THE early 1990s were a time of acute instability in South Africa – but also of great hope. Structural change was yet to begin, but many of the apartheid regime’s proscriptions, such as censorship, were falling away in practice if not law. However, hope was tempered by the knowledge that reactionary tendencies lurked in many places such as the bantustans. The fate of Mzala’s book Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda was emblematic of that period of promise and setback.
Censorship was fundamental to apartheid, an ideology that required suppression of the rights, aspirations and views of South Africans deemed not to be white. This was reflected most clearly in educational segregation and inequality. Security legislation that banned and listed individuals also proscribed their utterances and published work; while a system of publications control of increasing sophistication and reach condemned hundreds of volumes to the banned book cupboards of libraries. Hundreds of titles were shunned by local booksellers and when they were acquired by libraries were locked away. Other factors added to the institution of censorship: legislation relating to administration of the law that restricted press freedom; emergency legislation; official secrecy; defamation law; and laws adopted by bantustans.
This censorship derived from statutory measures, but underlying the bureaucracy of the apartheid state there was always the threat of muscular sanction. This had been the common experience of Africans in pre-apartheid South Africa, but from the early 1960s onwards all opponents of the prevailing order were targets. Violence was the ultimate form of censorship whether the physical and psychological torture of police cells or the work of death squads. Murder became an officially sanctioned form of censorship and in the space of a few weeks in 1977 and 1978 two of South Africa’s most original thinkers – Steve Biko and Rick Turner – were assassinated. As a last resort, apartheid killed creative minds.
By the early 1990s parts of the apartheid state were disintegrating. Banned books, for instance, had been liberated from their cupboards and relocated on open access shelves. This was why there was considerable alarm when, in May 1991, university libraries received a lawyer’s letter from Friedman & Friedman acting on behalf of Mangosuthu Buthelezi , chief minister of KwaZulu and Inkatha president. The letter noted that libraries held and were circulating copies of Mzala’sbook and claimed that it was defamatory of its subject. Buthelezi’s lawyers required that libraries provide a written undertaking within fourteen days that the book had been withdrawn from circulation.
Jabulani (Mzala) Nxumalo’s book had been published in London three years earlier. He was registered with the Open University for a doctoral degree on the national question in South Africa and was working on a biography of Oliver Tambo, but died on 22 February 1991 at the age of 35 before he could take up a fellowship at Yale. Within a few months the lawyer’s letter had been sent, timing that has remained unexplained.
Knowing Buthelezi’s propensity for litigation, Zed Books had treated the manuscript with great circumspection. Two teams of lawyers had read it and amendments were made accordingly to reduce the chances of successful defamation action. The publishers were confident enough about the book to accord it their longest print run to date – 12 000. But they were less sanguine regarding the likely reaction of a South African court. By way of emphasis their local agent, David Philip Publishers, were threatened with legal action should they distribute the book, although a decision had already been made not to release it in South Africa through Zed Books’ normal channels.
Thus, Chief with a Double Agenda became yet another South African version of Eastern Europe’s clandestinely circulated samizdat literature (or more precisely tamizdat, since it was imported). Libraries used their overseas book suppliers and individuals found ways and means to bring the book into South Africa. The most original method, according to John Daniel (Africa editor at Zed Books), was in the backpacks of Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers, which added extra meaning to the book’s reading. The publishers supplied copies direct to booksellers and believed that some were sold under the counter. Daniel, in his obituary of Mzala in the Guardian, described the book as ‘a richly documented analysis of Zulu history and culture, and a devastating critique of the self-proclaimed anti-apartheid credentials of Buthelezi’; and compared Mzala’s intellectual contribution to that of Anton Lembede who had also died prematurely (in 1947). The book was reviewed in the Weekly Mail as early as October 1988 by Shaun Johnson. A review in Frontline the following year was less friendly and also elicited a published letter from Buthelezi’s lawyers threatening legal action should the book be distributed in South Africa. Buthelezi was quoted by them as saying he held the book ‘in contempt’.
There is no evidence or suggestion that the South African state censorship system ever considered proscribing Chief with a Double Agenda in spite of Mzala’s well-known ANC and SACP credentials. By the time of the book’s publication, Pretoria was involved in various levels of negotiation with the ANC, so Buthelezi could not rely on state censorship. Instead, he used the threat of defamation law with much the same outcome: readership of the book was severely curtailed as libraries and booksellers (such as Adams on the Durban campus of the University of Natal) were strong armed into becoming proxy censors. In an extraordinary interpretation of academic and other freedoms, Inkatha then invited complainants to go to court. There had been a partial precedent when An Appetite for Power: Buthelezi’s Inkatha and the Politics of Loyal Resistance by Gerhard Maré and Georgina Hamilton was published in 1987 by Ravan Press in Johannesburg. In this instance there was a highly critical review in Ilanga by Oscar Dhlomo (KwaZulu government minister) and verbal attacks on Maré and his employer, the University of Natal, in the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly (KLA) at Ulundi by Buthelezi himself. This onslaught was followed up in a confidential document prepared by the Inkatha Institute.
