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  • Reading as writing the socio-political landscape1
  • Rachel Matteau Matsha (bio)

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

— Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’

The world of books and politics often intermingle. In South Africa, books and reading were controlled from the early days of colonialism, through colonial censorship and later apartheid censorship. With the Publication and Entertainments Act of 1963, apartheid South Africa officially tightened its grip on publications control. Books and publications criticising the state were scrutinised and more often than not deemed undesirable, as the censorship bureaucracy zealously upheld its task of preserving the status quo and repressing dissident voices through banning. Several accounts can be found of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities where research was made virtually impossible due to the banning of literature deemed undesirable by the apartheid state, for example.

That books occupied such a central role in politics – both as propagandist and oppositional tools – reminds us of the power of the printed words, for reading can empower through the mediation and appropriation of ideas and information contained in books by readers. Moving away from an exclusionary notion of reading as a silent, private activity, reading can also be understood as a dynamic process involving a social network of readers and non-linear flow of ideas. The text below is an edited excerpt from Real and Imagined Readers (2018), a book that focuses on the role of progressive readers during apartheid censorship in sustaining an alternative book system but also – perhaps unexpectedly – on the central place readers occupied in the censors’ discourse and application of censorship that ultimately informed literary criticism and literary history well into contemporary South Africa. Given the scarcity of undesirable books and [End Page 54] the danger associated with possessing banned literature, those readers had to be resourceful and creative when sourcing, reading and disseminating such publications. The dissemination of books was paralleled with the wider dissemination of ideas and messages contained in books, a notion reminiscent of ‘reading as translating’, a phrase coined by Belinda Bozzoli (2004). The excerpt below deals with the translation of books’ ideas and messages into the socio-political world performed by readers active in the political and cultural resistance against apartheid, at once blurring the contested oral/written divide, opening new ways of envisaging notions of reading, literacy and books as agents of change and putting into light a specific reading culture that existed during apartheid.

<Excerpt>Real and Imagined Readers

THE LITERARY INDUSTRY in apartheid South Africa was dominated by a mainstream book trade compliant with the dominant conservative ideology, which was closely aligned to the centres of power. Through their zealously crafted censorship apparatus, censors regulated reading and controlled availability and access to books. A ‘good book’ campaign was engineered and imposed on readers and the various book professionals – publishers, librarians and booksellers. This repressive control was underpinned by the censors’ belief that readers’ minds had to be protected from undesirable ideas, for fear that readings would translate into political action.

However, despite the censorship climate spanning the colonial era to the apartheid regime (and at times creeping into post-1994 South Africa), a resilient alternative literary industry emerged, upheld by anti-apartheid writers, publishers, librarians and booksellers, and alternative progressive readers. The alternative book trade influenced oppositional politics and vice versa. By storing, reading and sharing banned or undesirable publications, readers proved that an alternative space for both oppositional literature and politics was possible, circumventing the censorship-controlled mainstream literary industry and fostering a culture of engaged reading.


Readers with direct access to banned reading material could make it accessible to a wider readership, thus playing an active role in the dissemination of banned books: ‘While the grassroots comrades straddled [End Page 55] the legal and illegal worlds and had some access to ideas from outside generated by their own resourcefulness, they largely depended for access to illegitimate ideas upon a stratum of more highly educated readers formed during the 1980s, who had better access to resources’ (Bozzoli 2004:335). Readers in positions of power played an important role in deciding which so-called illegal ideas and books...


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pp. 54-74
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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