Academic History of Censorship

Cape Times (South Africa), December 4, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Academic History of Censorship


Censorship, McDonald shows, was a guiding force in South African literature, and in literary debate, during the apartheid years, and was a major footnote to the era's politics. The story starts with the Publications and Entertainments Act of 1963, which set up stricter censorship than had existed before.

The point of censorship was, very broadly, to protect the state, and the state of affairs, by not allowing publications to be distributed which showed white people as tyrannical, cruel or stupid, or liable to engage in sex across colour lines, or which protested against the political dispensation. The censors' role was not easy, since they had no power over books before publication, but had to rely on publishers' voluntarily submitting works for vetting beforehand. The police could report undesirable works to the censors post publication, as could the Customs authorities if the works came from overseas.

Censors themselves were not always enemies of literature: they often used the argument that a work had literary merit to defend it from censorship, particularly if its writer belonged to the Afrikaans avant garde, but the argument could be trumped by the judgement that a work was politically incendiary, like Nadine Gordimer's The Lost Bourgeois World. Some surprising novels did get through, because of the "censors' assumption that great literature rose above contemporary politics". Conversely, some well-known authors, like C J Driver, were regarded as more purveyors of propaganda than of literature, and so were banned.

Very seldom a decision by the censors would be taken to court, and a reorganisation in 1974, when the original Board gave way to a Publications Directorate, virtually excluded the courts from the process. On one occasion a liberal judge ensured that a novel which would otherwise have been ignored gained wide publicity, by quoting extensive titillating passages from it.

The initial Board of Censors, whose first chairman was the respected literary figure, Gerrit Dekker, had proceeded softly, but in 1968 he was succeeded by J J Kruger, an "autocratic buffoon", who continued as chairman of the new Directorate. Kruger's board turned on poetry for the first time, and did not use the literary defence: it was, as McDonald says, concerned with reading material, not literature. It also invented a new way of looking at obscenity and pornography, presenting them as tools of communism. By now it was a crime to possess, as well as to distribute, banned works.

For some years there was a steady increase in submissions and bannings, but in the late 1970s the wind changed, and censors began to see a difference between legitimate protest and sedition. It was good to let off steam. It was still difficult to decide what steam was legitimate, but the censors started to realise that the black man had heard it all before and was unlikely to be rendered more disaffected by reading it again. The literary defence came back, and censors asked themselves what readership was likely to be influenced by a given work. Censors were sometimes half-hearted, and sometimes they thought it useful to know what was going on in the "Bantu" mind (like the old English lady who watched Coronation Street in the 1970s and 1960s, to find out what the English working class was thinking). Meanwhile the government was increasing its own powers of censorship, so was less reliant on the board.

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