A Long Way From Mandela’s Kitchen

Twenty years ago the most famous prisoner in the world, Nelson Mandela, walked out of jail and began the process of leading his people to democracy. Today, that new South Africa faces its starkest challenge yet in the form of two pieces of anti-press legislation that would make even the most authoritarian government proud.

One, cynically named the Protection of Information bill, would give the government excessively broad powers to classify information in the “national interest”; the other, which would create a “media appeals tribunal” to regulate the printed and electronic press, is written in language chillingly reminiscent of that used by the apartheid regime to defend censorship in the ’70s.

This was not Mr. Mandela’s vision: the new South Africa was meant to be synonymous with freedom and openness on all levels.

I remember a story about a reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times who, soon after Mr. Mandela came to power, went to the presidential residence late one afternoon for an interview. When he arrived, he realized he had the appointment time wrong, and he was a few hours early.

It was a late summer day, and all the doors and windows were open. The journalist walked around the splendid old colonial building, knocking on some of the doors, but there was no answer. The place seemed deserted, an odd circumstance after half a century of the guards and dogs and iron railings that had protected all public buildings.

At last the journalist ventured inside through a back door and started wandering down the sprawling halls, still without being stopped by anybody. He was on the point of skulking away when a sound from the kitchen attracted his attention. There he found Mr. Mandela, preparing himself a cup of tea and a sandwich. Evidently pleased to find he had company, the president invited the journalist to share his meal with him.

This is not necessarily a state of affairs to be recommended, but it does say something about the mood in the country at the time. Everything was infused with this new sense of openness, of self-reflection and honesty. Looking back at the few years that followed Mr. Mandela’s walk to freedom after his release from prison, one is tempted to exclaim with Wordsworth, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

The euphoria surrounding Mr. Mandela and the new South Africa began to erode soon after he left office. Yet there is one achievement that has steadily become the last fallback position of hope in the country: the freedom of expression. In the face of corruption or the abuse of power, from the president’s office down to the lowliest official, the right of the press and the people to express themselves has been offered as a remedy.

But now even that is eroding. Our leaders since Mr. Mandela have been deeply resistant to criticism and truth-telling. This was true of Mr. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, and it is even more true of the current president, Jacob Zuma, whose government and party, the African National Congress, proposed the new censorship measures.

Though he took over with broad populist support, Mr. Zuma has ushered in a new kind of silence that is threatening to take the place of ordinary communication. His proposed legislation betrays a dangerous attitude toward the word, written or spoken. It has been said that the prime function of the word is to interrogate silence; but if silence becomes sequestered beyond the reach of words, of language, of the press, of literature, that space becomes inhabited by lies and distortions, pretenses and subterfuges and inadequacies of all kinds.

The proposals do more than just negate the legacy of Mr. Mandela’s era of transparency; they recall, particularly for writers like myself, the worst of the apartheid regime.

One of my novels had the dubious distinction of being the first book in Afrikaans to be banned under apartheid. As I learned, censorship involved much more than the removal of books from the shelves. When a book was prohibited, it was entered into The Government Gazette, the public record of government activities, and into the notorious Jacobsen’s Index, a record of banned literature that at one point included more than 20,000 titles. Once in the index, a book drew the attention of the brutal Security Police — particularly if it was banned for endangering the “security of the state.”

Such attention meant the author could expect a visit from the Special Branch, which policed internal security threats, to be interrogated and have his books and manuscripts and typewriters confiscated; if the author was black, he ran the risk of immediate arrest. He might be detained without official explanation. He might simply disappear.

Whites were always in a slightly less dangerous situation, but it was never easy. On one occasion I was removed from a plane bound for London and ordered to open my suitcase for inspection. The officers were unable to find anything incriminating. After I demanded to know the reason for the search, they finally explained that they had been tipped off that I would be trying to smuggle copies of my banned book to London. Considering that I was actually on my way to London for the book’s publication, I felt as if I was in a tale by John le Carré, if not Lewis Carroll.

President Zuma defends his proposed measures as a means of strengthening our young democracy and making human rights and the freedom of expression more vibrantly viable. But those of us who lived through the previous regime, which relied so heavily on censorship for survival, know it doesn’t work that way.

How a government that owes its very existence to its faith in the indivisibility of freedom can now so easily betray that faith is beyond belief. It is not just an act of foolishness, but of apocalyptic arrogance.

André Brink, the author of A Dry White Season and, most recently, the memoir A Fork in the Road.