Censor of 17 years now opposes state

intervention

Gustav Thiel

THE outgoing chief censor, Dr Braam Coetzee, believes censorship is about to end in South Africa. The new law enacted last year embodies the principles of democracy and will make the public the guardians of morality, he says.

Turning his 17 years as a censor on its head, Coetzee now says he opposes government intervention.

Coetzee joined the Directorate of Publications in 1980, when Big-Brother government intervention was at its height. He has been its chief director for the past five years.

In this time, he says, he “started to see the light at the end of the tunnel”.

With the Film and Publications Act of 1996 about to be implemented, Coetzee is “keen to hand the keys over with the knowledge that my job is done”.
He is, however, reluctant to accept responsibility for playing a role in maintaining apartheid and its repression while serving as chief director.

He says the new legislation “will remove censorship for all practical purposes. The new law will act in large part to provide consumer advice.”

The apartheid regime curbed freedom of expression with the 1963 Publications and Entertainment Act. Before that, it was up to customs officials to control the influx of foreign publications. They seized a total of 12 629 publications up to 1963.

The 1963 law provided for publications and films to be banned if they were deemed harmful or offensive to the interests of the state and its citizens. It also established the Directorate of Publications, from which committees were appointed to evaluate each work submitted. Authors, however, still had the right to appeal to the courts to overturn bannings.

In 1974 a new Publications Act replaced the right of appeal in a court of law with appeal to the Publications Appeal Board, abolishing all judicial reviews of censorship.

Government control was now almost absolute. It led to the banning of works such as Etienne Leroux’s Magersfontein, O Magersfontein, Andre P Brink’s Kennis van die Aand and Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter (which the censors called “a blistering and full-scale attack on the Republic of South Africa”).

Magreet de Lange, a lecturer at the University of Utrecht who wrote her doctoral thesis on literature and censorship in South Africa in 1996, contends that black authors suffered far more under the apartheid regime’s repressive policies. In contrast to white writers, banning and interference with their work was the rule rather than the exception, she says.

In the early 1980s it was mainly white retired professionals who served on committees of the Directorate of Publications. Now, says Coetzee, the members of its committees embody a wide age spectrum and are more representative of the population. He agrees, however, that there is still much room for improvement.

He adds that, since 1989, the directorate has mainly occupied itself with the certification of films, and few books or magazines have been banned.

“The line we took is that we do not ban anything unless we receive an official complaint from a member of the public. This trend will be enhanced when the new legislation comes into operation,” says Coetzee.

His belief that the new legislation will limit government intervention in the censorship process is not shared by De Lange. She insists that the legislation could be used for political gain because its enforcement will once again be entrusted to government officials, rather than the courts.

This danger exists, she says, because government officials are closer to the political process than members of the legal profession.

Coetzee disagrees: “The days when we decide what the public wants are over. I can’t see the same kind of government involvement. The censorship board will be mainly an advisory one.”

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