Political Censorship Then and Now

by Anthony Egan SJ

Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers, documenting corruption and state capture in contemporary South Africa, and President Jacob Zuma’s involvement in it, has generated widespread controversy. State security attempts to ban the book have – so far – backfired and made it a bestseller. This is itself a sign of hope in a bleak time of how far we have come as a country with regards to political censorship.

The fact that the State has failed to suppress Pauw’s book is a measure of the freedoms we still enjoy today. Under the apartheid era this was not the case. Each Friday in the bad old days a report, extracted from the Government Gazette, would appear in the newspapers, listing publications banned the previous week. The heaviest proportion of them would almost always be political material – books, films, magazines, posters, T-shirts, the range was enormous.

There were ways, of course, of getting around the censors. Banned publications were smuggled into South Africa, or produced locally, and circulated through activist networks. Research libraries were allowed to hold such materials too, and researchers could access them on site – having filled in a swathe of forms beloved by state bureaucrats everywhere.

I know this. I used to do it regularly.

There were other ways around the censors too. As a very young book reviewer for a Cape Town newspaper in the 1980s, I would meet each Monday with my reviews editor. We would go through advance copies of books and decide which ones would most likely be banned that week. Our deal was simple: if I could get the detailed review in before Friday, he’d run it on the following Monday’s editorial page as a feature.

Other newspapers and reviewers did the same. Yes, it was subversion, but (apart from the occasional menacing phone call) we got away with it.

Thankfully today, freedom of speech is constitutionally protected. At least for the moment. The State’s powers to control information is legally limited. The Internet gives us access to more information (not all of it accurate, one must say) than ever before in human history. Even the possibility of the State blocking online access is limited constitutionally. In the event that it decides (as has happened in some countries) to crack down on it, ‘hacktivists’ will find a way in.

This does not mean we should assume we live in an information utopia. As the case of Jacques Pauw shows, things can get nasty: Pauw has received death threats. The President’s Keepers book launch in Johannesburg a few days ago was disrupted by a ‘power outage’. Though outages are commonplace nowadays, where and when it happened seemed at very least a ‘happy fault’ (for some), and was certainly ‘convenient’.

It is possible that, as the current government starts to implode under the weight of its hubris, we shall see a return to the bad old days of censorship and dirty tricks. In the meantime I thoroughly recommend that you buy and read Pauw’s book.

While you can!

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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