‘BRING back “Gatsha” book, say young Reds’ (The Witness, 4 March 2010). This headline awoke vivid memories from nearly 20 years old; but more importantly it re-opened the censorship debate. The Young Communist League (YCL) was referring to the book by Mzala (the struggle name of Jabulani Nxumalo) entitled Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief With a Double Agenda published in London by Zed Books in early 1988. And the YCL was right.

It’s a popular but scholarly work of history in which Mzala examines Buthelezi’s political past, the administration of the KwaZulu bantustan and Inkatha’s methods. Amongst other matters he questions Buthelezi’s claim to a hereditary leadership role and his anti-apartheid credibility. Together with Gerry Maré and Georgina Hamilton’s An Appetite for Power (1987) it was an important antidote to a number of sycophantic books that had appeared with monotonous regularity. Mzala was, however, criticised for not addressing the issue of Inkatha’s popularity and its successful mobilisation strategy.

Mzala died in February 1991, three years after publication of his book; but just two months after his death university libraries were hit with a lawyer’s letter demanding that it be removed from their shelves. In the opinion of Durban lawyers Friedman & Friedman the book was defamatory and libraries could be faced with legal action should they continue to circulate it. Mzala had previously asked why he had not been sued for libel and pointed out that he had interviewed Buthelezi for the book. And just weeks after the lawyer’s letter was delivered, the funding scandal and Inkatha’s links with the security forces were exposed.

Zed Books had obtained legal opinion that the edited text contained nothing actionable in British law, but they were cautious about the conservative South African judiciary. Zed’s South African agents, David Philip, were contacted by Buthelezi’s lawyers and the book was not released in this country. Libraries, of course, simply ordered it from their overseas suppliers. Other copies, said John Daniel (then Africa editor of Zed), came over the border in the backpacks of Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers.

The book has never been restricted by the State and yet has remained as elusive under a democratic dispensation as any banned book in the apartheid era. It was, however, widely and favourably reviewed by eminent African scholars. In 1991 universities reacted cautiously, well aware of Buthelezi’s litigious streak and the Committee of University Principals recommended compliance. University of Natal followed this advice, but was nevertheless subjected to an attack by Ilanga, which labelled its academics ‘ANC fetch and carry boys’. Two months after the lawyer’s letter, the local university authorities instructed its librarians to return the book to the shelves.

Librarians were outspoken, calling the legal threat a new form of censorship, and the Anti-Censorship Action Group likened Buthelezi to the ‘book burning despots of the past’. Jenny Friedman became very involved in the increasingly public row and ludicrously accused librarians of trying to intimidate her client by going to the press. Unwisely she quoted Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello and the famous complaint about the filching of his ‘good name’, seemingly unaware of his unsavoury character.

If Mzala’s book is indeed still lurking in the banned book cupboards of some South African libraries and unavailable through local booksellers, this is a serious matter of censorship and a negation of our hard-won democracy. As historian Paul Maylam pointed out in 1991, suppression of the book was based purely on opinion and a legal threat. There has never been any indication of the extent of the claimed libel: a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or more? No court has ever found any part of the book defamatory in the sense that its content is untrue, written with malicious intent and not in the public interest.

Maylam called for public debate in the interests of democratic culture. His words have been heeded by the judiciary as defamation law has been relaxed in recent years, especially where it affects public figures. He also worried about the future of political biography in South Africa, an unfounded fear as this sector of the publishing industry is flourishing.

But this particular book remains in the twilight. Those who wield power and influence must expect to have their backgrounds and beliefs exposed – it goes with the territory – and public interest and democracy often outweigh the odd inaccuracy. It’s all part of the bruising nature of real democracy. Yet, while the massive formal structure of censorship that characterised the apartheid years has crumbled, informal means of suppressing information still thrive. One is the reconciliation call by the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Musa Zondi. If Mzala’s work does indeed contain lies and propaganda as claimed by Zondi, let’s hear exactly what they are and the IFP’s version of the truth. It should long ago have exercised a right of reply rather than issue legal threats.

Much effort has been expended in trying to keep this book out of South African readers’ hands. The suspicion remains that its content is not untrue; just highly embarrassing.

This article was first published in The Witness on 15 March 2010 and entitled ‘Informal censorship remains in SA’.

Further reading: Gerry Maré and Georgina Hamilton, An Appetite for Power: Buthelezi’s Inkatha and South Africa (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1987); Mzala, Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief With a Double Agenda (London: Zed, 1988).