Literature Police

The Literature Police

In Fine Lines From the Box, South African writer, Njabulo Ndebele begins with a brief story on how as a young man he discovers a box of banned books in his fathers house.

“A turning point in my life occurred when I discovered a treasure trove of banned books in my father’s garage”

The books buried way beneath layers of discarded household items were his introduction to literature and began to give some meaning to the reality of his life as a young Black man in Apartheid South Africa. Books by Peter Abrahams, Todd Matshikiza, Andre Brink, Nelson Mandela, Es’kia Mphahlele and Bloke Modisane to name a few. Now in “The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences” Peter D. McDonald’s has brought back to life those banned books, the mindset of the censors as well as the some of the subversive methods used to try to counter the book police.

“The censors were not only moustachioed safari-suits gathered in smoky Pretoria offices, stamps and scissors in hand.

The various boards and committees included academics and self-styled moral custodians who made complex – but usually erroneous – judgments about both the literary value of individual works and the role of literature in South African society. These were “the literature police”, some of whom were as capable of citing Cleanth Brooks and Roland Barthes as they were inclined to defend the moral agenda of the Dutch-Reformed Church.

We learn that books were policed by various means until the early ’60s: customs officials seized “undesirable” publications and placed bans on individual writers – among them Dennis Brutus, Alex la Guma and Cosmo Pieterse.”


The book is accompanied by a website which provides lots of additional information including a database of decisions made on the banned books, a list of some of the most notable censors and supporting documentation on the events surrounding some of the banning and lead up to censoring of the books.

The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences is published by Oxford University Press.
Source: Michael Titlestad, senior researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research