For As Long As There Have Been Books People Have Burned Them

Pinky Khoabane On The History Of Burning Books

THE ANC Youth League in the Free State announced it planned on holding a public burning of the book by Pieter-Louis Myburgh on allegations of corruption in the Free State during the premiership of now ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule.

While I reject any form of censorship and believe in the right to free expression and the right to read, it is important to give the history of book burning to avoid the distortions that have already arisen following the events at the book launch where supporters of Magashule disrupted the event, and the announcement of the book burning.

The Youth League has drawn criticism from some quarters and these groups have sought to draw parallels of their intended act of book burning with that led by the Nazi forces in 1933, in Berlin and elsewhere, when they burned tens of thousands of books including the works of Sigmund Freud.

In 1945, after the allies defeated the Nazis, Berlin experienced another “literary clean-up” – this time an anti-Nazi book burning event.

Book burning has been a phenomenon dating back thousands of years. The invention of the printing press and the subsequent spread of mass media and the accompanying age of knowledge opened libraries and books as targets of arsonists. Until the printing press, it was not understood just how powerful the book would be and how many people would be threatened by the printed word.

Ancient leaders threatened by books ordered them burned. In 213BC, Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang is said to have ordered a bonfire of books in order to remove any history of  more virtuous or successful leaders before him.

Book burning continues till today. Just a week ago, a priest in northern Poland led a public burning of books that they deemed sacrilegious including Harry Porter titles and a list of other “evil” items connected to magic and the occult. Pictures from the burning show a Bhudist figurine, and an African mask being among the items burned. Some Christians object to the centrality of magic in the Harry Porter tales. The priest leading the event has since apologised.

South Africa’s apartheid regime burned thousands of books, banned between the 1950s and 1970s. On the advice of a state librarian, large trucks carrying banned books and magazines would leave police stations and libraries around the country and dump them in large furnaces as part of government’s attempt to ensure the printed word – except that which promoted its policies – was utterly destroyed.

When Al Qaeda invaded Mali and then Timbuktu, their main target was the priceless manuscripts. Ordinary citizens risked their lives to protect the books in what is a show of the value they placed on the books. It was reported that they managed to smuggle over 350,000 books.

Historical examples show that books are banned and destroyed because they offend the politics, morals, or religion of the day. Information science academic Rebecca Knuth, wrote in Burning Books and Leveling Libraries that if a regime is racist, it destroys the books of groups deemed inferior; if nationalistic, the books of competing nations and cultures; and if religiously extremist, all texts contradicting sacred doctrines.

Knuth adds that the unifying factor between all perpetrators of deliberate book burnings in the 20th century is that they feel like victims even if they are in power. Adolf Hitler and Nazis for example, always used the language which projected them as victims of Jews.

Many ordinary citizens in South Africa feel they are victims of an organised and biased campaign by establishment media (which include book publishers) who are out to vilify Black leaders.

The question is what to do in the kind of climate we live in where there is a great deal of suspicion on the intention of authors in writing books. It’s still unclear whether Magashule was given the right to reply to the allegations contained in the book and if he wasn’t, why he’s not taking the author to court.

Our world is a better place if citizens freely explore the world around them. We must receive diverse ideas free from the censorship of officials and those who disagree with those ideas.The best thing Magashule’s supporters could have done is to sit down and rebut the claims instead of giving the book the marketing they now have.

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