Burning books is not protest, it’s an infantile effort to kill the truth
As we stumble from one outrage to the next, using the lulls between them only to gape at the last one and to brace for the next, it can be hard to see the significance of individual moments in SA. But I think it’s worth pausing at the end of this week and reflecting on an astonishing moment, because this was the week that the ruling party of our democracy organised an official book-burning.
ANC apologists would argue that it wasn’t the real ANC that circulated a poster announcing that Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State would be ceremonially burnt on April 15 at a dump in Mangaung. After all, the Nazi-esque bring-and-braai was organised by the Free State branch of the ANC Youth League, the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) and the South African Students Congress (Sasco), all three of which are little more than remoras living off the scraps that fall out of the mouth of the great predator to which they cling.
Still, whenever the ANC needs something from the kids – a courthouse mobbed, a chair thrown, a book burnt – it makes it very clear that the youth league is an integral party of the Mother Church, and that Cosas and Sasco are the zoos in which the Young Canned Lions of the future are being bred. The youth league and its pals are as ANC as Ace Magashule, no matter how loudly the New Dawnists might protest.
The book-burning has now been cancelled, perhaps because someone explained to the children that their whooping was driving up Myburgh’s sales. Perhaps someone high up muttered something about keeping up democratic appearances.
But I don’t think the ANC brought the youth league and the “students” into line because it believes book-burnings are intrinsically wrong. On Wednesday, as Jackson Mthembu and Blade Nzimande defended free speech and condemned the disruption of Myburgh’s Johannesburg launch, Ferial Haffajee reminded us that these were the same two sockpuppets who, in 2013, “demanded a gallery be closed and a newspaper be boycotted because of a satirical drawing of President Zuma”.
Understandably, many horrified pundits reacted to the news of the ANCYL’s plan by quoting German poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote: “Where they burn books they will ultimately burn people.”
It seems an apt warning, until one remembers that we are already a country where people have burnt people. Just a week ago Tony Yengeni revealed some chilling nostalgia for the era of “necklacing”, tweeting: “The people of Alex have spoken ... they want Mayor Mashaba to come to Alex ... Those tyres are clean and nicely polished waiting for the mayor!”
Still, I think the direct link drawn between the ANCYL’s plan and the violence of the young Nazi regime is fair in one respect: both are inspired by having to stamp out the truth wherever it rises up to challenge the great lies of the day. Burning a book is not an act of protest. It is an infantile effort to erase facts that challenge dogma.
Perhaps this was inevitable for an organisation like the ANC, which has spent so long controlling, denying, suppressing or ignoring truths that it can no longer tell the difference between truth and lies, and no longer thinks it needs to. In exile, truth was a dangerous thing, a potentially destructive force that had to be strictly controlled: abusive or corrupt leaders; politically embarrassing miscalculations; divisive relationships or animosities; all were denied or avoided or edited; eventually rehabilitated through a great, centralised lie. By the end, it wasn't even a lie any more: it was a noble truth. In war, the enemy must see no weakness or dissent, so if you change or hide the truth, it’s not a lie but a blow struck in the fight for freedom.
The trouble is, when you’ve lied for 40 years, you can’t even imagine how to stop. Worse, when lies are reality, the truth becomes a sinister, counterrevolutionary Third Force. The publication of a book like Gangster State feels like PW Botha’s Total Onslaught.
And, as one of Magashule’s supporters told me this week, you fight fire with fire.