The Literature Police

Web Notes

Index:

Book cover for Staffrider 1986
  1. (p. 25) Coenraad Rudolph, a minor poet and lecturer in Afrikaans literature at the Pretoria Teachers’ College, was directed to coordinate a survey of books published in the Union between 1935 and 1954. With the help of ten specially appointed co-evaluators, including senior members of the Afrikaans literature departments at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Pretoria, he was also required to classify each title under one of four categories: ‘of literary merit’, ‘passable’, ‘inferior’, or ‘undesirable’. The survey was not meant to be exhaustive---it specifically excluded, among other things, ‘works in Bantu languages’, ‘political writings’, and ‘publications on flower arrangement’---but it was still an ambitious undertaking, covering some 4,500 titles (784 in English, 3,746 in Afrikaans). Rudolph’s report on their findings contained some apparently alarming statistics, particularly as far as Afrikaans fiction for adults was concerned. Of the 1,651 titles they scrutinized in this category, they considered one-fifth (333) ‘inferior’ or ‘undesirable’. This absolute figure was disquieting, but they thought the underlying trends were shocking. Calculated as a percentage of the ‘inferior’ works of Afrikaans fiction, the number of ‘undesirable’ titles had, they claimed, risen from 3.1 per cent in 1939–42 to 30.3 per cent in 1951–4. Conversely, fiction ‘of literary merit’ was on a sharp downward curve from 34.2 per cent of the total number of novels and stories published in 1935–8 to 4.3 per cent in 1951–4. To pre-empt sceptics who might raise doubts about the cultural significance of these trends---on the grounds, say, that ‘undesirable’ fiction was not necessarily popular---the study included an analysis of sales figures. Reducing the four main categories to two, it showed that on average a title in the ‘literary’ or ‘passable’ groups sold 3,738 copies as against an average of 7,375 in the ‘inferior’ or ‘undesirable’ categories. The most pressing conclusion of the investigation was obvious. By the mid-1950s Afrikaans literary culture was apparently in serious decline. It is worth noting that this period also saw a rapid expansion of mass-market publishing in Afrikaans. Having served on the Cronjé Commission in the 1950s, Rudolph, who was also a prominent figure in the Afrikaans Skrywerskring (Writers’ Circle), went on to have a short stint as a censor in the mid-1970s. See G. Cronjé et al., Report of the Commission of Enquiry in Regard to Undesirable Publications (Pretoria: Government Printer, 1957), 90–110.
  2. (p. 27) There were thirty-five contributors to this debate in all. Twenty-one opposed censorship in any form, eight campaigned for it, and six supported it with reservations. Of the eleven English-speaking contributors, who included the Chief Rabbi of Cape Town, Nadine Gordimer, and Alan Paton, only one obscure reviewer spoke in support. The strongest advocates of censorship were representatives of the Catholic and Nederduits Gereformeerde churches. Among the Afrikaans literary critics who contributed were three future censors: Gerrit Dekker, who offered very qualified support; A. P. Grové, who was against; and G. S. Nienaber, who was for. The only black contributor, the Afrikaans poet S. V. Petersen, was against. See ‘Binnelandse Sensuur’ (Domestic Censorship), Standpunte, 30 (Dec. 1953), 1–32.
  3. (p. 37) In August 1963 Abel Coetzee, then chair of the collaborationist Afrikaans Skrywerskring (Writers’ Circle), published an article entitled ‘The Writer and the Community at Odds’. It appeared in the group’s magazine Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, where it was presented as an articulation of their collective view. Throughout the piece Coetzee put the emphasis on what he called the ‘responsible writer’, insisting that ‘the individual is born into the community’ and that ‘in his weakness he is no match for the tightly-woven power of the community’. Reflecting another side of his anti-liberal position, he also stressed that ‘writers have a clear task to fulfil’ as ‘responsible adult members of the volk’. Distancing himself and the Circle from the writers who signed the 1963 manifesto, he concluded: ‘The artist’s liberty of conscience is not at any point limited in the law [i.e. the 1963 Act]; rather he is called on to fulfil his function in such a way as to help preserve the health of the community.’ Neither N. P. van Wyk Louw nor Gerrit Dekker agreed with this reading of the situation, which went against the liberal–nationalist tenets of the volk avant-garde. Various Sestigers also opposed Coetzee’s mainstream views, albeit in their own, internally conflicted, way. See Abel Coetzee, ‘Die Skrywer en die Gemeenskap teenoor mekaar’, Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, 1/3 (Aug. 1963), 6–10.
