Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

As Queen, Shirley Bassey and (doctors permitting) Amy Winehouse line up in Hyde Park to serenade Nelson Mandela, the bland pieties of politics, showbiz and the media hide history from our eyes. You might imagine from all the Mandela hagiography that no one on these shores ever believed that South African apartheid could be justified. Yet the system profited from an elite squadron of friends in high places. Its suave apologists, until the late 1980s, stretched from the boardrooms of City banks to the Cabinet table of Margaret Thatcher.

Most of these fellow-travellers refurbished their opinions around 1990 with a rat-like cunning and velocity. As a result, we never hear these days why so many privileged chaps supported the modern slavery of "separate development". Dumb bigotry no doubt played its part. But in apartheid's later stages, the appeal for higher-IQ cheerleaders stemmed from a Cold War rhetoric in which a remote bastion of "Western civilisation" stood firm against the malleable, Communist-led hordes.

Last week, the novelist JM Coetzee – much distrusted by official South Africa, now as much as then – appeared at UEA in Norwich as part of the New Writing Worlds festival. Quietly, and rather brilliantly, the Nobel (and double-Booker) laureate opened a window into the politer corners of the late-apartheid mindset. An academic researcher in South Africa recently came across the confidential censors' reports written on Coetzee's books of the late 1970s and early 1980s by "expert" readers working for the government's Directorate of Publications. At the time, South African literary censorship had two main targets: pornography, especially any depictions of inter-racial sex, and Communist propaganda (both as defined by the state).

Coetzee revealed the secret verdicts on two of his novels: In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians. As it happens, both books won approval for publication. And it turns out that Coetzee's unknown censors were colleagues and associates. These teachers and writers might greet their quarry in the university corridors of Cape Town or (in one case) invite him for over for a barbecue: "I was rubbing shoulders daily with people who were secretly deciding whether or not I was going to be published in South Africa."

Moreover, these shrouded arbiters thought that they were on the author's side. Over and over, they reported that Coetzee's gnomic fiction would only appeal to a minority of "sophisticated", "discriminating" and (above all) "intellectual" readers. So the novels could safely be allowed to circulate – and would pass way over the heads of the vulnerable masses. "These people," Coetzee concluded, "regarded themselves as part of the literary community, and as unsung heroes of a kind." In their refined eyes, they "took on a dirty job in order to safeguard South African literature against the Philistines". Far better that they, with their ideals, should censor than some boorish bureaucrat.

In outlook and action, these stalwart anti-Communists reminded me of no one so much as the arts-loving Stalinist snitches of the old East Germany – as screened so memorably in The Lives of Others. At any cheese-and-wine do, c.1980, these genteel dogsbodies of despotism might have got along famously. As a parable of the self-delusions that permit good – or at least righteous – people to serve malign causes, Coetzee's analysis had all the lapidary power of his stories. For his censors (whom he imagined poring over his suspect prose, Mozart on the stereo, an Irish setter on the rug), the end more than justified the means. And the end was the preservation of a system that would have kept Mandela in jail until the day he died.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there