The Literature Police

Further Testimony

Since The Literature Police was published, I have been receiving a steady stream of correspondence from around the world offering additional perspectives on the history of apartheid censorship. In this section of the website I hope to include as much of this further material as possible. Some entries supplement points raised in the book, others add new, sometimes previously unpublished testimony. Where possible I have included cross references to relevant sections of the book.

1. In his review of The Literature Police, first published in Afrikaans in the Polish journal Werkwinkel, the Afrikaans literary historian and biographer J. C. Kannemeyer recalled the following exchange with the censor H. van der Merwe Scholtz about John Updike’s Couples (1968). Among other things, Kannemeyer shows how some readers found ways of avoiding the ban on imports by ordering books for themselves from abroad.

When I was a lecturer in Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of Cape Town in the sixties and Scholtz was head of the Department, I once read in Time Magazine about John Updike’s Couples which had just been published and which was so important for the magazine that they had put the author on the cover and devoted a long article to his novel. From the article I deduced that there would be problems getting this book passed by the Publications Board. When I showed Scholtz the particular issue of Time, he earnestly reassured me that no book of literary importance would be banned. In the light of the bans on other prominent writers, I had my doubts about this comment and thought to myself that this was a case of ‘famous last words’. For this reason I decided to order the book for myself directly from Blackwells in Oxford where I had an account at the time. After I received it I met Merwe in the Department once again. He took out a copy of Couples from his briefcase. ‘Is this the book you were talking about?’ When I said yes, he said he doubted that it would be let through and besides he did not see it as important literature. Merwe was therefore prepared to go against the judgement of the Time reviewer and later positive responses to Updike and to decide in an objectionable way on his own bat what is and is not literature.

(See Werkwinkel: Journal of the Low Countries and South African Studies, 4.1 (2009), http://ifa.amu.edu.pl/werkwinkel/reviews4.html)

2. In his memoirs Escape from Pretoria (1987; 2003), Tim Jenkin, the university lecturer and political activist who was imprisoned in 1978 for, among other things, distributing pamphlets supporting the ANC and the SACP, describes some of the many ways in which readers got around the censorship and educational systems. His statement also points to some of the unexpected linkages between those two systems, and, indeed, to the strange contradictions of intellectual life in South African universities at the time.

Jenkin, who was born in 1948, finished high school in South Africa in 1970. Leaving ‘school totally ignorant of the world in which I lived’, he initially went to the United Kingdom and got a job in a glass-fibre factory. He then returned to study Sociology and Economics at the University of Cape Town in 1971. Sentenced to twelve years, he escaped from prison in Pretoria in 1979 and returned to London. I am grateful to Gail Gerhart for alerting me to this passage.

University changed everything. It taught me how to be rational and critical; to question everything. Religion was the first casualty. It could not stand up to the questioning and it soon seemed to me no more than a set of superstitious answers to difficult questions. Science taught that things should only be believed on the basis of the evidence that supports them; religion required that I just believe things without any evidence at all, that is - by faith.

In the sociology class I met Stephen Lee. He, like me, preferred to sit in the back row of the class where you could talk and swap notes and books with fellow students. He had been at university for a year already, changing his course from business science to sociology. He found out in his first year that he did not want to become a 'capitalist' and had developed, as a reaction to what he'd been taught in the business classes, an interest in the Marxist conception of society. He had also involved himself in student politics and this had contributed towards the leftward direction of his political development

On one occasion I agreed to swap one of the banned books I had brought back to South Africa for an interesting book he was showing off. This led to regular exchanges of books and to combined search operations for progressive articles and books in the university's exceptionally large library. There was not much literature of this kind as most books and magazines in that category had been banned, or 'appropriated' by the students. However, between the two of us we managed to ferret out a number of interesting titles, mostly Marxist-inclined, in the most unlikely locations. These we photocopied from cover to cover, bound and swapped with other students who were also searching for similar literature. Once we got into the right circles we were amazed at the large amount of banned literature in circulation. In a short while we possessed trunk-loads of banned books and articles that we'd photocopied. People would go to extreme lengths to obtain the books that were supposed to be bad for them. We were thankful to the apartheid censors for the valuable service they performed in publishing their lists of prohibited publications - we knew those were the ones worth reading!