  4. (p. 43) Bartho Smit sent his initial letter about the potentially problematic second line in ‘breyten prays for himself’ on 15 May 1964, enclosing the typescript of the poem as a whole. He was particularly keen to get a prompt reply as the book was due to be published in August. After Dekker requested to see the entire typescript, APB duly sent in the proofs, which the censors then considered in September, by which time there was real urgency about the decision. In his summary of the Board’s initial response, Dekker called the collection ‘a fierce satire full of black humour about mankind’s fear of death, disintegration and pain’, which was also a ‘strong attack on humankind’s hypocritical religion’, adding that it made ‘some comments on the “political victims” of this in our country today’. He also noted that it was written in a ‘strange modern idiom’. The poems that caused most alarm were ‘opdrag’ (order or command), ‘nagmaal’ (communion), ‘swart dood 1348’ (black death 1348), ‘wit dood’ (white death), and ‘breyten bid vir homself’ (breyten prays for himself). After APB was informed about the Board’s concerns, Smit quickly retracted the proofs, indicating, in a letter dated 19 October 1964, that he had not wished to obtain approval prior to publication for the collection as a whole. To do this, he noted, he would have had to have the agreement of the author, which he had not received. He also claimed that, since Breytenbach had agreed to remove the worrying line from ‘breyten prays for himself’, he wanted to bring the matter to a close as soon as possible and to have the proofs back. The censors returned them on 29 October 1964 without having reached a final decision, an issue they continued to debate internally well into the following year (Western Cape Provincial Archives and Records, Cape Town, BCS 841/64).
  5. (p. 48) The minutes of a meeting of the ‘literary committee’ held on 13 April 1966 record in relation to Ruth First’s One Hundred and Seventeen Days that the ‘committee decided that ruling on publications by banned persons was not the job of the Board, because these publications have already been removed from circulation by law’. The same minutes also record decisions to ban John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961, BCS 1033/65), a key publication in the history of the US civil rights movement, because of its ‘propaganda against the police’, and Lawrence Durrell’s The Best of Henry Miller (1960, BCS 790/65), which contained all the ‘most worrying passages from Miller’s books that had already been banned’. The minutes for the ‘political committee’ meeting held on the same day record that ‘Bantu-publications produced by well-known publishers in the Republic were not giving any problems,’ though, given the Board’s concerns about English- as well as ‘Bantu-language’ publications, it was decided to ‘approach the Police for information’ (BCS vol. 17, reference B7).
  6. (p. 58) The minority report listed the following pieces of legislation, all of which imposed one or another form of censorship: Bantu Administration Act, 1927; Riotous Assemblies Act, 1930; Suppression of Communism Act, 1950; Immorality Act, 1950; Official Secrets Act, 1956; Post Office Act, 1956; Defence Act, 1957; Prisons Act, 1959; Customs and Excise Act, 1964; Improper and Indecent Photographic Material Act, 1967; Atomic Energy Act, 1967; Newspapers and Imprints Registration Act, 1971. The report also mentioned the common law ‘in so far as it applies to blasphemy, criminal libel, sedition and anarchy’. See Report of the Select Committee on the Publications and Entertainments Amendment Bill (Pretoria: Government Printer, 1973), 62.
