South Africa

A CURIOUS AMBIGUITY marks the publishing scene in South Africa today. And as the freedom to publish, the freedom to disseminate and exchange ideas, the freedom of discussion or of enquiry -- call it what you will -- has always been a shrewd barometer of the general state of freedom in society, this publishing situation may provide valuable clues to the paradoxical nature of South African society as a whole.

Ambiguity and paradox indeed. On the one hand there are small, startling signs of what appears to be liberalization of censorship in the recent unbanning of Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, my own A Dry White Season, and Afrikaans novelist Etienne Leroux's latest novel. On the other hand, a distressing tightening-up of the laws governing press coverage of whatever are regarded as "security matters," notably military affairs, prison conditions, police activities, attacks on or threats to "key points" and "radical actions" in general. As South Africa's brief "Prague Spring," heralded by Prime Minister P. W. Botha's vague but promising sounds of a New Deal, seems to be drawing to a close, a sense of doom is settling on the country. It has been relieved recently, in exaggerated and near-hysterical, fashion, only by sharing vicariously in the Springbok rugby team's triumphs over the visiting British Lions, to retrieve a troubled glimpse of God's chosen people defeating the forces of evil.

To some extent the recent limited spate of "unbannings" by the censors might have been prompted by a dangerous impasse between writers and authorities in 1979. Threatened by ever more stringent -- and unpredictable -- application of the censorship law, authors were threatening to go underground. The publication of A Dry White Season seems, in retrospect, to have been a watershed. Five years earlier, after the banning of my Looking on Darkness -- the first Afrikaans book to be so silenced -- the public has contributed a substantial sum of money to appeal the case in the courts. When the book became an international success, it was decided not to use this money to defray trial expenses but to continue fighting censorship in other ways. Consequently, when three academics from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg launched a private publishing concern to guarantee the distribution of books regarded as too risky by established publishers, the money was donated to them; since then, they have brought out several titles under the imprint of Taurus. They also established a list of subscribers, so that, when A Dry White Season was ready for publication last year, it was summarily sent to the 2,000 or so subscribers -- and by the time the censors banned the book, its continued life in samizdat form has been assured. Finding their ban thus rendered ineffecutal, and being prompted by other factors as well (including the assumption of office by a new and more reasonable minister of the interior to replace the unlamented Cornelius Mulder of "Muldergate," South Africa's equivalent of Watergate), the censors, under a new young chairman, embarked on a policy of modest revision -- avoiding a direct confrontation with established authors and trying to forestall full-scale samizdat. However, while unbanning Gordimer's book and mine, the censors could not refrain from heaping abuse on both of us, arguing that these novels were so atrocious that any reasonable reader would reject them as "counter-productive." (They seemed to miss the obvious interence that in the future only good books would be banned.)

It may be suggested that one should be thankful for small mercies. The problem is that one cannot escape the impression of exceptions being made of a few authors with established reputations -- which would fit perfectly the overall impression of an entire society ruled by permits and based on exceptions. There has so far been no guarantee that young and comparatively unknown writers, and above all black writers, will be treated with the same consideration. On the other hand it should be mentioned in all fairness that following representations by the powerful Afrikaans Writers' Guild, the Directorate of Publications has just appealed against the ban on Mothobi Mutloatse's anthology Forced Landing, the first time a black writer's work has been taken on appeal by the censorship establishment itself. If this were to succeed, more weight would be lent to the impression of a sincerely intended liberalization. At the same time the authorities have consistently refused to change the Censorship Act itself -- and since censorship is, notoriously, a subjective and fickle exercise, there can be no firm guarantee for more latitude in the future.

This means that authors still have no certainty about what will be allowed; and publishers will still be in the dark about the quality of risk involved in publishing any given manuscript. The mood remains ominous, the climate uncertain. The only light in a murky situation is the courage of those operating the Taurus publishing concern and Ravan Press, which handles almost all the work of black authors.

As far as the latter are concerned, a significant recent phenomenon is the explosion of black readership and of black interest in literature geneally, since literature -- notably plays, poems and short stories -- has become an instrument of political change. In many cases newly published books by black writers are sold in the streets of Soweto, getting rid of a whole print order within days. Plays are performed on a fly-by-night basis to escape the prying eyes of officialdom. Poetry is often distributed in pamphlet form, or read at gatherings. In other words, the entire apparatus for an underground literature has been established.

A curious new role is assigned to writers of fiction in a time when newspapers are allowed ever less scope for exposure and exploration (at the same time it should be emphasized that in recent years the South African press, English and Afrikaans alike, has played an invaluable role in preparing the public for change). In Burger's Daughter a banned pamphlet of the Soweto Students' Council is printed in full. Any person found in possession of this pamphlet can be sent to prison for five years; yet in the novel it is freely available. In my own Rumours of Rain much of the court statement for the late Bram Fischer (one of the foremost leaders of the struggle for liberation) is used, even though this document, too, could land any member of the public in prison. With the newspapers being denied their means of exploring and, especially, exposing truth in a claustrophobic society, it would appear that writers may be taking over something of this function -- which obviously burdens them with a new and awesome responsibility.

In comparison with countries like the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc., a large measure of freedom to publish is still allowed in South Africa. At the same time it is obvious that, as the government heads more and more openly towards authoritarianism, this freedom is increasingly threatened. But it offers a measure of relief to know that writers are prepared to face the challenge, as elsewhere in the world; and that a few courageous publishers are still available to distribute their work to their embattled society and to the world at large.