Challenged to explain why action had not been taken against Mzala when his book was first published, there was no clear answer. Speaking in the KLA in March 1991 Buthelezi revealed that he would have sued Francis Meli for another book published overseas in 1988, South Africa Belongs to Us: A History of the ANC, but Meli too had since died. In 1989, Mzala in a letter to Frontline that gave his full name and (royal) family connections had commented on this silence. He asked why there had been no follow-up legal action; and answered his own question by arguing that what he had written was the truth based in part on an interview with Buthelezi in London and in other instances on information gathered by researchers from Zulu elders. This spirited defence was noted by ANC official and academic Ian Phillips who expressed the hope Mzala would not be attacked now that he could no longer respond.
According to newspaper reports nine universities had received the letter from Friedman & Friedman. It made the point that continued circulation after a warning of material claimed to be defamatory amounted to publication and was therefore actionable. Libraries could be found liable. The universities of Natal and Cape Town said the matter was being referred to their lawyers and that they were not prepared simply to comply with Buthelezi’s demand. Public comment by librarians deplored the fact that a new form of censorship appeared to be emerging just as books released from state proscription were being returned to the open shelves. The Anti-Censorship Action Group (ACAG) was very blunt, comparing Buthelezi to the ‘book burning despots of the past’, and said that libraries should be allowed to do their work unhindered.
Buthelezi’s lawyers objected to what they considered one-sided press coverage unfair to their client. However, it stretched credulity to claim there was an attempt to intimidate Buthelezi to refrain from exercising his rights, especially since, according to the Sunday Times, he was ‘the most litigious public representative in South African history’. His lawyers strongly objected to mention of censorship, arguing that he was simply exercising a basic human right to defend himself against ‘false, offensive and ugly allegations’. Jenny Friedman used a well-known excerpt from Othello about the value of ‘my good name’; forgetting that it was uttered by Iago, regarded by commentators as a sinister villain capable of betrayal while protecting his tarnished reputation. This illustrated the perils of quoting too readily from Shakespeare. The quotation, casually lifted from The Newspaper Man’s Guide to the Law without further thought, was to be unwisely repeated by Ilanga among others.
Friedman’s firm also took Mzala to task for using a pseudonym, ignoring the fact that it is a long-standing literary practice and that the author had in any case subsequently and publicly revealed his full identity. Friedman was ironically repeating a ploy of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, which had earlier released a pamphlet headed ‘Why the need for anonymity’ that printed a potted biography of ‘Benjamin Singaye alias Mzala Nxumalo’. Mzala himself attributed this to false information he had supplied to the Swazi police when detained in 1984 and to the creativity of the South African embassy in London.
Whether or not all universities received the lawyer’s letter is unknown, but in any case in mid-May the Committee of University Principals (CUP) urged its members on legal advice to withdraw the book from their libraries. The legal opinion on which it made this call was never made available but appears to have concurred with Friedman & Friedman, although the position of individuals in the concept of publication by circulation seemed still in doubt. Durban Municipal Library and its Don Africana Collection had also received a lawyer’s letter and withdrawn the book from circulation on legal advice.
In the case of the University of Natal, its two university librarians received a verbal request on 24 May from the Registrar to withdraw the book and this was followed by a letter in early June. By this time library copies had, not unsurprisingly, been stolen. The university’s action received prominent and extensive press coverage reflecting anger from academic staff and librarians. They were in little doubt that they were witness to censorship and the infringement of academic freedom; and named Inkatha as a serial culprit. This was not simply a theoretical matter: Mzala’s book was recommended reading for students registered for a Politics II course on the Durban campus. The Registrar hastily pointed out that withdrawal was a temporary measure pending another round of legal advice.
A forthright editorial in the Natal Witness (Pietermaritzburg) stressed the salience of academic freedom. Friedman & Friedman responded in the press asking for equivalence of coverage, but had no new arguments to offer. The Inkatha-owned newspaper Ilanga employed different tactics. On 13 June under the heading ‘Propagandists at work’, it attacked ANC supporters on the staff of University of Natal for using allegedly defamatory material in Mzala’s book for political ends. It named two members, Michael Sutcliffe and Ian Phillips, describing them as apparatchiks and commissars, and academics in general as ‘ANC’s fetch and carry boys’. Such accusations had already appeared in an Inkatha Institute report of April 1989. Tensions between the university and Inkatha heightened accordingly.
