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  • The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences
  • Gabeba Baderoon (bio)
The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences. By Peter McDonald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 432 pp. Paper $27.95.

Peter McDonald's The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences is a thoughtful history of censorship in South Africa and a reflection on the conception of literature that results from it. McDonald's study lays bare the architecture of censorship: it includes a deft history of literary culture in South Africa dating back to the colonial period, an exhaustive analysis of the censors' archives, interviews with publishers, writers and critics, and a supple understanding of the role of censorship in shaping public culture in South Africa.

Reading the archives left by successive boards, McDonald reveals that apartheid's censors saw literature as central to creating a white and largely Afrikaans national identity. Behind claims of protecting an autonomous literary avant-garde lay an ambitious attempt to police thought along racial lines. The banning of books, the listing of authors, the use of state oppression, and the constrictions of self-censorship were aimed at erasing the very idea of a nonracial South Africa, McDonald argues (160). Rather than being limited to the sphere of culture, censorship was crucial to apartheid as a whole, and attempts to contest censorship eventually had to engage the apartheid state itself.

Supported by state institutions such as the police, the courts, and vigilant customs officials, the censors not only banned books and listed authors but, more broadly, attempted to coerce publishers, writers, reviewers, literary scholars, and the public into colluding with their vision of a racialized national culture. Dissident writers remarked contemptuously on the deformed relation between writers and the state that resulted. Within the censorship system, McDonald points out, black writers were always treated more harshly, and this undermined the possibility of cross-racial alliances. Es'kia Mphahlele warned against "sink[ing] to the degenerate level of Afrikaans writers in South Africa who have always censored themselves and not dared to challenge the government" (176). He was echoed by Breyten Breytenbach, who complained that the fact that so few Afrikaans books were banned showed "the rot to which the Afrikaner intellectuals (and their publishers and teachers) have succumbed" (99). [End Page 84]

Many writers did contest censorship, of course, in both political and consciously literary ways, as McDonald shows. They invented new forms that challenged the capacities of censors but also challenged publishers and readers' conceptions of literature, such as Miriam Tlali in Muriel at Metropolitan (1975), and J. M. Coetzee in Dusklands (1974). André Brink tested the censors by citing banned court documents in his novels. Es'kia Mphahlele and Bessie Head used fiction, essays, and autobiography to show apartheid's devastating impact on black life, asserting the writer's "disposition over the last word," as Coetzee observed (159). Writers also formed associations and surreptitiously printed and distributed books. They constantly needled the censorship system, forcing it to engage with their ideas and thereby exposing its contradictions. They were aided in this task by the pretensions and anxieties of the censors themselves. They were invested in their position as guardians of a national identity that aspired to universal (or, rather, European) relevance and emphasized their independence from the government and their reliance on literary rather than solely political criteria. In turn, the literariness of fiction and poetry became a weapon wielded by writers against censorship.

The Literature Police also addresses other elements of the literary sphere. Under apartheid, publishers became "indispensable brokers" of what counted as literature and also as African. Mphahlele noted the constricted themes imposed on black writers: "The hero must return to the rural areas" (88). The famed Heinemann African Writers Series, whose first editor was Chinua Achebe, created a treasured space for the continent's writing, and its publisher James Currey deservedly received a lifetime achievement award from the African Literature Association in 2008, but the role of the series in defining African literature is ambiguous. In the 1970s, Currey debated whether Bessie Head's A Question of Power was "really African" (101) and declined manuscripts by J. M. Coetzee and Keorapetse...