Pretoria PEN and the new occult censorship

by Dan Roodt

I belong to a writer’s organisation called Pretoria PEN which has been affiliated for the past six years to PEN International, a world-wide network of authors and journalists. Some of the people who have been presidents of PEN chapters or “centres” as they are called, have been famous writers such as Günter Grass, Václav Havel, Salman Rushdie and others.

However, since October last year I have been embroiled in an increasingly ugly procedural and quasi-political wrangle with a group of Cape authors who have hijacked Pretoria PEN. Yes, I know, lots of people in South Africa get hijacked all the time, usually facing an AK-47-wielding hijacker demanding their motor vehicle. Many also get killed or wounded in the process. Sometimes the hijackers kill their victims just for sport.

So immediately, as is our wont, I can hear a chorus of voices piping in: “Regard yourself as lucky. You are still alive!” That’s normally what people say to a hijack victim who has merely lost his car or pick-up truck. Or to a rape victim. Present-day South Africa is, after all, famous for all the wrong things, being the so-called “rape capital” of the world. We are also way up there with Colombia and a few others in the murder stakes. If only our rugby and cricket teams could maintain the same consistent standards as our murderers, we would have won the last few rugby matches against the All Blacks of New Zealand.

The three Cape authors who hijacked or tried to hijack our literary society are Fanie Olivier, John Miles and Piet Haasbroek. Strictly speaking, Olivier is a poet and not from the Cape either, as he commutes between Poznań and Durban. Poznań, as you probably know, is a Polish city. In one of my favourite short French novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, La salle de bain, there are some Polish painters who disturb the main character while he he has taken up residence in the bathroom, reading books and listening to football matches broadcast over the radio.

I was not disturbed by any Polish painter, a rare species in South Africa, but by a Polish email informing me that these three gentlemen were demanding the keys, figuratively speaking, to our little societal Volkswagen. We held meetings, amended our constitution and invited any dissident members to make their voices or their votes heard, to enter into debate and reasonable discussion, to no avail.

After Poznań, the action moved to Stellenbosch where on 7 March 2012 Olivier delivered a speech where he, inter alia, denounced organ music. Now, it may interest you that one of the aftereffects of apartheid or Afrikaner rule in South Africa is that the whole country is littered with organs, especially German ones, being of good quality. Many postgrads in music have written theses about the church organs of small towns. Of course, many of those small towns now bear different names and some of them are awash in sewage as the new town councils are more interested in buying Mercedes-Benzes than in maintaining their water purification systems. Visiting such run-down water purification plants has become a form of tourism among some local activists, one of them being Mr. Jaap Kelder of the National Taxpayers’ Association.

But I digress. The point of Olivier’s denuncation of organ music was that it had some connotation with Christianity. One of the sins committed by Pretoria PEN was that we had actually contracted one of those postgrads, an organist from the University of Pretoria’s music school, to come and give a recital to us after our AGM in January, boycotted by Olivier and his friends. And that was not only a faux pas, but also decidedly politically incorrect. In fact, during Olivier’s rambling little speech in Stellenbosch, the mere mention of the organ elicited howls of ridicule and guffaws of contempt.

Perhaps some background is needed. Fanie Olivier, the poet laureate of a place called Durban-Westville, has spent most of his life teaching literature at segregated universities, situated in the notorious Bantustans or “homelands” of apartheid. His father, a powerful figure and high-ranking member of a secret Afrikaner society known as the Broederbond (the Society of Brothers), was the first principal of the Indians-only University of Durban-Westville, so it is quite understandable that the heir to the throne, young Fanie, was also appointed there where he debuted with the anthology, Gom uit die sipres (Glue from the cypress).

Later he was a professor of Afrikaans at the University of Venda, in the former homeland known as the Republic of Venda. I am unaware that he ever took up Venda citizenship, although he may have learnt the language. For those who know little about South Africa, the Limpopo province, where the majority of Vendas live, in the former Republic of Venda, is where most ritual murders take place. A few hundred people get killed every year, to make medicine from body parts. Children too. Of course, this is never put on our tourist brochures and few people dare to write about it, except some bored court reporters who may happen to stumble upon such a case being heard. Usually, such reports are anodyne, with the race and ethnicity of murderer and victim carefully omitted and published towards the bottom of the inner pages of newspapers where only the very curious ever venture.