  7. (p. 132) On 2 January 1979 a prominent Afrikaner pressure group, Aksie Morele Standaarde (Action Moral Standards), submitted the October 1978 issue of the literary magazine Inspan to the censors. Inspan was the successor to Donga and this was the second number. A literary committee, chaired by Etienne Malan, found it obscene, blasphemous, and seditious. Despite pressure from the ‘highest level’, the committee refused to ban it for possession as well (P79/1/68). In his report Malan focused on, among others, Peter Wilhelm’s story ‘At the Edge’, which described corrupt Methodist ministers, André Le Roux’s poem ‘Gebed’, a parody of the Lord’s Prayer, and Mothobi Mutloatse’s ‘The Patriot’, a short story about police brutality. Two years later, in April 1981, Isabel Hofmeyr, Inspan’s editor, was charged with having published an undesirable publication. During the trial, Le Roux’s poem again featured prominently. Ampie Coetzee, one of the key figures in Taurus, who was among the expert defence witnesses called, defended the poem by arguing that it was a satire, not a parody. In the end Hofmeyr was acquitted. The magistrate, who followed the guidelines J. C. W. van Rooyen had prepared for the Publications Appeal Board, accepted that Inspan had literary merit and noted that it had a very limited circulation. He claimed that only 450 copies had been distributed. Outraged by the judgment, Action Moral Standards then reprinted 4,000 copies of Le Roux’s poem for distribution among its 80,000 members, thereby guaranteeing it a wide circulation. See Francis Galloway (ed.), SA Literature 1981 (Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1983), 273–5.
  8. (p. 149) Wietie did not survive long. After the first issue was picked up by the police in February 1980, the censors banned it, ostensibly on the grounds of obscenity. In his chair’s report, Admiral Biermann, a key security censor, noted that the ‘stories and poems are well written from a literary point of view’ (P80/3/54). Though some focused on the ‘theme of repression’, the chief problem lay, he claimed, with the use of the word ‘fuck’ in the short story ‘Aunt Molly and the Girls’. Malan thought it was another ‘borderline case’, which the publishers, the short-lived Sable Books, had a chance of winning if they chose to appeal. In his note confirming that the Directorate itself would not appeal, he added: ‘it is a pity to ban a coloured (kleurlinge) magazine’, but, since they openly declared their commitment to the ‘communication of revolutionary writing’, he felt the ban had to be upheld on the grounds of sedition, rather than obscenity. After Wietie was forced to close down, Christopher van Wyk returned to Staffrider to become chief editor, by which time it had adopted a more conventional editorial policy.
  9. (p. 157) The economic restructuring of the 1990s, which saw the focus of activity shift from small, independent publishers, many of whom survived on foreign donor support, towards large, multi-media conglomerates, which operated on a commercial basis, had a significant impact on the internal interventionist publishing tradition. Developments within the transnational book trade as a whole played a significant part in this, as did the rise of black empowerment groups like New African Investments Limited (NAIL) in South Africa and the transformation of the local Afrikaans publishing industry. Ravan Press continued as an independent publisher until 1994, when Hodder & Stoughton Educational Southern Africa acquired a majority shareholding. Two years later it was wholly absorbed by Hodder, which had by then itself become part of Hodder Headline. In 2000 it was sold to Macmillan SA, and four years later Pan Macmillan, a subsidiary of the parent firm, began to reissue some Ravan titles as part of its new Picador Africa series. David Philip continued as an independent until the founders, David and Marie Philip, retired in 1999. In 2000 New Africa Media, a division of NAIL, acquired a major share in the firm, and five years later it became a key imprint of New Africa Books. Ad Donker was bought out by Jonathan Ball, another important local independent, which in turn became part of the new, multilingual Nasionale Boekhandel (later Via Afrika) stable in 1992, alongside Human & Rousseau and other major Afrikaans imprints. Following a four-year prison sentence, Jaki Seroke returned to Skotaville in 1991, only to leave a year later when he and Mothobi Mutloatse failed to agree on the best way forward in the new circumstances. After a short, unsuccessful partnership with Nolwazi Publishers, which was owned by Macmillan, the imprint was revived in 1999 in a joint venture with, among others, Juta, the well-established South African educational publisher, and the Black Management Forum. Though Taurus was never formally dissolved, it stopped publishing in 1992, after which Human & Rousseau acquired its stock. H & R then reissued some of its titles, beginning with Antjie Krog’s volume Lady Anne in 2004. BLAC was dormant throughout much of the 1990s, but in 2000 the indefatigable James Matthews launched a new publishing initiative called Realities. For further details about developments in the 1990s, see Nicholas Evans and Monica Seeber (eds), The Politics of Publishing in South Africa (Scottsville: University of Natal Press, 2000).
