King Henry VIII told the pope that he would burn any “untrue translations” of scripture. This is because one of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation was translating Scripture so that people could read the Bible in their own language. In May 1521, Cardinal Wolsey burned many books in bonfires, out in front of St Paul’s cathedral.
Wolsey figured out that books were being printed in Europe and smuggled across the English Channel hidden in other freight. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a mandate in October 1526 to round up these pernicious publications and burn them. The papal legate wrote: “No burnt offering could be better pleasing to God”.
A dissident called Robert Barnes was told to “Abjure or burn”. He recanted (albeit temporarily), after which great baskets piled with contraband literature, including Tyndale Bibles, were cast into a blazing bonfire, again at St Paul’s cathedral. This burning of books continued until Henry VIII died. The Nazis are also remembered for burning bonfires of books. On 10 May 1933, the Hitler Youth burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books in the square in front of the State Opera. This ushered in another period of uncompromising state censorship.
Any books deemed to be subversive or opposed to the Nazi regime were rounded up and set alight. These bonfires fanned the flames of hatred. Heinrich Heine, a German philosopher with Jewish roots, remarked that where they burn books, they will also burn people. Certainly that was true of Henry VIII who burned many Reformers at the stake.
During the Cold War, “Godsmuggler” ran Bibles into the countries of Eastern Europe, from his base in Holland. Smuggling Bibles into the Communist Bloc reached epic proportions, just as it had during the Protestant Reformation. But whenever bootleg Bibles were found by the Stalinists, they were confiscated and burned.
Likewise, when al-Qaida invaded Mali, and then Timbuktu in 2012, among their targets were priceless manuscripts—books that needed to be burned. Anti-intellectualism walks hand-in-hand with arson. So it is that the invasion of the book-launches for Gangster State has an ominous ring to it. Youth wearing yellow ANC T-shirts literally crashed the party.
The ANC has been quick to deny any involvement, and to distance itself from this incident on April 9th, in the midst of the 2019 election campaign. But there are two ANCs! Which one is distancing itself and which one is trying to silence the author and intimidate the publisher?
The problem is that those who like Ramaphosa and want to vote for him, will also be voting for the likes of Ace Magashule and DD Mabuza. Another publisher declined to publish a book about DD Mabuza called Smallanyana Skeletons and the Sounds of Silence. The reason given was: “This would be a very high-stakes book legally – and Mabuza is known to be litigious”. This is the effect that this kind of mindless violence – invading a book launch and destroying books – has on the freedom of expression.
The Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. It also guarantees people’s right to dignity. Magashule may argue that his right to dignity has been infringed? But during an election campaign, the people have the right to know. No one’s rights totally trump anyone else’s. If they clash with the rights of others, then there is a need to look for “tolerable compromises”.
The Centre of the Book in Capetown is run by the National Library Service. Books are foundational to education. Without literacy, development soon stagnates. In terms of the 2019 elections, this incident highlights the identity crisis in the ANC. What DD Mabuza calls “unity” really means “gridlock”. There are two ANCs vying for the soul of the liberation-movement-turned-political-party.
Voters, beware. There is no guarantee that Ramaphosa will survive a “purge” after the elections. The alter-ego of the ANC is alive and well, and living in a bonfire of burning books. Clean governance will not be possible when the ruling party’s deployment lists include people who have been implicated for crime, corruption or patronage. This nasty turn of events mid-way through the election campaign should be a wake-up call to voters.
Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.