The Black Students Society on the Durban campus urged the university to take the fight for academic freedom to the courts. The main campus libraries in Durban and Pietermaritzburg mounted displays about Mzala’s book and a further round of correspondence hit the press. One of the most insightful letters was submitted by Paul Maylam, professor of History, University of Natal (Durban) and published by the Daily News on 26 June 1991. He made the point that claims about defamatory content were ‘vague and general’ and unsubstantiated, and that if Buthelezi were genuinely concerned about democracy he would prefer debate to suppression. The way he was going about protecting his reputation was closing off debate in a process that enabled Buthelezi to act as ‘complainant, jury and judge.’ Letters to the Weekly Mail accused Buthelezi of exhibiting signs of totalitarianism and questioned Inkatha’s stance on press freedom.
Mzala’s book was widely reviewed by highly respected academics in established journals – Shula Marks, Roger Southall, Nicholas Cope and Norman Etherington were among them; and in the press. Inevitably it was bracketed with Maré and Hamilton’s earlier publication and contrasted with a clutch of books more sympathetic to Buthelezi. Reviewers noted Mzala’s privileged access to documents unavailable to local researchers that cast new light on the relationship between the ANC and Inkatha; and argued that a partisan author can still maintain balance and objectivity. Mzala’s work was regarded by mainline academics as grounded in argument based on empirical evidence and sound interpretation; essential requirements for respectable academic work. Shaun Johnson (the Weekly Mail reviewer) described Mzala as a ‘considerable scholar’. His work was ‘no ephemeral polemical treatise’ but ‘in the main, a reasoned, informative, well-researched and tightly argued attack on a political opponent’ with many precedents. Even Nomavenda Mathiane, one of Mzala’s most vocal critics (and Frontline reviewer), acknowledged Mzala’s credentials as an academic historian and the quality of his research, while raising the old red herring of anonymity and a new one about his writing being ‘unAfrican’.
In general, reviewers agreed that Mzala had dealt comprehensively with the paradox of Buthelezi’s position: a bantustan leader claiming anti-apartheid status; and his calls for peace amid aggressive Inkatha rhetoric aimed at the ANC. Mzala’s interrogation of Buthelezi’s royal credentials was also judged to have been handled convincingly. He was, however, criticised for failing to give enough credit to Inkatha for its political popularity and organisational success. Chief with a Double Agenda was thus considered an important addition to current political debate and as a source for academic coursework.
This weight of academic and public opinion put Buthelezi’s legal challenge under special scrutiny and a number of major concerns were aired. First, Mzala’s book was effectively proscribed solely as a result of the opinion of certain lawyers. No judicial process had declared any part of it defamatory. The process was essentially one of threat and submission and could have wide and malign consequences. Second, the precise reasons for Buthelezi’s complaint had consistently been withheld. There was no indication whether the disputed content was a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, page, or chapter. And even if it caused offence to Buthelezi, it had to be untrue and judged malicious to be declared defamatory. Meanwhile in this legalistic limbo the entire book had been made unavailable, removing information and evidence from academic and public debate. There was widespread agreement that a complainant should be obliged to furnish reasons for dissatisfaction, engaging in debate rather than opting for the easy option of vague objections.
Third, Buthelezi’s threatened action (or, rather, inaction) potentially undermined the concepts of academic freedom and freedom of information. Any public figure with sufficient resources could follow Buthelezi’s strategy and simply close down debate. Paul Maylam pointed out that an entire literary genre, biography, was thus at risk and that it was incumbent upon political leaders to defend their positions publicly, not engage in suppression of opposing viewpoints.
Universities were urged to take collective legal action to defend a core value of higher education. But this was of far wider import as South Africa edged towards full liberation and a democratic dispensation, to which the free flow of information and opinion was crucial. Supporters of freedom of expression were heartened by a recent judgment in a defamation case in which Lothar Neethling, head of the forensic section of the South African Police, had attempted to sue Vrye Weekblad and the Weekly Mail. The ruling was enlightened and set a progressive tone for the future: although highly critical material about an individual, not all of it entirely true, had been published, given the circumstances publication was justified. This introduced the critical component of public interest to defamation law, particularly in cases involving individuals occupying high office and responsible positions whose actions had potentially wide consequences.
