Nadine Gordimer goes back into battle

“Where do you get your energy from?,” I ask Nadine Gordimer, Nobel laureate and lifelong fighter for freedom. This is probably a naff, ageist question, and I wonder how the 86-year-old, who has a reputation for intellectual rigour bordering on fierceness, will react. Happily, she is not insulted. “Who knows where you get it from?” she says. “You must muster your resources and do what you have to do.”

What she feels she has to do at the moment is oppose the South African government’s draconian proposals to muzzle the media. A new protection of information Bill and media appeals tribunal are seen by critics as the greatest threat to press freedom since the apartheid era.

If passed, the measures would allow the government to ban the publication of material deemed detrimental to “the survival and security of the state”. The catch-all phrase “national interest” would allow it to close down discussion of any topic which threatened to embarrass those in power. It is these proposals which have led Gordimer to don her campaigning armour once more, and go into battle against a government she believes may be about to reverse the democratic gains of the last two decades.

The word police
With her fellow writer André Brink, she has drawn up a petition which has so far gathered eminent names such as award-winning novelist JM Coetzee, academic and writer Njabulo Ndebele, and actor and playwright John Kani. The petition will be formally presented to South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma this week, and Gordimer hopes that writers will be able to join with South Africa’s bar council and media organisations to build concerted opposition to the proposals. Does she find it ironic that, almost 20 years after helping to overturn apartheid, she now finds herself having to fight the government which replaced that hated system?

“It is more than an irony,” she says. “People died in the freedom struggle, and to think that having gained freedom at such a cost, it is now indeed threatened again. All writers are threatened by censorship, and censorship is the reality lurking behind the words ‘media tribunal’. We are protesting against the institution of a media tribunal, which of course means ‘word police’, not merely on our own behalf. Writing presupposes an interaction with readers. If the work and the freedom of the writer are in jeopardy, the freedom of every reader in South Africa is too. Our protest is an action undertaken by South Africans for all South Africans, committing ourselves to a demand for our free country: freedom of thought expressed, freedom of dialogue, freedom from fear of the truth about ourselves.”

I ask whether she ever thought she would have to return to the fray in defence of basic democratic rights. “No, I never thought I would have to fight them [the government] again,” she says. “But this takes us back to some of the aspects of apartheid. It threatens the basis of democratic freedom. Freedom of expression, along with the vote, is the basis of democracy. That is the crux of it.”

So does it make her despair that a government, a new way of ordering life in South Africa, could go back to some of the bad old ways, fearful of openness and protective of privilege? “No, I don’t despair. Life is so uncertain. All you can do is pursue your convictions of what is right. Your convictions don’t change. I think now what I thought 20 years ago.”

Insidious attack on freedom
Gordimer accepts that the people who will be most affected if the government pursues its proposals are journalists. But she says all creative writers, too, will suffer an insidious attack on their freedoms: first, because they often rely on material being unearthed by journalists, but also because their intellectual space becomes fenced in, their imaginations chained.

“We too are threatened by denial of freedom of the word, which is our form of expression of the lives of the people of South Africa. Journalists give us the facts, but in poetry and plays and novels there is a level of deep complexity, and that would be confined within the forces of government. Our aim is to explore life.” That aim, she says, would be compromised by these regulations.

In an essay called A Writer’s Freedom, published at the height of apartheid in 1976 and reproduced in her recent book Telling Times, she explained why freedom — from fashion and conformity as well as from government interference — was vital. “Any government, any society — any vision of a future society — that has respect for its writers must set them as free as possible to write in their own various ways, in their own choices of form and language, and according to their own discovery of truth.” At the end of that essay, she quotes Turgenev: “Without freedom in the widest sense of the word … a true artist is unthinkable; without that air, it is impossible to breathe.”

Under apartheid, several of Gordimer’s books were banned — A World of Strangers (1958) for 12 years, The Late Bourgeois World (1966) for 10, and several other novels for shorter periods. But she refused to be cowed, and remained in South Africa while many of her contemporaries left. “Exile,” she once said, “is a terrible thing, even in comfort.” She had a prominent role in opposing censorship and helped found the Congress of South African Writers, but has always rejected the label of “political writer”, fearing being seen as a propagandist or conformist. “You serve your cause best by telling that bit of truth that you have discovered, as you know it,” she said in 2003.

Propagandists believe they have a monopoly on truth; writers recognise their own fallibility — not “the truth”, but the “truth as you know it”. It is perhaps not the direct assault of the proposed new clampdown on writers’ freedoms that she fears most, but its encouragement of a climate in which writers are denied what in her 1976 essay she calls a “private view”. In a world in which the government decides what can be published, what material threatens the national interest, writers have to take sides; they are forced to become political, and can no longer be themselves. Writing becomes a weapon, rather than an intellectual adventure.

Gordimer emphasises that her petition is attracting support from writers reflecting all parts of the population — white, black, Indian, English-speaking, Afrikaans-speaking. She is aware of the danger of the government painting her as a wealthy white writer out of touch with the new political realities in South Africa. She experienced that sort of pigeonholing in 2001 when her novel July’s People, published in 1981 and imagining a civil war in South Africa, was labelled “racist” and banned by one provincial education department. “Our protest has nothing to do with race or colour,” she tells me.

‘I must be careful of what I say’
When I ask whether these measures are being considered as a way of covering up corruption by government officials, Gordimer says she has to choose her words carefully. “I must be careful of what I say. There is a great deal of corruption in high places, and it is surely clear that these prospective laws would mean a protection for people who fear to be exposed.”

One irony that does strike her is the use of the term “security of the state”, a piece of Orwellian doublethink if ever there was one. “The government says that the basis on which these Bills would be introduced is protection of information that would endanger the security of the state,” she says. “We have no intention of endangering the security of the state. The muzzling of freedom of expression is in itself a threat to the security of the state, and as writers and as citizens our intention is to demonstrate that.”

  • Nadine Gordimer’s latest book is Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008 –
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