The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures

by Archie L. Dick. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 196pp. $55.00 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-4426-4289-8.

The history and politics of South Africa have had a major influence on what its people read over the years. During the apartheid years the many titles banned ranged from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and Humiliated to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, George Orwell’s Coming up for Air, and Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. Possessing banned or questionable material could lead to detention, and the police who raided homes made lists that could be used in trials. Security officers were not always well-educated, and copies of The Red and the Black by Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) were taken from one political activist on three separate occasions. Richard Wright’s Native Son and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty were seized from the home of another activist. Items removed were never returned. Reading and writing were prohibited to those in solitary confinement under the ninety-day detention act of 1963. The one exception was the Bible, or the Koran in the case of Muslim prisoners. The aim was to encourage penitence, but for at least one inmate Jesus was a freedom fighter. The Bible helped some prisoners retain their sanity, and they would ration their reading to fixed periods of time or to a number of pages a day. Prison libraries were set up, but the quality of the service was poor until some of the inmates themselves enrolled for librarianship programs at the University of South Africa (Unisa), an institution that specialised in distance education.

Archie Dick draws on Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and the memoirs of other former freedom fighters. He interviewed a number of them as well as librarians who assisted township dwellers and prisoners. He also interviewed former residents of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO) in Tanzania, where thousands of South African exiles were based in the 1980s. The college site was given to the African National Congress (ANC) by the Tanzanian government of Julius Nyerere, which was sympathetic to its cause. The purpose-built SOMAFCO Library was the result of money collected by youth sections of Nordic political parties, and the librarian was Finnish. Some readers were stimulated enough to become librarians when they returned to South Africa. The exiles were able to go home in the early 1990s. The library records were also repatriated and are now in the ANC archives at the University of Fort Hare. Dick makes extensive use of them and reveals that again South Africans went their own way, preferring magazines such as Drum and Pace to the works on Marxism that the SOMAFCO principal promoted in the early years. Lawyers representing activists on trial in South Africa used to recommend that they keep to light reading during their trials: one advised his client to avoid Dostoyevsky in particular.

Shakespeare has universal appeal, and some considered him an ally in the struggle. Dick brings to light just how popular the works of Charles Dickens were: A Tale of Two Cities, for example, was an opportunity for student activists to learn about the French Revolution. Oliver Twist was a favourite. Dickens revealed the disparities between rich and poor in nineteenth century England. Parallels with twentieth century South Africa were obvious, and Dickens had the advantage of not being banned by the country’s rulers. Writing on library use in Africa has emphasised its educational nature, and these examples of fiction and magazine reading are a useful corrective for one particular country. Historically, however, there was a similarity of attitudes on the part of many whites in Africa on the dangers of too much education for blacks in case it would spoil them for the manual labour that was seen as their role in life.

While some librarians helped political activists, others took refuge in professional neutrality or proved more extreme than the government censors themselves. Librarians burnt books, removing some from the shelves before they were ever placed on banned lists. The state library of Pretoria used the ovens of the country’s largest steel manufacturer to burn thousands of titles. One of the librarians interviewed by Dick recounted that, besides books, items such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech were burned. Durban City libraries pulped books instead of burning them. The South African Library Association accepted the situation. Drawing on an Afrikaans memoir, Dick explains that the spirit in Bloemfontein Public Library in the 1960s and 1970s was “one of unquestioning obedience to authority, the mindless performance of duties, and an uncritical attitude” (p. 98).

The Hidden History ranges over three and a half centuries, from readership in the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope up to the struggle against apartheid. Some of the content has already appeared as journal articles. The scholarship is exemplary, and the book opens up new areas for research. As the author points out, the catalogues, acquisition records and loan statistics of South Africa’s small-town libraries are still to be analysed, and are key sources for the intellectual history of the country.

Anthony Olden, University of West London