Banning Books, Silencing Voices

Featured Illustration: Jane Mount


I have been watching the escalating trend of banning books in the USA with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. It’s a bit like reliving a nightmare, since the banning of books was an apartheid staple. Having travelled through the south of the United States of America along a similar route followed by the Freedom Riders, the activists who rode buses to protest segregation in 1961, I was quite disturbed to learn just how loudly the civil rights and the anti-apartheid movements echoed each other.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), there were 1269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, nearly double the amount in 2021. Most of the books targeted are about the LGBTQIA+, indigenous or persons of colour communities or by authors of those communities. But this silencing of dissenting voices and the clamping down on freedom of expression, thought and speech is by no means a recent phenomenon. In fact, Banned Books Week has been an annual event for over forty years. The event that is promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International, highlights the books that have been targeted for censorship, either removal or restriction, in libraries and schools, and attempts to raise awareness of the harms of censorship.

In the almost forty years that the racist National Party government was in power in South Africa, 26 000 books were banned. In addition, the apartheid government banned movies, plays, art, songs, T-shirts, posters, photographs and people. Any display of dissension, any challenge to white supremacy, was silenced, often violently. Simply owning or wearing a T-shirt printed with the face of Nelson Mandela or the logo of an organisation that was banned could get you arrested.

The apartheid government was big on legislation and introduced laws to enforce these restrictions. Laws like the Publications Act, Suppression of Communism, Riotous Assemblies Act and Internal Security Act were so broad in their scope that it was very easy to fall foul of the legislation that was monitored by bodies such as the Censor Board, and heavily policed. The restrictions on people and organisations ranged from house arrest, banning, banishment and, ultimately, to jailing which completely removed the threat from society.

Books were banned because the author was banned or in exile (Steve Biko) because they dealt with the death and torture of anti-apartheid activists (Alex La Guma), or for supposedly ridiculing white South Africans/Afrikaners (Nadine Gordimer — herself white). The dissension that came from within the white Afrikaner community was regarded as treasonous. Andre Brink’s Kennis van die Aand (later published in English as Looking on Darkness) was the first Afrikaans book to be banned in 1974. The book was criticised for slandering the Afrikaner, portraying the police in a bad light and disrespecting religion. Vernon February in his book, Mind your Colour, that examines the stereotypes in literature and culture pertaining to those classified ‘coloured’ by the South African government, argues that the real reason for the banning was that Brink’s protagonist, Josef Malan, a person classified as ‘coloured’, has been given a neatly constructed genealogy. In attempting to create a pure white race, the Afrikaners dispossessed all people of mixed heritage of any shared history, denying that there had been any mixing across colour lines and therefore that they were untainted by any ‘black blood’. The genealogy that Brink constructed around his protagonist, accounted for a past that challenged the no-past, no-myth, heritage of the ‘Cape Coloured’ that the government had been perpetuating.

Another book banned about ten years later for similar reasons, was also written by an Afrikaner, Herman Heese, who discussed the incidence of mixing that occurred between whites and blacks, through colonisation and slavery, and how especially women of colour had been absorbed into white society. The book provided proof of liaisons both legal and otherwise, citing prominent Afrikaner families.

The banning of books goes hand in hand with restricting access to education one of the ways in which those in power could control the lives of ‘black’ people. By placing limitations on the kind of education and the level of education ‘blacks’ could attain, the government ensured that they would remain less educated than ‘whites’, therefore less qualified and unable to rise above the station in life which the government deemed fit. This was generally as unskilled labour on farms and in homes. This narrative then gave rise to the myth that ‘coloured’ people were fit only for physical labour.

In spite of this, we were raised on the mantra that education would set us free. Education as the way out of our situation became the mantra we were raised on. Education, my parents reminded us constantly, was something that the government could not take away. They could take away our homes, our rights and privileges, but not what was in our “brains”. African-American journalists, James McBride (1996) and Margo Jefferson (2016), relate similar stories in their respective memoirs written two decades apart, despite different backgrounds — Jefferson grew up in an upper-middle-class family, and McBride’s family was working class. McBride, the son of a Jewish woman and an African-American man, recalls that his parents believed that education and religion would help them to climb out of poverty, while Jefferson observes that good manners and education proved your value to society. Education would make you an exemplary citizen, a ‘somebody’.

Many people overcame tremendous odds and continue to do so, in order to educate themselves and their children. As Virginia Woolf observes in A Room of One’s Own, “lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind”.

This trend of silencing dissenting voices that resist the dominant narrative, will continue to recur both in South Africa and the United States of America — the past will not rest because it has not been accounted for and the struggle for equality continues.

Nadia Kamies

I was born and raised in Cape Town during apartheid. My writing focuses on the aftermath of slavery and apartheid.

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