Moral guardian to a nation comes clean
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A South African Censor’s Tale
by Kobus van Rooyen
With a preface by André Brink and sketches by Marinus Wiechers
Coming from the generation when risqué books were circulated among friends “before it will be banned”, running to Robert Kirby and Pieter-Dirk Uys’s shows for the same reason and regarding banned books on the shelf as a status symbol, this autobiographical tale of Kobus van Rooyen reads like a journey down memory lane. I can remember sneaking in books of Philip Roth, John Updike, DH Lawrence and Henry Miller at the airport, knowing that customs officials would only confiscate illustrated art books of the Louvre.
Writer André P Brink, in his preface to this book, says that he had “the dubious distinction” of seeing his novel Kennis Van Die Aand (Looking on Darkness) “pounced on as the first Afrikaans work of fiction to be banned”, and then followed the censorship from the inside. He notes that as the machinations of censorship became “pernicious and destruc-tive”, literature suffered. During the Seventies the Jacobsen’s Index of banned publications was expanded to well more than 20 000 titles, including hundreds of the greatest titles of world literature.
This ridiculous situation that spanned (depriving readers of literary masterpieces like Kennis Van Die Aand, Burger’s Daughter and Magersfontein, O Magersfontein, shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell and the film Cry Freedom) over too long a time, might not be known to a younger generation, but Van Rooyen takes the reader through the history in 14 chapters. He starts with the moral clampdown (1963 to 1975) to where we are today – facing another possible censorship. Apart from an overview of the different forms of cultural banning, more detail is given to issues like religion, nudity and pornography.
“Personally, I have no excuse for those pre-1980 times – I cannot deny that I was involved in the decisions made, and I must confess that I was pondering whether we were not far too strict,” Van Rooyen says about his initial days as the youngest (then 33) member among older colleagues. His endeavours in the Eighties of “freeing South Africa from despotic censorship laws” were diametrically opposed to conservative doctrine. By 1985, he (as deputy dean of the law faculty of the University of Pretoria “moon-lighting” as chairman of the Appeal Board) became aware of “the daun-ting task that lay ahead of me – to free South Africa from the slavery of censorship”.
However strongly autobio-graphical the book is, it makes for interesting and often amusing reading about a dark period and the battle that had to be waged.
l Van Rooyen was chairman of the Publications Appeal Board from 1980 to 1990. He then served as chairman of the Press Council and Broadcasting Complaints Commission (a position he still holds) and chaired the ministerial task group which drafted the new Films and Publications Act from 1994 to 1996.