The sociology course was a great disappointment. Economics, my second subject, was even more demoralising. Our textbooks were all tomes from the United States which claimed to teach their subjects 'scientifically' by looking at reality 'as it is' and not 'how it ought to be'. It soon became obvious to us that we were surreptitiously being given a conservative world view disguised as sociology and economics. The world, we were taught, was an essentially static and harmonious entity and all social structures, such as classes, served equally important functions by holding society together. Human societies were characterised by consensus and harmony and everything that happened was the result of conscious decisions by people to make things happen, not the result of the working-out of intangible 'social forces'. Change in society involved the authorities making small adjustments to relieve pressure points. There were no inherent antagonisms which could lead to conflict and, God forbid, revolution. Conflict was brought by outside forces impinging on this otherwise stable organism.

You didn't have to be a genius to see that this was just so much nonsense. It was particularly insulting to be taught this in a country like South Africa where social antagonisms were so blatant. By implication our lecturers were telling us that the reactionary politics of the apartheid rulers was science. They, the white politicians, were saying essentially the same thing as the sociologists every day: everyone in their station served a function; the whites had to rule as they had the skills and the tradition of ruling; the blacks provided the labour which society needed; South Africa's black citizens were happy with their lot and had no real grievances; all strains where they occurred would be relieved by slowly introducing reforms; conflict was brought from the outside by communists who incited and intimidated people to rebel against the government for the political ends of foreign interests.

The claptrap that we were being taught contrasted sharply with the Marxist perspective on things we were learning through books read on the side. These seemed to give a much more accurate portrayal of the society in which we lived, a society riven by antagonism and conflict. Blacks did not need any 'communists' to tell them that the society they lived in was oppressive and unjust or that the way to overcome it was to rebel against it. Apartheid meant conflict.

Marxism was also the best antidote for racism. It taught us that racial antagonism and conflict, far from being 'natural' and 'inevitable', were the products of colonialism and imperialism.”

Tim Jenkin, Escape from Pretoria (London: Kliptown Books, 1987), pp. 5-6, see also http://www.anc.org.za/books/escape0.html)

3. Jonty (C. J.) Driver, the teacher, student activist, banned author and political detainee who left South Africa in the late 1960s, contributed the following poetic reflection on South Africa’s transition to democracy, which begins with him recalling some advice he was given by R. E. Lighton, a professor of Education at the University of Cape Town in the early 1960s who went on to serve as a censor. Like Albie Sachs, Driver was also taught by Professor A. H. Murray, another prominent censor. The poem first appeared in the little magazine Tears in the Fence (no. 46, p. 50), edited by David Caddy and Sarah Hopkins.

Footnote for an Autobiography

“Militants made a special point of killing schoolteachers, whom they regarded as agents of the state…”

You do realize (said my professor
Forty-two years ago) this will mean no work
Ever in what he called a “government” school.
Well, the state fell, though by then I was stateless
Essentially, though I guard my passport.
Amazing it happened at all, that exit
From what had seemed a suicidal fortress:
The grim-faced custodians stood aside
From the barricades where they might have stayed to fight –
And not before time, though still surprising.
I had already chosen otherwise.
Small mercies mount up as one gets older;
Pension accumulates, savings aren’t spent,
Kindly concern counts more than passion
And rage is merely a lack of dignity.
I am no longer, thank God, a teacher.
If you learn from me, it is by default.
Look at what I do, then do otherwise.

Jonty Driver

4. In the book I briefly refer to Antjie Krog’s major Afrikaans poem Lady Anne (1989), the first of her volumes of poetry to appear under the Taurus imprint (see pp. 102-103). She had until then been published by Human & Rousseau. I failed to mention that this poem went on to win the Hertzog Prize for 1990, the most prestigious accolade in the Afrikaans literary world, which is administered by the Academy of Science and Arts. Importantly, Krog used her ‘acceptance speech’—the poetic sequence that follows—to raise serious questions about the prize and her relationship to the Afrikaner cultural establishment of the time. The text of the speech was first published in the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld for 26 June 1990 (p. 1). I am grateful to Antjie Krog for allowing me to republish it here. I would also like to thank Anthea Garman for drawing it to my attention and Leonore Mackenzie for allowing me to use her translation of the Afrikaans original. The translation first appeared in Garman’s excellent doctoral thesis Antjie Krog, Self and Society: The Making and Mediation of a Public Intellectual in South Africa (University of Witwatersrand, 2009). The annotated English translation follows the Afrikaans original.

