Nadine Gordimer is famous for writing fiction that perfectly illuminates what the racism of her native South Africa does to the people—black, white, Indian and colored—who live there. Her 17 novels and books of short stories examine the effects of what she calls “the color bar "—on everyone from the white bigoted businessman at the centre of The Conservationist, which won her The Booker Prize in Britain in 1974, to young Rosa Burger in her most famous novel Burger’s Daughter, the daughter of a jailed white dissident who must decide how to live up to his heroism. The South African government has banned several of her books because of their realistic picture of life in that country. Gordimer, 61, whose home is in Johannesburg, was visiting Toronto, where she read from her most recent book of short stories, Something Out There, at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors. Maclean’s correspondent Doug Fetherling talked with her about political and social change in her country.
Maclean’s: What does the awarding of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Desmond Tutu, the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, mean to South Africa in hard political terms?
Gordimer: Something significant. Tutu’s prize is a wonderfully heartening thing for those of us working within the country for a peaceful change. The thing that always troubles many of us, people such as Tutu and myself, is the usual kind of support that comes from the West and particularly from the United States. It is support for the South African government. The United States sees itself as encouraging the government to bring about change, to bring about reforms, to start moving away from apartheid. So the South African government ends up receiving praise for so-called changes.
Maclean’s: The new constitution en-
acted in August created three houses of congress—a white chamber, an Indian chamber and a colored chamber. How has the sociopolitical mood in the country changed since that?
Gordimer: People campaigned against the constitution for a very good reason: because it leaves out the 73 per cent of
the people who are black. Then, in the elections to appoint representatives to the new colored chamber, only 20 per cent of those eligible voted; some of the people who got in received fewer than 100 votes. Some of those have now become what one prominent black leader called ‘the junior partners of apartheid,’ in reference to those who are now fighting among themselves in a disgraceful exhibition, jockeying for cabinet posts so that they will get paid so much more and have bigger houses, bigger cars and other perks. And after all the grandiloquent promises they made, saying they were only going into the new tricameral chambers in order to oppose apartheid! Maclean’s: How many of your books have been banned in South Africa? Gordimer: Three of my books have been banned, but the government has unbanned two of them
—one after 10 years and the other after 12 years. The third was only banned for a few months. That strange disparity reflects not a change of heart on the part of the censors but the simple fact that, as I have become well-known in the outside world, so has it become embarrassing for them to prevent South Africans from reading my books.
Maclean’s: How does censorship actually work in South Africa?
Gordimer: Anyone can submit a book to the censors—the Publications Control Board—along with a nominal fee of about a dollar. The censors then refer the book to a committee—to three people of the 200 they have on a list. The censors are mostly retired people, but there are some civil servants, some teachers and, I believe, a very few tame
and obscure academics. I do not think any journalists have been on the committees. The names are supposed to be secret, but word does leak out. They read the book and write reports, and if two of the three concur that the book should be banned, then the book is declared banned. At the beginning of the whole process, notice is published in the government gazette once a week along with other proclamations and things. The book is then under embargo.
Maclean’s: Is there an appeal process? Gordimer: The writer and the publisher have 14 days in which to lodge notice of appeal. Only they can do that. In 1960, when the censorship act first came in, those appeals were heard in open court. But so many decisions went against the board that it made a farce of the thing.
So some years later they pushed an act through parliament whereby the censors have their own court. Even then, they sometimes lose.
Maclean’s: Do you appeal when one of your books is banned?
Gordimer: No. It has been my practice—and also that of other South African writers, black and white—to refuse to cooperate with the whole machinery of censorship.
We do not recognize their right, so we are not going to ask them the favor of releasing our books.
When they banned my book Burger's Daughter,
I did exercise my right to ask for the [three written] decisions, and they were staggering: staggering in their narrowmindedness, staggering in their total ignorance of literature. You could see that the censors had no idea of what goes on in literature in the contemporary world. It was too good an opportunity for me to miss and so I went to some Afrikaner friends who have a little publishing house and paid them to produce a booklet called What Happened to Burger 's Daughter. In it I printed the reports juxtaposed with reviews from England and North America, as well as certain correspondence with the board.
Maclean’s: What happened?
Gordimer: People whose books were banned started to ask for the reasons. One literary magazine began to publish those reasons, and then a couple of books by well-known South African writers were unbanned. I think they
thought that was going to shut us up. But it did not. Lately there have been fewer bannings, but that does not mean that one can be complacent. The banning machinery is still in place. Maclean’s: Even with a black majority government, do you believe that one day South Africa urill be democratic, given the absence of a democratic tradition on which to build?
Gordimer: There is no guarantee. But there is a great wish in the world for democracy in South Africa. The longer we put it off, though, the fewer people there will be like Desmond Tutu, and so
the less good the chances. The fact is there has never been a democracy in South Africa. You cannot have a democracy when only the white minority—4.5 million people out of 24 million—has the vote.
Maclean’s: You are on record as calling yourself a radical and not a liberal in the context of South Africa—where such terms are obviously not used precisely the same way they are used in ('añada. Where do you fit into the political spectrum?
Gordimer: To be a liberal in South Africa is to accept that there must be a change but to foresee, along with the idea of one man one vote, the necessity of minority guarantees for whites. To me, that is a tremendous contradiction. You either believe in democracy or you do not. I think minority guarantees are a way of perpetuating racial differences, as happened with the Rhodesians in
Zimbabwe. I do not believe you can have a peaceful and just South Africa if you perpetuate the system of the so-called national states [for blacks]. I do not believe in a federal system in South Africa. I stand for a united South Africa, one country. I do not think you can carve it up in any way that will do justice to anybody. As for one man one vote, that goes without saying, of course. I also question whether one can continue with the economic system of Western capitalism and see sufficient social change or whether something else has to be found. Of course, as soon as you say that in South Africa you get called a Communist. The concept of a social democrat does not seem to exist in my country. But that is what I would call myself.
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