Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Friday 27 June 2008 00:00 BST

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.

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