Bard mistake does not define regime

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Once upon a time in South Africa, a minority white regime oppressed a majority black people. Millions were denied the vote and civil rights, dignity and wealth, freedom and education, because they were black.

Then sanity prevailed. A new South Africa was born. A government with fine ideals was elected, and set about building a tolerant non-racist democracy.

South Africans hoped they would live happily ever after. Soon, however, they found that tolerance does not come naturally in a society scarred by past injustices.

New black leaders seemed just as corrupt as their white predecessors, and just as intent on exerting hegemonic power and inflexible ideology. Racial tensions simmered, bubbling over in attacks by whites on blacks and vice versa. Crime soared. Intolerance reared its head again and again.

The government made bad mistakes, such as questioning the link between HIV and Aids and supporting President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. South Africa's post-apartheid image became tarnished in the eyes of its people and the world.

One such incident came to light last week. The local Sunday Times reported that a committee of teachers in Gauteng province, a conglomeration of 7.5 million people including Johannesburg and Pretoria, had excised chunks of great English literature from the senior school syllabus.

Using criteria such as whether 300 books with potential to be on the English reading list promoted the constitution's values of tolerance, non-discrimination and non-racism and sexism, they banned some Shakespeare works.

Several of the bard's plays were deemed racist, sexist, pessimistic, locally irrelevant and lacking cultural diversity. George Orwell's 1984 was deemed to be "subversive rebellion against the state which is no longer appropriate". July's People, by Nobel prize-winning South African author and anti-apartheid stalwart Nadine Gordimer was "deeply racist, superior and patronising".

The department's Elvis Padayachee explained that the authorities believed in being "sensitive" about racism and sexism during South Africa's transition. Positive messages were important so pupils "don't end up being pessimistic".

The deprtment and committee were slammed by experts and the press for censorship. Journalists in local and British newspapers took up the issue. Education minister Kader Asmal phoned Gordimer to tell her he did not share the committee's sentiments, which he found insulting. Its comments, he stated, were "ill-informed, pedagogically unsound and smacked of anti-intellectualism".

Gauteng education minister Ignatius Jacobs promised that all 300 books would remain on the list on a rotation basis.

The Shakespeare scandal reminds us of a past we still have to bear - including years of neglecting most people's education, resulting in intellectual superficiality that causes bureaucrats to act in such silly ways.

It reminds us of the need to be vigilant in pursuing universal ideals such as tolerance, human rights and freedom, and in monitoring a transforming government peopled by over-zealous officials who miss the point of what they should be doing.

The government says the committee and its terms of reference were a mistake. The mistake will be rectified (I don't remember apartheid ministers doing that). The list remains intact (it is worth recalling that apartheid censors axed many literary greats, and even once banned Black Beauty, thinking it was about an attractive black woman).

There will be more mistakes. An even bigger problem, however, may lie in the fact that South Africa's intolerance extends to its errors. Gauteng's scrape with censorship will be viewed by many as yet another example of a country falling apart, of a new government no better than the old one.

For me, this is far from the truth. For the new South Africa there are no fairytale endings, and we need to develop a more sanguine understanding of how new democracies and countries in transition work. Advanced society is a long hard slog but every missed step does not mean, as with Chicken Licken, that the sky is going to fall in.

It is always worth remembering, here on the vibrant tip of Africa, how many freedoms we have achieved in a now democratic country that is immeasurably better than what came before.

Karen MacGregor is South Africa correspondent of 'The TES'

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