Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Peter McDonald was the first to investigate the newly opened archives of South Africa’s apartheid censorship bureaucracy in 1999. The process wasn’t easy—evidence was everywhere. Some materials had been deposited in the State Archives in Cape Town, some in Pretoria, others appeared to be missing, and the rest were still with the post-apartheid Film and Publication Board (FPB). As McDonald sorted the pieces startling discoveries were made, which he eventually recounted in his book The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences. In the following reflection McDonald reveals the poignant questions that drove him to discover the truth behind apartheid censorship in South Africa. You can check out more contributions to our “Place of the Year” week here.
For most of my professional life I have been thinking about the idea of culture as it has been shaped and reshaped over the past two hundred years, and about the processes and perils of literary guardianship, especially in the complex, intercultural world that emerged in the course of the long twentieth century. The last thing I ever imagined was that the archives of the apartheid censorship bureaucracy in South Africa would provide me with an astonishingly rich, if also disturbing, set of materials with which to address these sometimes abstruse questions.
After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that censors are the enemies of culture. They are the hateful guardians of the law; the nightmarish state-sanctioned adversaries who have, for one reason or another, taken it upon themselves to keep modern writers and their readers in check; and, besides, they hardly warrant close study by literary scholars, since they are censorious bureaucrats whose vocabulary is limited to a simple yes or no.
This, at least, is how I always thought about censors in general and about the apartheid censors in particular. Whenever the topic was raised when I was a child attempting to grow up in the South Africa of the 1960s and 1970s, it would not take long before someone would recount a story about the censors once banning Black Beauty, Anna Sewell’s strange late Victorian horse memoir. Like many others, I thought this said everything I needed to know about the barbarous stupidity of the system. When I looked into the newly opened archives of the censorship bureaucracy in the late 1990s, and saw some of the secret censors’ reports for the first time and discovered who wrote them, I realized that I had a major problem on my hands and a huge topic for a book.
I expected to see reports signed by ex-policemen, security agents, retired military types, and the like, but what I found was that the overwhelming majority were written by literary academics, writers and esteemed university professors. That was surprising enough. Digging a little deeper into the history of the system, I discovered that a particularly influential group of these seemingly miscast figures actually saw themselves as the guardians of literature, and, more bizarrely, as defenders of a particular idea of the ‘Republic of Letters’. What on earth were they doing there? And what sense was I to make of the fact that, as the archives revealed, repression and the arts were so deeply entangled in apartheid South Africa?
The labyrinthine archival trail, which extended from South Africa to the UK, the US, Norway, Holland, East Germany and elsewhere, soon led me to a host of other, more specific but not less improbable questions. Why were works by a number of leading black writers, including Mafika Gwala, Njabulo Ndebele, Es’kia Mphahlele, and Mongane Serote, passed by the censors? Why were the eminent Afrikaans writers Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach and Etienne Leroux let through in the 1960s and then banned a decade later? Why were no literary works in South Africa’s nine African languages ever suppressed? Why were the supposedly most obscene bits from Wilbur Smith‘s debut When the Lion Feeds published in South Africa’s largest circulation Sunday newspaper soon after the novel was banned in 1965? Why were the censors so enthusiastic about Indaba My Children, Credo Mutwa’s ethnographic collection of tribal lore? Why did the South African branch of PEN have such a troubled history? Why did J. M. Coetzee apply to be a censor? And why was Salman Rushdie‘s Satanic Verses hastily banned in 1988 and why is it still illegal for South African booksellers to display it today?
Again, somewhat to my surprise, pursuing the answers to these questions led me to reflect not just on a future in which apartheid, and apartheid thinking (which was not limited to South Africa), has no place, but on the power of words in the world and on the demands of our intercultural present.
(By the way, I found no evidence to support the Black Beauty anecdote, though I did establish that South African customs officials once found a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book hidden in an edition of Anna Sewell’s equine autobiography, which they promptly impounded.)