Buthelezi could not have chosen a worse time to challenge Mzala’s book as both he and Inkatha were subject to increasing and embarrassing press exposés about their relationships with the Pretoria regime and right-wing political organisations with a penchant for militarism. Only a few weeks after Jenny Friedman’s letter to libraries the funding scandal surrounding the United Workers Union of South Africa, Inkatha’s trade union arm, hit the headlines. And subsequently there was increasing weight of evidence of warlordism by Inkatha officials and covert links with the police and other more shady state agencies. It was clear that more, rather than less, information about the politics of the KwaZulu bantustan and what this implied for the country’s future was necessary at a time when there was hope and expectation of a negotiated settlement.
The outcome of the threats levelled at universities is obscure and it is not known whether the book was generally returned to open access library shelves. The University of Natal’s acting Registrar, citing a number of weak excuses, later refused to release a copy of the legal opinion supplied to it. In October the church weekly UmAfrika abandoned an attempt to publish a two-page spread of excerpts from the book following a lawyer’s letter and, more pertinently, fears of violence against the newspaper and its staff. All that appeared was the book’s title, a terse statement and the word ‘sorry’. Readers were reportedly disappointed and angry. Then in early 1994 it was the turn of Phambili Books in Johannesburg to receive the standard lawyer’s letter with a demand that all copies supplied to other bookshops be recalled; and the extraordinary request that details of all purchasers of the book be supplied.
Even at the height of apartheid, censorship had been an adaptable tool. By the early 1990s a watershed had clearly been reached with the unravelling of a long-standing system of banning individuals and publications that reached back to the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. Elements of censorship embedded in structural apartheid, school education and limits on press freedom for example, would take longer to overcome. As was the case then, intimidation and violence remain powerful forms of censorship to this day as journalists and photographers forced to erase images from cameras and cell phones know only too well.
Those who raised the alarm thirty years ago about Buthelezi’s threatened action against and effective proscription of Mzala’s book were prescient. In the years ahead censorship would take on new forms, some of which might be described as its privatisation: suppression of information and opinion by those powerful and wealthy enough to threaten punitive use of the courts. Interdicts designed to suppress publication of unwelcome fact became fashionable in some quarters. Biographers and journalists worked under the shadow of defamation law. However, the Neethling judgment was fortunately no aberration as a public interest defence had become accepted in South African courts. For example, Judge Edwin Cameron ruled in McBride v. The Citizen (2011) that extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced published opinion warrants protection as long as it is honestly held, devoid of malice, based on truth and in the public interest. Nevertheless, the law remains archaic in its mechanisms and there has been no move towards more imaginative remedies such as an entrenched right of reply found in the legal systems of some European and North and South American countries.
One particularly relevant example that invites comparison with Chief with a Double Agenda was the fate of Evelyn Groenink’s investigation into the murder of Dulcie September, an ANC diplomat based in Paris, in March 1988. She died in a professional hit linked to mercenaries subcontracted to the Civil Co-operation Bureau, a defence force death squad. The reason for her assassination has been ascribed to what she probably knew about sanctions busting regarding minerals, nuclear material, oil and weapons. But ten years later Groenink and her publisher, Jacana, were threatened with punitive legal action and other, less savoury, measures from several sources. Offers of published rebuttal were rejected, but gave telling clues about where the truth might lie. Faced with this intimidating barrage of opposition Jacana understandably decided it had neither the financial nor human resources to carry through with publication. Maggie Davey, who worked for Jacana, points out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to deal adequately with powerful pro-apartheid interests in the worlds of arms and oil that in all likelihood carried on business as usual in post-liberation South Africa. Groenink’s book, entitled Incorruptible, was finally privately published nearly thirty years after September’s death.
Creating a fair and creative balance between truth telling, justifiable comment and open debate on one hand; and the right to privacy and an unsullied reputation on the other is a considerable challenge for any society. It is particularly important for a fragile democracy with as troubled a past as South Africa. The mechanisms are endlessly debatable, but one condition is non-negotiable: it should not be possible for the rich and powerful in politics or business to use finance, influence or intimidation to prevent publication of the truth, or interpretation that adds value to public debate.
NOTE: This piece is based in the main on Chantelle Wyley and Christopher Merrett, ‘Universities and the new censorship: Mzala’s Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda’, Critical Arts 5(4) 1991: 98–115.
It was written as the preface to a new edition of Mzala’s now out-of-print book to be published by the Mzala Nxumalo Foundation. The book remains to be printed and no explanation has been provided for its non-appearance, so the for the time being it appears on this website.