Let the truth be told
Writer, activist and Nobel Prize literature prize winner Nadine Gordimer warns that new legislation will return South Africa to apartheid-era limits on free speech From Index's archive
Nadine Gordimer: Standing in the queue
16 Mar 12

South African writer, activist and Nobel Prize winnerWriter, activist and Nobel Prize literature prize winner Nadine Gordimer warns that new legislation will return South Africa to apartheid-era limits on free speech

Under Apartheid

The regime of racism was maintained not alone by brutality — guns, violence, restrictive laws. It was upheld by elaborately extensive silencing of freedom of expression. The Suppression of Communism Act, 1950, had definitions of Communism which were vast. What was forbidden included promotion of industrial, political, economic and social change. Every aspect of communal, cultural and intellectual life.

In 1982 the Act became the Internal Security Act, which banned the African National Congress and Pan African Congress along with the South African Communist Party and retained almost all these other definitions of what was forbidden.

The Publications and Entertainments Act banned thousands of newspapers and books in South Africa from 1950 to 1990 — 40 years. The works of world writers, DH Lawrence, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, Nabokov were banned along with the novels and non-fiction works of South African writers, Todd Matshikiza, William “Bloke” Modisane, Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, André Brink, Can Themba, and three of my own novels. A taboo subject of everyday life was sexual love relations between white and black. In the 1970s films Jesus Christ Superstar, A Clockwork Orange, and Canterbury Tales were prohibited.

Freed of Apartheid

In the new South Africa reborn, freedom hard-won from Apartheid, we now have the imminent threat of updated versions of the suppression of freedom of expression that gagged us under apartheid. The right to know comes with the right to vote that black, white, any colour of our South African population took together, for the first time ever, in 1994. But since 2010 there have been two parliamentary bills introduced which seek to deny that right. The Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Tribunal.

The Media Tribunal issue applies to the Press, both journalists and newspaper ownership, questioning the intentions of the powers of the Press’s ombudsman and the Press Code. If established the Tribunal will require journalists to submit to the Tribunal subjects they intend to investigate or which have been investigated and will write about, for approval, on grounds that these are seen by the Tribunal to be a threat to State security. These are not confined to the obvious such as defence matters, already secured by the Constitution. Any government official, whatever rank, may charge that accessing information pertaining to his or her activity should be an offence.

What holds the gag at hand ready to shut any citizen’s mouth, as well as that of the press within the wide and detailed definition of security, is the overwhelming Protection of State Information Bill, passed in the National Assembly in November 2011 after stifling an 18-month public protest by journalists and civil society.

The Secrecy Bill, as it is known, closes with provision of prison sentences any function for whistle blowers to expose the rampant corruption in the careers of individuals in government, industry and finance. Recent losses to the State through corruption are more that R30 billion a year.

The right to know

The ad hoc committee of the National Council of the Provinces of South Africa which, is “processing the Protection of State Information Bill”, with certain ameliorations intended to placate protest has extended its 8 April deadline to report back and set a new deadline for decision, 17 May.

The protest against the new Bill will rise, telling it on the mountain, this year 2012, when the Right to Know Campaign (a coalition of nearly 400 civil society organisations) the media fraternity, the National Editors Forum, and significantly the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), jointly convene a summit against it. I am among these South Africans who believe, and will continue to pursue, that it must be discarded in its entirety.

I sign off with a quotation from Justice William O Douglas  examining a test of the First Amendment to to exercise free speech.

The airing of ideas releases pressures which might otherwise become destructive… Full and free discussion keep a society from becoming stagnant and unprepared for the stresses and strains that work to tear civilisation apart.

This article is taken from a talk given by Nadine Gordimer at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London on 14 March. It was the first in a series of events celebrating Index’s 40th birthday. The next event, with Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and Isabel Hilton will take place on 24 April. Click here for more information.


From Index’s archive

Standing in the queue

In 1994 Nadine Gordimer witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa when the black population voted for the first time