She is South African, but now lives in the United States, where she works full time for an anti-apartheid group. "When I was sitting inside South Africa," she told me recently, "I was desperately trying to get books in, and the government, my enemy, was trying to keep books out. Now I'm sitting here trying to keep books out of South Africa. I don't feel very comfortable about that."
This enemy of apartheid was referring to a decision by a number of America's largest book publishers, distributors and sources of research material to stop doing business with South Africa. Among them are Simon & Schuster and its subsidiaries, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan-Scribner and the huge wholesale distributor, Baker & Taylor.
A particularly harsh blow to South African scholars, including those who oppose apartheid, is the presence on that list of University Microfilm International, which is a main source for PhD dissertations and also has reproduction rights to about 90 percent of the scholarly journals published in America.
Moreover, as Irving Louis Horowitz, president of Transaction Publishers, has noted, the bookseller "International Book Distributors, a subsidiary of Prentice-Hall International, which in turn is a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster . . . has informed a number of university presses in the United States that it would no longer ship their titles into South Africa. This means that most of the larger American university press titles will simply not be available in South Africa."
As Horowitz says, this extensive help by American firms toward keeping South Africa as closed a society as possible "reverses the struggle for the freedom to read." American publishers used to try to get books into countries ruled by authoritarian regimes.
The reason for the reversal is money. Some 75 American cities have passed measures aimed at increasing pressure on South Africa by isolating it economically. Accordingly, some of those cities will not do business with any American firm that does any business at all with South Africa. Rather than lose the profits from selling textbooks to, say, Los Angeles or Pittsburgh -- or distributing books to their public libraries -- U.S. publishing companies have decided to abandon the schools and libraries of South Africa. Black and white.
The head of international sales for a large publishing firm told me that before sales to South Africa were cut off, "the majority of our textbooks wound up in black schools rather than white ones." And unlike many of the textbooks produced in South Africa, the American volumes do not -- as a subtext for nearly every subject -- teach the necessity for apartheid.
University Microfilm International is owned by Bell & Howell, which abounds in information services, and not only for students. The corporation is particularly proud of what it can do for hospitals in various countries. "We used to send teaching hospitals in South Africa the newest discoveries in medicine and in treatment," a spokesman for the firm told me. "Without microfilm, it would have been very expensive for them to keep up with all the books and journals."
That information has been cut off. The patients in those hospitals are both black and white.
It appears that the only way to get a free flow of information is to persuade American city councils and school boards that, in their selective purchasing contracts, exceptions must be made for information and ideas.
But although a strong statement to this end has been issued by the Association of American University Presses, there is yet to be a clear, public, moderately courageous stand by the far more influential Association of American Publishers, some of whose members are actively limiting what South Africans can read.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a persistent anti-apartheid activist, recalled recently that "James Baldwin, in the middle of Harlem, found his voice and power by going to the library. Are we so arrogant as not to believe there are white Afrikaners who, by going to the library and reading American books, can break away from the dogma of their government?"
"What we have to do," she says, "is penetrate that system, not engage in this kind of reflexive unthinking reaction."
"There are professors," the head of a textbook division of a large firm says, "who tell me that if we sell books to South Africa, they will never write for us again."