“Antjie Krog se toespraak”

’n rym wat 1 minuut neem om te lees (sonder die sitaat)

“Na ontvangs van die prys stap
u na die kateder en spreek ’n kort
dankwoord van nie langer as
een minuut nie. U samewerking in die
verband sal waardeer word.”
Die boodskap is loud and clear: ons beplan,
ons diagram, ons protokol
óns sê op watter stoel sit watter pol

óns prys, óns betaal
van ons sal jy jou bek afhaal
baaskraties ja, en outakraties
maar die akademie is nie my baby nie
nie my baby nie
nie my baby nie
so lank sy in sulke tjalietjies lê
lyk sy nie na my nie

(wees nie ongemaklik nie dames en here, maar prakties –
die akademie is mos (l)eerbaar en demokra(k)ties)

volgens opdrag sê ek vinnig baie dankie
(10 sekondes is reeds nie meer)
die Hertzogprys bly onontvlugbaar ’n eer
(wat my hopelik nie sal dryf na drama, prosa of drank nie!)

die eer word herverdeel
onder my backupsystem fisies, geestelik, finansieel
onder kamerade, Degenaar, Anna Mofokeng
familie, vriende, kyse wat my kinders tem
oupas, oumas wat verwytloos aanvaar
kleinkinders wat soms sonder hul mame verjaar
my John se instaan, uitstaan, opstaan en bakstaan
so bontstaan om demokragties my te laat oorstaan

“had hom lief ja dit stry ek nie
anders sou ek hom nie wou gevry het nie”

ook met Taurus wil ek herverdeel
defiantly oopgevou staan met sambreel
oor waarhede, wanhopige, en warse skrywers
en laat ons nie vergeet o akademie
hoe tot die dood toe dinge was an nie wou ruimte gee nie

die geld van Afrikanerreputasie
word plesierig herverdeel na konsultasie
60% vir boeke in Afrikaans
uitgegee by Buchu, Genadendaal, die balans
by Kasselsvlei, Ravanpress, St. Helenabaai en Taurus
(laasgenoemde twee kry die grootste advance)
40% om Afrikaanse kinderboeke te koop
waarin swart en wit kinders as matertjies loop
Daan R., H en R, T.berg, Taurus voorsien aan die nood
wat geskenk word aan COSAW biblioteke volgens akkoord

tenslotte 3 sekondes se rymende koeplet:
geld by uitgewers wat demokraties let, boeke by mense
vir wie’k alles feil het, in die taal wat my dié winternag

moersverdaan beethet.

Ek dank u.

“Antjie Krog’s speech”

A rhyme that takes 1 minute to read (without the citation)

“after receiving the prize you walk
to the lectern and deliver a brief
word of thanks no longer than
one minute. Your co-operation herein
will be appreciated.”1

The message is loud and clear: we plan,
we diagram, we protocol
we say on which chair which tuft will sit2

our prize, we pay
you will shut your trap about us
baascratic yes, and outacratic3
but the academy is not my baby
not my baby
not my baby4
while she’s covered in that shawl
she does not look like me5

(do not be uncomfortable ladies and gentlemen, but practical –6
the academy is after all receptive to knowledge and democra(c)tic)7

according to instructions I briefly say thank you very much
(10 seconds have already gone)
the Hertzog Prize remains an inescapable honour
(that will hopefully not drive me to drama, prose or drink!)

the honour is redivided
amongst my backup-system physical, spiritual, financial
amongst comrades, Degenaar, Anna Mofokeng
family, friends, dates who tame my children
grandpa’s, grandma’s who accept without reproach
grandchildren who at times celebrate nameless birthdays
my John’s standing in, standing out, standing up, standing
ever ready powerfully to let me be8

“loved him yes that I do not dispute
else I would not have wanted to make love to him”9
with Taurus too I want to redivide
defiantly, vulnerable, their umbrella
shelters truths, despairing, and otherwise writers
and let us not forget O academe
how moribund things were and oppressive

the money of Afrikaner reputation
is happily redivided after consultation
60% for books in Afrikaans
published by Buchu, Genadendaal, the balance
at Kasselsvlei, Ravanpress, St.Helenabaai and Taurus
(the latter two receive the largest advance)
40% to buy Afrikaans children’s books
in which black and white children are buddies
Daan R., H and R, T.berg, Taurus addresses the need
donated to Cosaw libraries as agreed

in conclusion three words of rhyming couplet:
money to publishers democratically alert, books for people
to whom I owe all, in the language that locks me this winter’s night