The thing about ritual murders is that they entail a belief in the occult. Some hijackers also buy muti, or medicine, from so-called sangomas or witch doctors, before setting out on the day’s business, pistol or assault rifle in hand. But “occult”, for those who know Latin, also has another meaning: “that which is concealed or difficult to detect”. Now, I am not of the school that looks for “influences” in an author’s work, but perhaps Fanie Olivier did to some extent acculturate during his many years at the University of Venda.

He has an uncanny belief in the powers of obfuscation, the ruse, making simple things abstruse, even claiming that our society, Pretoria PEN, “ceased to exist long ago”, as if he were waving Harry Potter’s magic wand or throwing the bones in a dark hut in Venda while declaiming some powerful incantation that will change a man into a croccodile or cause someone to drop dead hundreds of kilometres away.

I know vampires are fashionable too. Or the girl with the dragon tattoo. But the next scene in Fast Fanie’s racy tale (a previous cricket player here had the nickname, “Vinnige Fanie”) shifts to South Korea where, during the annual congress of PEN International, he presents himself as not only the President of Pretoria PEN, having hijacked us by remote control, magically, as it were, by email from Poland, but also its chief name-changer. Now, it so happens that name changes are another touchy topic in South Africa. One day you may be driving down a street, and the next the name may be changed to that of some Party stalwart or some arcane figure from a non-existent past, such as the mythical Chief Tshwane who, legend has it, founded a lost city, more or less in the same place as present-day Pretoria and therefore deserves to be eponymously honoured.

In the book South Africa’s Brave New World, R.W. Johnson ascribes a lot of the current South African obsessions with gambling, palaces and lost cities to the influence of entrepreneur Sol Kerzner who built a series of such casino palaces and follies, replete with artificial waterfalls and lakes, even beaches, in another Bantustan, the Republic of Bophutatswana. Johnson states somewhere that SA has now become “one big Bantustan”. Not far from where I live, there is a Renaissance Tuscan village with a casino and shops inside and artifical stars twinkling on the ceiling. Very African, you might say.

In a Bantustan, by knowing the right people and oiling the right palms, you could become a millionaire, and go off to Las Vegas or the Bahamas and repeat the trick there. Just look at Sol Kerzner. Vinnige Fanie is a man of ambition who knows his way around any Bantustan, especially the Grand Bantustan that Johnson refers to. He is also a lawyer, an advocate at the Durban bar, so able to ensnare hapless authors in his byzantine legalistic strategems.

But let’s stick to our plot and get back to the city of Gyeongju in South Korea. This is also historical, for it must be the first name change in history that was decreed in a completely different country, in the Far East, where dragons and not kitsch concrete elephants usually adorn the palaces. Poor old Pretoria, poor old Kruger whose statue still stands – for the time being at least – on Church Square, Pretoria. There he gets polluted by pigeon droppings and some pieces of his bronze get hacked off, nay hijacked by entrepreneurial individuals,  who sell them to scrap metal dealers. And Church Street was found to be such an offensive name that it was changed to… what? I will have to look it up on Google, one moment…

This is all very confusing. Church Street in Pretoria was so offensively long, being one of the first streets laid out in the city, that its name had to be changed to four other names: Helen Joseph, WF Nkomo, Stanza Bopape and Elias Motswaledi.

The only name that I recognise among those ones, is that of Helen Joseph, who happened to be a communist and not some legendary chief of the city lost in the mists of time, out of Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

There is such a thing as Cape Communism. Or the Stellenbosch school of Marxism, which is why the university there is sometimes referred to as Stalinbosch. It is also a place where authors get banned if they do not say the right things, like I was banned from appearing on campus in 2005 during the Woordfees festival but finally managed to participate in a panel discussion only because I had armed bodyguards protecting me from being attacked by rabid Red Guards who regarded me as a bad influence on the public. In fact, I have it on good authority that some zealots are pressing for my books to be removed from the library of the University of Stellenbosch for being sexist or racist or both.

One of the people who accused me of “sexism” was André Brink who writes barely disguised autobiographical novels boasting about the number of his female conquests and in his latest novel, Philida, makes liberal use of the ethnic slur, “kaffir”, for which people in South Africa normally get dragged before the Equality Court and fined or even imprisoned. See the logic there? I don’t.

