entries use information derived from censorship reports that have survived in their entirety. In some cases, however, the information comes from the censors’ own card index, which was itself incomplete and at times inaccurate. The patchiness is especially acute for the Kruger era, which ran from 1969 to 1974. As I pointed out in the Note to the Reader at the beginning of the book, it appears that almost no complete censorship files have survived from this period.

As the WCPA in Cape Town are in the process of digitally coding all their holdings from the former censorship bureaucracy, the future should be another country. Once this huge and painstaking task is complete it ought to be possible to compile a more comprehensive list not just of decisions taken about literary works, whether South African or not, or, indeed, about books, but about all the printed materials, objects, films, videos, music records, novelty toilet seats, etc. that the apartheid censors scrutinised.

In the meantime, if you wish to locate files relating to works listed in my own Database you can do so by following up the appropriate references. These appear either in the form P77/9/133 (i.e. publication/year/month/file number) for post-1975 files, as 65/133 (i.e. year/file number) for files created between late 1963 and early 1975, or as 26931 (i.e. the file number) for those from the pre-1963 period. These files are, for the most part, held at the WCPA, the latter two groups under the BCS range. To access the original card index, which should fill in some of the gaps, you will need to contact the new Film and Publication Board in Johannesburg (see Links) as this remains with them. To get a wider perspective on the censors’ activities, it is well worth consulting the Beacon for Freedom of Expression website (see Links). It includes over 14,000 entries relating to South Africa, but it, too, is neither complete nor especially reliable. Moreover, as it is based largely on Jacobsen’s Index of Objectionable Literature (1956-), it records only those titles actually banned. Jacobsen’s unofficial loose-leaf index, which was itself based on the list of banned titles published each month in the Government Gazette, was updated at regular intervals throughout the apartheid era. It was used mostly by librarians, publishers and booksellers to keep track of the censors’ rulings.

Acknowledgements

My warm thanks go to Faith Binckes, who compiled the database in its original form, and to Andrew Kirkpatrick, who constructed this website. I would also like to acknowledge, once again, though now specifically for the financial support that made this site possible, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Oxford University Press, the Faculty of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, and St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

Peter D. McDonald
February 2009


Copyright 2009 by Peter D. McDonald unless otherwise specified
Website by Andrew Kirkpatrick