in her fucking exhausting grip.10

I thank you.11

1Extract from the Academy’s written procedural instructions to Krog prior to the prize giving.
2 Translator’s note: “pol” = tuft of grass or hair.
3 Translator’s note: “baas”=master , “outa”=old man. The word “outas” refers very specifically to old coloured or black men. A white man is never called “outa”. Therefore, within the context of Krog’s speech, both the Academy and academe in general are upholding the master (baas)/slave (outa) relationship.
4 Translator’s note: this is a parody of an Afrikaans folk song about covering up an immoral situation.
5 Lines 12 to 16 are a parody of old Afrikaans folk song about disowning an immoral cover-up.
6 In other words, the Academy must practice what it preaches.
7 Translator’s note: (l)eerbaar: eerbaar=honourable; leerbaar=receptive to knowledge/teachable, receptive to knowledge. This has a sarcastic tone. Demokra(k)ties involves an obvious wordplay on shit/crap.
8 Translator’s note: in line 30 she refers to her husband John as being “demokra(g)ties”. I take that to mean that he is a powerfully democratic partner; powerfully supportive of her as his equal; powerfully supportive of letting her be to do her own thing.
9 Translator’s note: the word vry also means free/liberated. The line could allude to her and John being free/liberated in and by their love for each other.
10 Translator’s note: “Moersverdaan” is a neologism combining uterus + mother + fuck you + exhausted + touched.
11Translator’s note: By using “u” – the respectful form of address in Afrikaans – she mocks the self-importance of her hosts and assembled guests.

5. Piet Westra, the leading librarian and Director of the South African Library in Cape Town from 1981 to 1998, contributed the following two personal reflections on the censorship era. I am grateful to him for allowing me to publish them here for the first time. The first statement gives some important background to my brief comments about the role of the state library (see p. 178); the second shows that censorship had its more surrealistic moments. On the question of libraries and censorship in South Africa, see also Piet Westra, ed. Freedom to Read (Cape Town: South African Library, 1994). This collection of papers includes comments on censorship by, among others, Westra, André Brink, J. C. W. van Rooyen, Kader Asmal and Abraham Coetzee.

Censorship and Libraries under Apartheid
(A short talk given at a meeting of the Society of Bibliophiles at the University of Cape Town, 4 February 2006)

The most important role of libraries and librarians is to facilitate the free flow of knowledge and information to the public. This role was seriously impaired by censorship during the apartheid years. Some 35 000 items were banned directly under author and title, but, more seriously, all publications of so-called banned or restricted persons and organizations were also automatically banned. Severe restrictions were imposed on libraries regarding the collecting and making available of this material. We need not go into the details here, but most academic libraries were allowed to buy and keep the majority of banned publications, but were not allowed to make them available for research purposes or make photocopies for their users, without permission of the censorship board.

In this regard the two national libraries, the State Library [in Pretoria] and the South African Library [SAL, in Cape Town] had more freedom. They could acquire any banned book or periodical without restrictions and also make this material available for use in the library for research purposes. While head of the South African Library I informed all local universities of this concession and as a result groups of students from the University of Cape Town and other institutions would regularly visit the SAL with their supervisors to consult and study specific banned publications.

One would have expected that all these restrictions placed on libraries would have caused an outcry among librarians, who were seriously hampered to do their work as a result. In reality the library profession largely remained silent on this issue and accepted the status quo. They became the keepers of keys through which an ever-increasing number of publications were locked away from the public. There was an exception here and there: Christopher Merrett, a Natal librarian, for instance published a book entitled A Culture of Censorship (Cape Town: David Philip, 1994) in which he heavily criticized the South African censorship system and the way most libraries directly or indirectly co-operated in this. He also bravely wrote regular newspaper articles condemning censorship, trying to make libraries and the general public aware of what was happening. However, the vast majority of librarians remained quiet, either through ignorance, fear or just a lack of commitment. One must remember that almost all of them were directly or indirectly paid by the State and as the proverb goes wiens brood men eet diens woord men spreekt [it is bad policy to quarrel with your bread and butter or don’t bite the hand that feeds you].

During most of my library career I was involved in building up library collections, and from 1960 to 1998 specifically the collections of the two national libraries. At both libraries we made sure that most of the more important publications banned for political reasons were acquired and we sought official permission to build up such collections.

Few members of the public or even librarians were aware to what extent censorship under apartheid was restricting the availability of publications. I remember attending a censorship conference at the University of Cape Town in the late seventies. Over lunch I shared a table with Nadine Gordimer and three or four black authors. We established that of about 20 books they had recently published between them, 15 were banned. I pointed out the possibility of resubmitting banned books to the censorship board for review, but the authors concerned made it quite clear that they did not want to co-operate with the system, nor give it any recognition. From that date and for many years afterwards, first in my personal capacity and later on behalf of the South African Library Association and the South African Library I submitted hundreds of publications to the Censorship Board for review, most of which were unbanned as a result. 

