Margie Orford: Some thoughts in response to the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Cape Town


On censorship – Censorship is a recent and painful memory for South Africans. In an event organized for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiabo, several of the writers invited to read in his honour had been imprisoned for writing things the state did not like and seen their works banned. Many of the books I wished to read as a student at the University of Cape Town were banned. One needed special permission to read certain or you needed to travel to places where knowledge and imagination breathed easier. Being in possession of banned books carried heavy jail penalties.

Many individuals were banned too. This meant they could not be with more than one person at a time. It struck me then how much a repressive state fears its citizens when they talk to each other and when they turn, as a collective, to address the State. The most recent example of this was the power of social media and of crowds during the Arab Spring. The aftermath of the fall of corrupt and authoritarian governments is proving more complex to manage. Attempts to once more police freedom of expression and association – especially for women – in the wake of elections in Egypt and Tunisia, amongst other places have been met with shock and resistance

Censorship means the selective criminalization of thought, of reading, of enquiry, and of association. It is patently bad. It imprisons people, it burns books, and it curtails the political and the personal life of individuals and of nations. Censorship has other pernicious effects. It stifles creativity because it attempts to police the imagination by making people afraid to write, read, talk and think freely. Censorship, authoritarian, hierarchical and usually patriarchal, infantilizes people because the state usurps the individual’s responsibility for deciding what they read, writes, think and say.

The end of censorship in South Africa meant the end of Apartheid in South Africa. The unbanning of political organizations, of books, of ideas, of a way of visualizing a peaceful future opened up the complex, flawed but emancipatory dialogue that led to the turbulent, vigorous and contested democratic South Africa.

If censorship is the cornerstone of repression, then I would argue that freedom of expression is its opposite. Freedom of expression is the foundation of all other human rights. Mess with it, and all our other rights look shaky. That said the right to freedom of expression is not absolute: hate speech and the incitement to violence are the most common limitations to the right to freedom of expression. What it is, if and where the limits are to what one might say, have been hotly and violently contested. Increasingly this contestation has been around issues of so-called blasphemy and religious insult. The debate has focused on the trailer for a video that was posted on YouTube. This amateurish and provocative film, the Innocence of Muslims sparked a wave of protests that resulted in several deaths, including that of the US ambassador in Benghazi.

This led Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh Writers Festival to wonder ‘whether our passion for the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ has led us to overlook some other sides of the story. In the process of standing up for free speech, the word ‘censorship’ has gained purely negative connotations. Yet, if words are capable of having as much power as guns, are we taking a risk by relinquishing all control over them?’

Censorship, I would argue, is the last thing we need. Bullets terminate conversation. Words can make trouble, I grant you that, but without words, without conversation, without literature too, there will be no rapprochement. Self-censorship is not the answer. Self-censorship all too often results in people remaining silent about things that are troubling, complex, difficult – is not the answer either. What one says, how one converses as individuals, as national citizens, as global citizens is the essence of tolerance, respect and democracy.

Words have great power. In an explosive and polarized world debates, especially the one around freedom of expression, are too often framed as the West versus the Rest. This is unhelpful, to say the least. Censorship is the lived experience of so many people in the world – from Russia, to China, to the Middle East, to many African countries, and less obviously, because of the post 9/11 Patriot Act, in the United States.

The answer might be a period of silence – but an engaged silence in which one can listen long enough to understand what people across religious or geographical divides are saying. It might help us understand what people right next to us are saying.

South Africa’s miracle, embodied in the person of Nelson Mandela, was one of listening. A range of diametrically opposed views were freely expressed, but the conversational space was held open long enough, with enough willingness to deal with complexity and conflict, to enable a peaceful transition to democracy. The complexity and the conflict are still with us; most apparent in the explosive racial and economic divides bequeathed us by a long and violent history.

The right to freedom of expression is only one half of the deal. The other half is the obligation, the responsibility that a person who speaks freely, to listen. Training oneself to hear is an art, as much as it is the foundation of a society based on reciprocity and mutual respect. Listening – and really hearing – is not easy. Sometimes it requires that we make ourselves understand the language of protest, anger and violence.

Margie Orford is an author and the vice president of South African PEN.