But back to Gyeongju where Pretoria PEN became the latest casualty of the ANC government’s name change policy, no doubt because it was seen as an “offensive” name, as offensive as the capital’s name or Paul Kruger’s name whose statue is being slowly devoured by the clients of scrap metal dealers. According to Fanie Olivier, delivering his rambling speech in Stellenbosch, “Pretoria PEN” was a “random” name. (He used the Afrikaans word “lukraak”, which more or less means random.)

One month after the meeting in Gyeongju, shortly after asking for Fanie Olivier’s address as it seems that this little exercise, plagiarised from the writings of Franz Kafka, will now go to court, I receive a laconic email from PEN International stating the following:

“We are writing to inform you that on 14 September 2012 the PEN International Assembly of Delegates at the 78th PEN Congress in Gyeongju, Korea voted to change the Pretoria PEN Centre’s name to PEN Afrikaans.
Following this decision, Pretoria PEN no longer exists as a Centre of PEN International.”

How curious. So our legally constituted literary society, founded in the real city of Pretoria, not some fictional realm of the imagination or the ANC government’s commissars, may be vaporised without even consulting us. No right of appeal, nothing.

Talking of commissars, is it any coincidence that the South African Minister of Higher Education also happens to be the leader of the Communist Party, that old blade runner, known as Blade Nzimande? Logically, those academics down at the University of Stellenbosch where the new “cloned” but rebranded Pretoria PEN is ostensibly headquartered, have to kow-tow to their minister who has wide powers to appoint and dissolve university councils. So now we understand a bit better how so many intellectual champions of apartheid and the Bible have now converted to another Book and find organ music execrable.

However, if literature is becoming more and more state-controlled in our de facto one-party state (65% of the population and 90% of black people vote for the ANC and its SACP alliance partner), there are also the corporate powers to consider. Often the big corporations and government work closely together, especially when contracts are awarded. It is generally accepted that the “New South Africa” is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Not for nothing have we coined the term “tenderpreneur” to describe people doing business with the state.

Add to this mix the National Intelligence Agency whose white, Afrikaner members are apparently so desperate to keep their jobs amid rampant affirmative action that they will do anything to ensnare their own people in acts of high treason, conspiracy and sex scandals. Facebook and the commentary sections of South African web pages are apparently rife with NIA trolls who sow dissension, ridicule and slander. Public figures seen to be “dissidents” or “outspoken” are regularly vilified.

Quite a few members of Pretoria PEN, such as myself and singer/writer Steve Hofmeyr, have been subjected to whole campaigns, also in the media. Several people regularly posted a satirical poem that I had written as a 20-year old everywhere he could and also sent it to thousands of people by email, completely disregarding any copyright I may hold over the poem. One such person was apparently an English-speaking member of a far-right group who considered me to be a danger to society for having written such scabrous satirical poetry in my young days.

Is it pure coincidence that while Fanie Olivier is waging his behind-the-scenes email campaign against Pretoria PEN, there should be another group of trolls on Wikipedia publishing half-truths and distortions about me? When I enquire about their identity, I get promptly banned from Wikipedia! The anonymous literary critics on Wikipedia have also ascertained that I suffer from mental retardation, being insufferably stupid, and that all my books put together contain “nothing of any merit”. At least these Wiki-writers, even if faceless, are not ambiguous.

Part of Fanie Olivier and his henchmen’s approach was to “leak information” to friends, journalists at the Cape Town daily Die Burger and other Naspers publications who would then try to stigmatise me and others. Naspers tabloid Sondag went so far as to draw a completely spurious association between me and a supposed adult-dating site, suggesting that I was a pornographer. Naturally I complained to the Press Ombudsman of South Africa, who ordered the newspaper to publish an apology on its front page. The newspaper lodged one appeal after the other, but each time the original decision was upheld. In a final desperate attempt to stall the apology, the newspaper is suing the Press Ombudsman, a historical first in South Africa.

The journalist from Die Burger who had published Fanie Olivier’s “leak” was also ordered by the Ombudsman to publish an apology to me and Pretoria PEN at the beginning of 2012. That was before Naspers got around to the idea that it could bully the Ombud through lengthy court cases.

Only a few months ago, as president of Pretoria PEN, I testified before the Media Commission about press freedom in South Africa and mechanisms for keeping the Naspers group, which has a total monopoly in Afrikaans media, under control without curtailing freedom of the press.

I strongly suspect that the takeover attempt by Fanie Olivier, John Miles and Piet Haasbroek is being financed by some Naspers entity, such as one of their book-publishing concerns down in Cape Town. An unnamed “sponsor” paid for three people to fly to Gyeongju. At the very least, the name of this sponsor should be revealed, for the sake of transparency.