In 1981 I became head of South African Library. At that time the South African Library Association was trying to compile an ethical code for our profession, and at a dramatic branch meeting I stressed the fact that such a code would have to include a clear statement that anything which restricted the free flow of information, such as our draconic censorship laws, should be strongly opposed.

This was accepted by the meeting and during the next general conference a Standing Committee on Censorship was instituted, of which I would be chairman for more than 15 years. The most important task of this Committee was to act as watchdog on behalf of the Association regarding all censorship matters, to get as many concessions for libraries as possible and to resubmit banned items for review.

By 1992 political censorship had died a quiet death and books were no longer being banned. I felt very gratified to be appointed by the new government as member of a working committee which in 1994 drafted a new Act [the Publications Act, 1996], which laid down the functions of the current Film and Publications Board. The main function of this Board has since then been to place age restrictions on films. Today only material of an extreme pornographic or violent nature, or publications injurious to certain groups, can be restricted.

Thinking back over the apartheid years, I have an uneasy feeling that librarians (including myself) should have opposed the censorship system much more strongly. I was always very careful not to antagonize the powers that be and was sadly not vocal enough: but perhaps today most of us feel that we could have done far more in fighting the apartheid system and all the negative things that went with it.

Book Burning
(Extract from a talk given to the Owls Club, Cape Town, November 2007)

First let me tell you a story in connection with censorship.   At the State Library one of my duties was to build up a collection of banned material relating to SA. Remember, this was during the height of the apartheid years. This involved visiting police stations about twice a month and working through piles of banned or suspect books and periodicals confiscated by the police, left on airplanes entering the country, etc.  We were of course mainly interested in material banned for political reasons, but my boss Dr. H. J. Aschenborn asked me to also select examples of various genres of pornographic material for the State Library. From 1950 to the early nineties some 35 000 books, periodicals and pamphlets, mainly pornographic, were officially banned in SA, but I must have sifted through many more items over the years at the State Library. It is a miracle indeed that my then, I think, quite innocent mind came out of all this relatively unscathed, at least as far as I can judge. It was indeed shocking to see how careless the police were in handling this material, which littered the offices of the various police stations. Meanwhile for the man in the street being caught with for instance a Playboy magazine, could result in a hefty fine or even imprisonment.  An ex-staff member of the SA Library recently told me that the Claremont police station was the only place from where one could borrow pornographic material in Cape Town during this period.

One good day the Central police station in Pretoria wanted to get rid of heaps of items they had assembled and asked us for advice on how to do this.  My boss suggested that the material could be burned in one of the enormous ovens that ISCOR [then South Africa’s largest steel manufacturer] used for their steel producing process.  I was asked to organise this. Mr President, I must get this of my chest publicly: I want to confess here, after so many years, that I have been guilty of the act of book burning. This is a major sin, especially for a librarian supposed to enhance the free flow of books and information.  In mitigation I can however mention that I have only been involved once in this deplorable activity and that I acted on instruction. Under my supervision a lorry full of books and periodicals was taken to a big dark hall at ISCOR where its main round oven was situated. This oven may have been 20 meters high, spitting flames and smoke from an opening at the top.  Hundreds of items were lifted in one scoop by a huge mechanical shovel from the lorry and dumped into the opening at the top of the oven, which resulted in smoke and big flames.  But at about the third load that went up something went wrong.  Midway between the lorry and the oven the shovel suddenly opened and hundreds of publications, Playboys, Hustlers, Men Only and others, often more explicit were spilt on the floor. 

What happened next reminded me in a way of a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Out of nothing from all dark corners of the hall dozens of helmeted workers in overalls suddenly rushed in, grabbing as many items as they could carry in their arms and disappeared as quickly into the darkness again as they had come.  This clearly was an in-house arranged thing. The news of our operation must have leaked out. But the end result was that we had not only burned publications, but also redistributed quite a few.  The police did not feel very happy about this incident, but accepted that it happened outside my control.  Anyway, this was the first and last time that I have ever been involved in book burning.

This story had an aftermath:  during that time I had a visit from a well-known Dutch author who planned writing a book about Hollanders all over the world. Some months later my boss called me to his office. He looked a bit pale and nervous.  In front of him was a book with the title ‘Overal(Everywhere) Hollanders’, opened at a chapter that was devoted to a tall young blond Hollander, who had told the author amusing stories about the SA censorship system.  My boss informed me that the security police had brought the book to him and requested him to give me a stern warning. He told me in no uncertain terms that my position at the State Library was very much at risk and in future I should be extremely careful not to criticise any aspect of government policy.  Our home telephone was tapped for at least three years after that, but luckily that was my only experience with the security police.


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