  10. (p. 168) In his response to the government’s decision to withdraw the annual grant of £250 from PEN SA in 1956, Lewis Sowden, then chair of the local branch, mounted a particularly robust and coherent defence of the group’s principles, which were, he said, ‘essentially’ political ‘in the broad and best sense’, rather than narrowly party-political. He argued that in the South African context they justified opposition ‘not only to Press censorship, but also to racial legislation, to the exclusion of non-Europeans from universities, and in fact to all the Government’s repressive legislation’. The Minister of Education, Arts, and Science had specifically objected to ‘Smuts and Shelley’, a poem by Francis Carey Slater, to ‘Malay Camp’, a sketch by Bernard Sachs, and to a lecture on Olive Schreiner by George Findlay. All these had appeared in the group’s Year Book for 1955, and all, according to the Minister, constituted ‘material of a political strain and of a nature which may impair the good relationship between the different races in the Union’. As a result of this intervention, PEN SA was obliged to seek financial support from other sources. In the 1960s it received backing from various major mining companies, including Anglo-American, which also supported Contrast and New Classic, as well as the Argus newspaper group and the Central News Agency. See Lewis Sowden, ‘The P.E.N. and the Government’, SA PEN Year Book (1956), 7–17.
  11. (p. 169) It was in response to Kahn’s article that Murray defended the superior objectivity of professors to judges. While he dismissed it as ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Dekker felt Kahn’s doubts about the specifically corrupting effects of pornography went too far. It ‘denied the very basis of all censorship’ because it presupposed that ‘reading does not have a damaging influence’. Going back to the points he made in his inaugural speech, Dekker also felt Kahn underestimated the extent to which literature could be protected under the provisions of the 1963 Act. See Memorandum, January 1967, Western Cape Provincial Archives and Records, Cape Town, BCS vol. 22, ref. M1.
  12. (p. 171) See the Full List Of Signatories To The Writers' And Artists' Petition 1963.pdf, Portable Document Format (0.17 MB)
  13. (p. 172) In an article published soon after he ended his stint as a censor, Harvey justified his decision to accept Dekker’s invitation to serve on the new Board in terms that reflected the limitations of his kind of liberal thinking. He took it for granted that he was living in ‘a democracy’; that the ‘Board had already been created by Parliament (to replace a Censor Board that exercised power arbitrarily through the Minister)’; that ‘some form of censorship was probably unavoidable in view of current public opinion’; and that his presence would, and he felt did, have a mitigating effect in so far as he was able to defend ‘valuable works of literature that might appear undesirable or dangerous to non-literary minds’. See C. J. D. Harvey, ‘The Problem of Censorship by an Ex-Censor’, Bolt, 1/2 (Aug. 1970), 8–13.