In the meantime, the Naspers propaganda machine is destroying authors’ or performers’ reputations, almost at will. This is the new censorship in South Africa which, in deference to Fanie Olivier and his fellow travellers, I would call “occult censorship”. It is vague, but no less insidious and effective.

In the old days we had the staid Judge Lammie Snyman and his fellow censors who saw it as their prerogative to protect us from communist or terrorist propaganda and obscenity. They were easy to deal with and almost counter-productive. They made heroes out of people like André Brink or Nadine Gordimer whose books were banned for a few short months or slightly longer before they were unbanned on appeal. Today, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, the state that wants to control everything according to the East German model, and the Naspers media monopoly that prides itself on being able to make or break anyone’s reputation. If you had deep pockets, you could take them on in the courts, or otherwise through the Ombudsman. As I have found out, even the Ombudsman will only give you a Pyrrhic victory as Naspers sees itself not bound by any adverse decision from the so-called “self-regulatory body”.

When the Naspers Sunday paper Rapport published the infamous interview with another Pretoria PEN member, Annelie Botes, on 21 November 2010 I immediately saw all the hallmarks of another character assassination. Preying on Annelie’s honesty and concern about crime and violence in South Africa, they focussed on one sentence where she spoke of her inner fears as a member of an ethnic and racial minority. The context was completely disregarded and she was immediately calumnied as xenophobic, even racist.

Annelie Botes is probably the most popular literary author in South Africa. Locally, she far outsells André Brink, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee or any of the big names in South African literary fiction. She addresses difficult and courageous themes, such as autism, incest and child abuse in her works. The public loves her for it.

However, as a result of the Rapport interview, the K. Sello Duiker award was taken away from her and just yesterday she confessed on Facebook that her latest manuscript had been rejected by her publisher. In this way, another talented and widely-read author is being silenced.

I see on the CV of Annelie Botes that she also has a teaching licentiate in classical music – the piano – and was at one time a church organist. As a result, she will never be acceptable to any PEN Centre down in Cape Town, least of all one that meets on the campus of Stellenbosch University, with Philistine Fanie as its president.

Let’s make the organ our new resistance symbol, I feel! And the pen, of course, which may just be mightier than the hijacker’s AK-47, even in this country where violence and revolution have been romanticized for so long.

I receive quite a bit of fan mail, despite being banned in Stellenbosch. The other day I got a note from a young hacker who offered to hack the ebooks of all my literary enemies and upload them to the Swedish Pirate Bay and similar websites. That way no one would have to buy their books ever again; they and their publishers would make losses. I declined his offer, being something of a victim of piracy or “hacked” and dismembered works myself.

However, I thought to myself afterwards, have things become so desperate that such extreme measures, sabotaging or pirating the books of others, should be considered? Indeed, there is a sense of “living on the edge” in South Africa. We are locked into a struggle for survival, and in some respects our whole world is caving in around us. Whether it is the Marikana mining massacre or just another everyday xenophobic killing of an immigrant from another African country, or a farm murder, we are living in an “age of iron”, to borrow a phrase from J.M. Coetzee. The latter preferred emigration to Australia.

The theme of fear that Annelie Botes broached in her interview is becoming more and more palpable. Another colleague and Pretoria PEN member, Gustav Venter, has just published his novel Die amigdala van Alrina Smal in which a woman goes almost insane with fear after a sexual assault. Will it even be reviewed by the printed press, I wonder? It also deviates from the post-card multicultural paradise that everybody sees in South Africa and for that reason might fall victim to the new occult censorship.

Effectively, Annelie Botes, Steve Hofmeyr, Gustav Venter, Fransi Phillips and all the other innovative and courageous authors depicting our contemporary reality in their works, together with me, have been excluded from PEN International without due process or any right of appeal. The censors of Stellenbosch and the media monopoly have spoken.

Yet we do need to organise ourselves to confront our imminent exclusion from the literary community, in South Africa and abroad. Already Fanie Olivier is making legal threats to us if we continue to exercise that right as we have been doing since 2004. He claims to have the support of the London management of PEN International.

But we have the right to associate with one another, as well as the right to communicate with other authors and NGOs all over the world. Let no one intimidate us into surrendering that right, nor into giving up the fight for free speech in South Africa.