“Chaotic and Messy and Frequently Incredibly Stupid”: an Interview on Apartheid Censorship with Rosa Lyster

04 Jul 2018
An excerpt of a censor's report on Doris Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook

Interview by Nick Mulgrew

Rosa Lyster is a Durban-born writer who is, depending on who you ask, best known for her absurd, meta-fictional poetry, her uproariously funny humour pieces, and her insightful essays and current affairs reporting for the New Yorker.

Rosa Lyster, however, is also Dr Lyster. She recently completed her PhD on a topic close to PEN South Africa, that of the question and history of censorship under apartheid. For her thesis, Lyster dove into the censors’ archives, a place that was “inconvenient, banal, strange, and challenging, containing an extraordinary profusion of documents which seem to serve no clear administrative purpose”. This was in hope of finding the codes and the “complicated connections between censorship, canonisation, validation, and criticism that the censors created” and which still, to some degree, influence matters of freedom of speech in public opinion and the legal domain.

We sat down with Dr Lyster to find out more about her fascinating research, and somewhat oblique approach to one of the defining elements of South African literature.

A broad question to start: what attracted you to writing a PhD on the massive – literally more than one hundred linear metres’ worth – contradictory, and at times bewildering, archive of material relating to censorship of the literary during apartheid?

I’d written my Masters’ thesis on the state’s censorship of Nadine Gordimer. On the suggestion of Peter McDonald, who has written the definitive account of the censorship system as a whole, I had spent a bit of time in the archives on Roeland Street [in Cape Town] looking through the reports on Gordimer’s work. I’d arrive there with the very clear intention of reading the report on, say, The Late Bourgeois World and then going home to actually write up what I’d found, but I just kept on getting stuck, and end up spending hours and hours reading documents that had nothing to do with Gordimer at all. I’d come back home with all these notes I’d made about a report I’d found on Franny and Zooey, or on Lolita, or about a bunch of letters from members of the public demanding that the censors take immediate action to ban a poster which featured an offensively sexual photograph of a tree. I wish I had a more complex answer [other] than that I found it arrestingly interesting from the very beginning, but that is the truth.

The thing that most strikes me about your research is how human you make the process of censorship. For example, you write that, “For every report justifying the banning (or passing) of a significant protest novel, there are a hundred reports on works of no literary or political significance whatsoever.” Of course, understanding is not condoning, and what the system, and what these people that made up the system, did is indefensible and one-hundred per cent wrong… 

But it also strikes me as though some censors did this work as a survival mechanism, i.e. a job. All of this malice and harm was done as an occupation, with all of the concomitant mundane and useless work that most jobs entail. I feel like this tells us something – maybe something Kafka-esque, maybe something about human nature, as well as censorship – but I’m not sure what. Could you lend me your opinion?

My overwhelming impression was that the censors saw what they were doing as not so much as job as a higher calling. There were lots of low-level contracted readers who kind of dutifully went through the motions, abided by the guidelines laid out in the legislation, and seemed to treat what they were doing as just a job. But in terms of the people for whom it was a full-time occupation – reading their reports, I often felt like they would have done the work for free, or at least that they were deeply, passionately invested in it.

The popular public image of the censor is of a sort of grey, faceless bureaucrat, but the reports produced by the censors are some of the most unbureaucratic documents imaginable – the best word I can think of to describe them is hysterical. I don’t know if this is because the kind of people who are attracted to the work are unhinged to begin with, or whether the act of banning books for a living inevitably makes someone go a bit mad. I’m not sure. I will just point out though that one of the most industrious and committed censors during the early ’70s is, today, an enthusiastic reviewer of novels on Amazon, and that his Amazon reviews very closely resemble the reports he wrote while working for the censorship board. He is certainly not being paid for this service and is presumably just doing it because it makes him happy.

“We can understand the excess and profound waste of intellectual energy that the archive represents,” you write, “if we view it as the product of a system’s struggle to politicise literature while stripping it of all references to contemporary politics, to conflate taste with morality, to define without consensus what literature meant.” I like your formulation of censorship as a waste of intellect, for a couple reasons. One, apartheid censorship was arbitrary, because there was no consensus about what was literature, so-called “committed” or political literature, or literary merit, and as such, it was a morally wrong system that didn’t even work well. And two, and perhaps more interestingly, for whatever insights we might glean from the inner machinations of the apartheid state by looking at the archives in retrospect, the archives are much duller and less spectacular than the impression many scholarly works of censorship might give. Would you care to expand on that?

I think one of the most destructive and recurring myths about apartheid-era bureaucratic administration is that it was ruthlessly efficient, that the implementation of apartheid policy was an atrocity carried with out with steely precision and governed by a cohesive inner logic. It feels increasingly necessary to undermine the myth that government corruption or maladministration is a post-1994 phenomenon. Even though recent work done by people like Hennie Van Vuuren has exposed the apartheid state’s long history of economic crime, for instance, there still seems to be a misperception that the system was well- administered from a bureaucratic standpoint.

Literally any amount of time spent trawling through the censorship archives will disabuse a person of this idea. It is impossible to look at all these reports, just these piles and piles of pointless documents that were filed away and never referred to ever again, and come away with the idea that this was a brilliantly conceived system carried out by a group of coldly rational bureaucrats. It was chaotic and messy and frequently incredibly stupid, and the archive reflects that. There’ll be a big, dense file on the fate of a politically significant text like Down Second Avenue or Burger’s Daughter, and then right next to it there will be a file containing overwrought reports and lengthy inter-departmental memos regarding a pulp novel about a slightly unhappy cowboy. There is no perspective, or sense that departmental resources should have been allocated in a way that squared with the system’s mandate. There is a lot of spectacular material in the archive, which is illustrative of the more overt violence of apartheid. But there is a lot more stuff in there that is evidence of a petty, trivial meanness and stupidity, and an enthusiastic willingness to waste time and energy, which I think says just as much about how the system actually functioned.

I reckon that you found at least a couple of things in the archives that – regardless of the serious context of your investigation and the crime against humanity that was apartheid – you must have found funny, or absurd. Did you, and what were they? 

I did! A lot of these people took themselves with the highest possible degree of seriousness, and seemed sort of incapable of shame or embarrassment, and fully blind to the idea that future generations might look unkindly on the whole enterprise. There is something naturally funny, to me, about the idea of a man in an office typing up a sober report on a greeting card that says BOOBS INSPECTOR on the front, telling himself that he is playing a key role in preserving the moral health of the nation.

You note in the abstract to your thesis that “questions [first asked during apartheid] over who “owns” the space of the literary, over who should own it, over who has the ability (or even the right) to critique it, continue to reverberate today.” Is this the most pervasive way in which apartheid-era censorship has effected contemporary debate regarding free expression in South Africa? Likewise, are these questions being asked in the same way, and to the same ends?

There’s no way of saying what the South African literary landscape would look like today if censorship had never existed – the system permeated everything, and it was impossible to proceed as if it didn’t exist. I don’t know if debates over who owns the space of the literary are the most pervasive of censorship’s effects, but they are definitely being undertaken in the very long shadow cast by the system. We can’t escape what censorship did, or what it continues to do, but we can start by acknowledging its impact. It’s not an admission of defeat to say that the censors warped and deformed South African literature to an unknowable degree – it’s just a fact, and one that we need to acknowledge during current debates about the shape and space of the South African literary field.

More of Dr Lyster’s writing on censorship in South Africa may be found here: