November 1, 2018

The South African apartheid and the burning of books


It’s been twenty-four years since the apartheid reign in South Africa had been put to rest, and since today is a spooky day, we’re going to talk about another chilling practice during that time.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Books are and have been the source of knowledge and the voice for the people. And immediately within the insurgence of any regime is the commenced banning of the books opposing their values. Said by information scientist Rebecca Knuth in Burning Books and Leveling Libraries:

If a regime is racist, it destroys the books of groups deemed inferior; if nationalistic, the books of competing nations and cultures; and if religiously extremist, all texts contradicting sacred doctrines.

Through the 1950s to the 1970s, the National Party combined the banning with routine incineration of thousands and thousands of books ranging from Russian classics like Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and Humiliated to popular westerns like Louis L’Amour’s Hopalong Cassidy. (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was among those classics, in a macabrely ironic twist of fate.) And, though libraries were founded on the principle of free liberty and information, many state librarians during the apartheid did nothing to stop the ransacking of books and the burnings at the municipal incinerators. Some even ordered them.

Immortalized by one city librarian in Johannesburg, October 1955:

All copies are brought in to me and I destroy them personally.

By 1964, the list of banned titles included over 12,000 publications, and by 1971, books were burned at two a day in Cape Town. It didn’t stop until the late 1980s by the few brave appeals of state librarians, but it remains to be seen whether this kind of terror could—or would—happen again.

We, too, could be on our way to a fiery nightmare.




Erica Huang is former Melville House intern.