  14. (p. 190) If Mutloatse’s rallying call disturbed Abrahams and exposed some of the generational and intellectual divisions within contemporary white literary culture, it also revealed the extent to which the censors justified their new accommodating attitudes to what they considered ‘protest literature’ in ways that bolstered their own hegemonic assumptions. After a security committee initially banned Forced Landing for sedition in April 1980, principally because it included a political speech by Toivo Herman ja Toivo, the jailed leader of the Namibian resistance, the Directorate decided to use it as another test case, alongside Staffrider, for van Rooyen’s reforms and as a public relations stunt in an attempt to prove that the accusations of racial bias in favour of white writers like Brink and Gordimer, which the Afrikaans Writers’ Guild was making at the time, were unfounded. In preparing the internal appeal, which was based mainly on the literary merits of the twenty short stories that constituted the bulk of the anthology, R. E. Lighton, then a key figure in the censorship bureaucracy, also identified as ‘possibly objectionable’ the expletives in the passage from the introduction Abrahams cited as well as Mutloatse’s references to the ‘political axe that is censorship’ and to the black writer who will ‘one day’ break ‘these chains of oppression’. Following the new appeal process, the anthology was duly read by a committee of literary experts, chaired by the ubiquitous Merwe Scholtz, who recommended that the ban be lifted on literary grounds. In setting out the committee’s case, in a document he knew would be a matter of public record, Scholtz made a special point of attacking Mutloatse, claiming that the anthology had to be ‘“protected” against its editor’. For one thing, he claimed disparagingly, there was ‘no essential difference’ between the literary and the journalistic sections into which he had divided it. Indeed, the ‘satyrical [sic] bent’ of the latter marked them out as some of the ‘best contributions’. For another, the anthology was not as ‘aggressively committed’ as Mutloatse’s ‘pretentious’ introduction led the reader to believe.
    Although they inevitably reflect the impact of the policy of separate development on social conditions and on the daily routine of non-white South Africans, the majority of the stories etc are not explicitly conceived as instances of or demonstrations against the evils of apartheid. The focus is on the basic human passions such as love and hate common to all.
    Yet, as he quickly added, if this meant the stories by the likes of Matthews, Matshoba, Essop, Head, Serote, Sepamla, Gwala, and Tlali were in some sense universal, it did not follow that they were great literature, only that they could not be ‘relegated to non-literature’. They were, at best, ‘valid and sincere attempts at creating literature’. This archly high-minded idea of literary pretension, which became one of the cornerstones of the reformist era, of course allowed the censors to rationalize their new tolerance without unsettling the normative assumptions on which their own sense of cultural authority was based. In supporting the committee’s recommendation, van Rooyen went through the liberal legal precedents in favour of permitting legitimate protest, and, more bizarrely, defended Toivo’s speech for its ‘literary quality’. ‘It reveals a most competent organising of thought and a control [sic] and lucid manner of expression,’ he commented. As a consequence, Mutloatse’s ‘bulletin to the people from writers’, which was published as number 3 in the Staffrider Series and which became the first in a series of three anthologies of black cultural history he edited, was unbanned in August 1980. See Mothobi Mutloatse (ed.), Forced Landing (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1980), 1–7; and for the censors’ views, see file P80/3/113, which also includes the Appeal Board documents (case 45/80).
  15. (p. 277) Of the four poems Merwe Scholtz cited in his second report on Skryt to support his claims about a long tradition of Afrikaner protest, two were by N. P. van Wyk Louw---‘By die monument’ (Beside the Monument) and ‘Nuusberigte: 1956’ (Newsreports: 1956)---and two by D. J. Opperman---‘Staking op die suikerplantasie’ (Strike on the Sugar Plantation) and ‘Gebed om die gebeente’ (Prayer over the Skeleton). From ‘Newsreports’ he specifically noted the lines castigating ‘vicious’ Afrikaners who will ‘drag us all to the dung heap’. Identifying a similar tradition in his defence of Breytenbach, Brink referred to van Wyk Louw’s verse drama Pluimsaad waai ver (Feathery Seed Blows Far) and the poem ‘Julle is die oorheersers’ (You are the Oppressors), as well as poems by the younger poets Johan de Jager (‘Afrika My Afrika’) and Fanie Olivier (‘Bombouquet’---‘Bomb-bouquet’---which, Brink noted, was dedicated to ‘Oom John’, Uncle John). Brink also referred to Pavane (1974), his own controversial play about Vorster, which was not banned. It is worth noting that both ‘By die monument’ and ‘Julle is die oorheersers’ come from Die Halwe Kring (The Half Circle, 1937), which also includes ‘Ons moet die bitter taak’ (We Must the Bitter Task), a poem Merwe Scholtz cited in an interview in order to explain his sense of mission as a censor and guardian of the literary. The poem ends with the lines ‘ons . . . trou alleen aan die hoogste wat ons ken, | meer as aan vriend of broer, dat ons die Edele | en Kosbare veilig deur die skare dra’ (‘we . . . have faith only in the highest that we know, more than in friend or brother, that we bear the Noble and Precious safely through the crowd [or mob]’). Though the poem is spoken in the voice of a soldier who is facing battle, it is clear that Merwe Scholtz read it as an allegory of the volk avant-garde’s aesthetic idealism and lofty sense of struggle. See file P75/4/23, which also contains the Appeal Board documents for case AP2/3/18/75; and N. P. van Wyk Louw, Versamelde Gedigte (Cape Town: Tafelberg; Human & Rousseau, 2002), 78, 82–3.
