‘Some symbols may be found’

JM Coetzee, who seems to give book-cover “shouts” very readily these days, says The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences by Peter D McDonald (Oxford) is “indispensable reading if we wish to understand the forces forming and deforming literary production in South Africa during the apartheid years”. In this case, it’s a fair assessment.

In another “shout”, Antjie Krog calls the book “a small Truth and Reconciliation Commission on South African literature”. Instead of the direct in-person testimony of those affected by apartheid censorship, however, McDonald has opened the archive of the Publications Control Board and Publications Appeal Board in their various incarnations and followed their often tortuous reasoning. He also gives a full and enlightening account of the historical and political context and details matters from the perspectives of authors and publishers as well. In the book’s second part he supplies a set of closely argued case studies involving the censors and such writers as Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Es’kia Mphahlele and the Black Consciousness writers of the 1970s.

McDonald shows how black writers in the 1970s and 1980s were up against not only censorship, but also the problems of emerging as published writers into a white liberal sphere of influence. In a weird echo of state censorship, particular literary standards were imposed — standards often akin to those of the censors’ sense of what literature was, despite the fact that such publishers were deeply opposed to censorship itself. For instance, the complex, hybrid text of Miriam Tlali’s Muriel at Metropolitan (1975) was extensively edited by Sheila Roberts for Ravan, turning “a highly charged and disruptive series of essayistic reflections into a more culturally and legally acceptable exercise in ‘polite literature’ with feminist overtones”. Here are instances of what Mark Saunders calls, in his excellent book of that name, “complicities”.

The question of what makes literature Literature (one wants to give it a capital L) is one at the heart of McDonald’s book. For, as he demonstrates, the issue of what was or was not “undesirable” in the eyes of the censors meant the imposition of a boundary between literature and non-literary productions such as pornography.

The difficulty of holding such limits steady is still with us, in cases such as the current one in which the Film and Publications Board (FPB) refused to allow the Out in Africa festival to show the award-winning Argentinean film XXY because, despite its artistic qualities, the FPB felt it was still a form of “child pornography”. (The verdict of the final appeal three weeks ago is still awaited; meanwhile, new legislation in this area has been sent by the president back to the lawyers.)


Works such as André Brink’s early novel Miskien Nooit (1967) and James Matthews’s poems of the 1970s troubled the literary standard; one that, as McDonald shows, went back to the 1820s. Brink’s postmodern playfulness and deconstruction of traditional literary forms meant that the censors found it hard to justify passing the book on the grounds that it was literature — one even called it “fake merchandise” and felt it should be “put in its place”! It was still harder in the case of Matthews, whose work deliberately eschewed the niceties of aesthetic construction in its direct cry of rage against apartheid, and his work was banned. It was the other way around for Ravan’s literary journal Staffrider: despite this initiative being designed to reach “the masses”, the censors felt it was an elite project that would have little impact.

At the birth of apartheid censorship was the attempt by the leading poet and littérateur of his day, NP van Wyk Louw, to protect Afrikaans literature. This meant that the censors were not just guardians of the nation’s morals but arbiters of what constituted the literary.

Thus leading Afrikaans writers and academics were co-opted to the board, alongside “experts” responsible for determining whether a given work was a threat to state security. Often those writers were also on the judging panels of literary awards, besides being involved in reviewing books and other aspects of South African literary life. This incestuous ménage came under extreme pressure when, in 1977, Etienne Leroux’s satirical novel Magersfontein, O Magersfontein! (1976) both won the CNA Award and was banned for blasphemy, among other things, after a church-led campaign during an election year. Massive controversy within the Afrikaner establishment followed, leading to legal and procedural adaptations to the process of censorship.

But then the censorship law, and its application, went through several changes over the decades. The yardstick for measurement varied as works were judged, at one time, from the putative standpoint of the “average reader” (meaning a white, male Christian) to, at other times, the “likely reader” (such as sophisticated literary types only). Even in the 1980s the censors were invoking the tolerance levels of “Western man” versus those of the presumably less civilised African. In one case, it was stated that black Africans’ tolerance levels for exaggerated, violent language would be higher than that of the more cultured “Western man”, meaning white South Africans. In other cases, Africans were deemed more susceptible.

At the same time, the boundary between the literary and the non-literary became ever harder to stabilise. The reigning shibboleth for some time was that if a work was decidedly political it could not be literature. Interestingly, this conception of the fully literary (linked to the “universal”) also informed the views of white liberal writers and critics up to the 1980s; they opposed censorship but were bothered by the upfront and strident political messages of some black writers’ works, messages uncontained by the aesthetic assumptions of the Western tradition.

Even Gordimer worried, in The Black Interpreters (1973), whether black protest writers using poetry as a “megaphone” were really “poets at all”. A few years later, in The New Classic journal run by Sipho Sepamla, she expressed her concern that such poets’ language was impoverished by the political pressure to use the “jargon of the struggle”. The question of what constituted literature (and art in general) would continue in the often violent debates among radicals in the late 1980s and early 1990s on whether culture should be a “weapon of the struggle”.

The censors kept worrying about what literature was (until they finally gave up and simply spoke of “reading matter”). Their deliberations, in the reports McDonald has lifted from the archives, make fascinating and frequently amusing reading. These readers often contradict each other. If nothing else, this is a demonstration of the extraordinary slipperiness of interpretation.

As McDonald illustrates, the censors often simply misunderstood what was going on in particular works. They were disturbed by the bestiality in Mphahlele’s novella Mrs Plum (1974), without noting that the dog in question is named Malan, presumably after the National Party leader. One censor, Rita Scholtz, thought Coetzee’s Michael K was the recipient of “cunnilingus”. (And, bizarrely, another censor, Anna Louw, shared a name with an Afrikaner communist character in Gordimer’s novel A World of Strangers. Gordimer’s Anna Louw is surely based on her friend Bettie du Toit, but was this naming device a deliberate provocation or an accidental joke?)

Coetzee never received what he called the “badge of honour” that an apartheid-era banning would have constituted, despite the trouble his novels gave the censors. Like members of the 1980s left, they were confused about what precisely the political import of his novels might be.

McDonald shows how such a context informed Coetzee’s sense of fiction’s discursive rivalry with history. He gives much background on Coetzee’s own delicate dance around censorship, including the little-known fact that, as a young academic with the right qualifications and several languages, Coetzee decided to test the system by applying for a job as a reader for the censors. (He was “turned down without explanation”.)

The case of Coetzee demonstrates once more the problems of reading for censorship. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), which McDonald calls “Coetzee’s most abstract experiment in anti-realism”, led to difficulties. One censor assiduously counted instances of the words “fuck” (eight) and “shit” (six) before noting that, though the novel was set “nowhere near Southern Africa, nor is there any white populace” — which meant it was passable — “some symbols may be found”.

Indeed. Symbols may be found, too, in The Literature Police — symbols of the impossible rivalry between literature and the political space it inhabits, or overlaps with, and from which it can never entirely break free. Never mind literature’s own inner rivalries and shifting internal boundaries. It is likely that, as textual forms mutate and their technological platforms develop, the problems of what constitutes literature will become more complex. McDonald’s book is a vigorous yet subtle and always compellingly readable contribution to the history of and debate about the borders of the literary and the place of words in the world.

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