A history of apartheid censorship through the archive

Doctoral Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Over the course of 26 years, and using 97 different definitions of what the system considered to be “undesirable,” South Africa's apartheid-era censors prevented a vast array of literature from being freely circulated in South Africa. The official and symbolic power that they wielded as the gatekeepers of literature seemed almost unmatched, and the system is still discussed today as one of the most comprehensive the world has seen. The history of apartheid censorship has been told using a variety of approaches, focusing on prominent, legislature-defining cases, on experiences of writers or readers affected, or by discussing it as part of a wider system of suppression. This thesis offers another way to understand the system and its corrosive, ongoing effects: a history which foregrounds the censorship archive itself. The archive is inconvenient, banal, strange, and challenging, containing an extraordinary profusion of documents which seem to serve no clear administrative purpose. The censors left behind a vast body of material relating to their activities, amounting to over a hundred linear metres'' worth of documents: dense reports on “subversive” novels; equally detailed reports on throwaway pulp detective thrillers, erotic mysteries, apparently forgettable works of mass-market fiction; letters from members of the public; letters between censors arguing fiercely over the literary merits of a novel; letters from state officials; newspaper reports, book jackets, and other archival ephemera. Histories of the system tend to centre on spectacular cases or moments, which means overlooking the vast majority of what the archive contains, and thus perhaps misrepresenting the nature of the censors' daily activities. For every report justifying the banning (or passing) of a significant protest novel, there are a hundred reports on works of no literary or political significance whatsoever. An analysis of the paperwork produced by the system reveals fascinating contradictions, conflicts, clashes between high-minded notions of the literary and base ideas of the function of art in apartheid South Africa. We can understand the excess and profound waste of intellectual energy that the archive represents if we view it as the product of a system's struggle to politicise literature while stripping it of all references to contemporary politics, to conflate taste with morality, to define without consensus what literature meant. This thesis will show how these codes and reading strategies developed, examining the complicated connections between censorship, canonisation, validation, and criticism that the censors created. It is reassuring to think that censorship in South Africa ended with the banning of The Satanic Verses in 1989, but immersion in the archive shows how far-reaching and long lasting its effects are. The literary infrastructure the censors helped to create has not been erased out of existence; their definitions of the literary and the laws of what can be said are repeated in official and unofficial ways. Questions over who “owns” the space of the literary, over who should own it, over who has the ability (or even the right) to critique it, continue to reverberate today Finally, by exploring the ways in which the system was embedded within wider public and bureaucratic culture, this thesis offers a means of viewing contemporary debates around freedom of speech in South Africa. The recent furore provoked by the state's attempts to suppress Jacques Pauw's The President's Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prison reveals how fraught these debates continue to be, and this thesis shows how we may understand them in the context of what has come before. Immersion in the archive – a commitment to analysis of that which is unwieldy and apparently irrelevant – yields insight of great contemporary value, enriching our understanding of apartheid censorship and its poisonous legacy.