  16. (p. 323) Ravan’s Staffrider Series, 1979–1986
    Year of publication Work Banned or passed
    1979 I. Madingoane, Africa My Beginning Banned
      M. Matshoba, Call Me Not a Man Banned
    1980 M. Mutloatse (ed.), Forced Landing Banned
      W. Soyinka, Ogun Abibiman  
      M. Mzamane, Mzala Passed
      M. Tlali, Amandla Banned
    1981 A. Dangor, Waiting for Leila Passed
      M. Mutloatse (ed.), Reconstruction  
      E. Mphahlele, The Unbroken Song Passed
      D. P. Kunene, A Seed Must Seem to Die Banned
      M. Matshoba, Seeds of War Banned
      M. Serote, To Every Birth its Blood Passed
      M. Mzamane, The Children of Soweto Banned
    1982 M. Mutloatse, Mama Ndiyalila  
      M. Gwala, No More Lullabies  
    1983 M. Dikobe, Dispossessed  
      A. Dangor, Bulldozer  
      N. Ndebele, Fools and Other Stories Passed in UK edn
      J. Matthews, The Park and Other Stories Passed in BLAC edn
      J. Cronin, Inside Passed
      Unknown, South Africa through the Lens  
    1984 F. Chipasula, O Earth Wait for Me  
      S. Jacobs, Light in a Stark Age  
    1985 C. Themba, The World of Can Themba  
      D. Parenzee, Driven to Work  
      N. Nakasa, The World of Nat Nakasa Passed in first (1975) edn
    1986 D. P. Kunene, From the Pit of Hell to the Spring of Life  
      T. Maumela, Mafangambiti: The Story of a Bull  
  17. (p. 343) Sachs prefigured many of his later arguments in a letter, dated 22 November 1981, which he wrote from Maputo to his colleagues in the Gaborone-based Medu Art Ensemble. After expressing some concerns about ‘our graphic work’, which was, in his view, too ‘crowded’ and ‘over-determined’, he argued that ‘the trouble with most of our literary work is that it is too agonized’. ‘The enemy is still camping in our heads,’ he added, citing Samora Michel, the leader of the Mozambiquan liberation movement. ‘We spend our time shouting at him or trying to negate his images, his consciousness (often with a spurious consciousness based on a mystification of the past, on spurious symbols’, as a consequence of which ‘we don’t feel liberation in our bones’. Referring to the situation in Mozambique and Angola, he observed that ‘FRELIMO–MPLA culture tends to be far more lyrical and optimistic than ours (even before Independence) far less strident, far less tense, its serenity coming from the fact that the artists were naturally and totally involved (and organized) in the liberation movement---so that their political and cultural imaginations were one---and from the fact that in the liberated zones they were already building a new life, with new relationships and new values.’ See Albie Sachs, ‘Letter from Maputo’, Medu Newsletter, 4/1 (1982), 34. This number also included poems by Mafika Gwala (‘No More Lullabies’) and Marius Schoon (‘Shades of Change’), an essay on ‘Education for a National Culture’ by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and reviews of Serote’s To Every Birth its Blood (1981) and Daniel P. Kunene’s A Seed Must Seem to Die (1981), both of which appeared in the Staffrider Series.

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