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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > Nuusbrief: Vrye Woord

Die ANC se aanslag op skrif – 02/11/2010: First Albie Sachs Freedom Award to crusader against censorship, Piet Westra


First Albie Sachs Freedom Award to crusader against censorship, Piet Westra

Justice Albie Sachs presented new award at LIASA conference LIASA


Statement by LIASA (Library Information Association of South Africa)

The new Justice Albie Sachs Freedom Award

In 2007 Justice Albie Sachs gave an address that everyone who heard it has remembered. Describing his detention as a young advocate under the “90-day law” by the security police in Cape Town in October 1963, he told the audience that the only book he was allowed, “alone, in a concrete cube”, was the Bible, so that he rationed himself, reading only so many pages a day. Then, sometime later, by order of the Supreme Court, he was allowed other reading material. The arrangement was that he wrote on a piece of paper the books he wanted to read, and this piece of paper was taken – he assumed by a policeman – to the nearby library (Cape Town City Libraries). He dedicated his IFLA address that day to “the unknown librarian … probably she, who provided me with these marvellous books. She never knew she was doing it, but she was saving me. Without those books I would not have survived my detention … my spirit and soul would have been destroyed. So it was a librarian, quite unwittingly, like so many librarians in so many parts of the world, simply doing his or her job by providing a resource, a bit of illumination and access to a world that otherwise might never exist. It is something very wonderful, something very precious, something magical that your profession does.”

To honour what that “unknown” librarian unwittingly did over those months in the darkest days of the early 1960s detention laws, LIASA has established this award in Justice Albie Sachs’s name.

Some possible applicable criteria

  • The nominee may have shown a particular commitment to furthering the role of information in supporting a democratic environment or projects that relate to this.
  • The nominee may have personally actively and proactively campaigned for freedom of access to information or greater freedom of expression in a more personal way.
  • The nominee may have actively worked against the censorship of information.


First award to Piet Westra

Piet Westra, previous head of the State Library and the South African Library, received the first award. He is an active member of Vrye Woord and is fighting against the new threat to freedom of speech. Since the apartheid years he has been known as a campaigner against censorship within the system. These are excerpts from his acceptance speech.

Piet Westra

It is a great honour indeed to receive this award and I want to thank all concerned for having made this possible. It has come as a complete surprise: it all happened so long ago. I also appreciate it that this award has been named after, and is connected to a person of the standing and integrity of Mr Justice Albie Sachs, who has sacrificed so much in the past for freedom and democracy.

I understand that this award has been given to me for my work as a librarian opposing censorship during apartheid. I always felt that the only way to achieve anything in this regard was not by shouting from the rooftops, but by working within the system against the system, to get as many concessions for libraries from the then powers that be as possible, to get permission to collect banned publications, to make them available for research in libraries and to try and get as many of them as possible unbanned again. (...)

Since 1994 we South Africans have been very fortunate with the extent of freedom of the press and information we have experienced. It should stay that way. As you know, the alarm bells have been ringing lately about our government withholding all kinds of information and their plans to place barriers against the free flow of information in the form of a media tribunal and suppressive legislation. We librarians and information workers should join groups opposing any such attempts in the strongest possible terms.

I am happy that the award which I have received today underlines to what extent LIASA values the freedom to read and the free flow of information.

Censorship and libraries under apartheid

Piet Westra

In a previous article Piet Westra remembered some of the implications of 30 000 items that were banned during apartheid.

The most important role of libraries and librarians is to facilitate the free flow of knowledge and information to the public. This role was seriously impaired by censorship during the apartheid years. Some 30 000 items were banned directly under author and title, but, more seriously, all publications of so-called banned or restricted persons and organisations were also automatically banned.

In this regard the two national libraries, the State Library and the South African Library, had more freedom: they could acquire any banned book or periodical without restrictions and also make this material available for use in the library for research purposes.

While head of the South African Library I informed all local universities of this concession and as a result groups of students from the University of Cape Town and other institutions would regularly visit the SAL with their supervisors to consult and study specific banned publications.


During most of my library career I was involved in building up library collections, and from 1960 to 1998 specifically the collections of the two national libraries. At both libraries we made sure that most of the more important publications banned for political reasons were acquired and we sought official permission to build up such collections.

Few members of the public, or even librarians, were aware to what extent censorship under apartheid was restricting the availability of publications. I remember attending a censorship conference at the University of Cape Town in the late seventies. Over lunch I shared a table with Nadine Gordimer and three or four black authors. We established that of about 20 books they had recently published between them, 15 were banned. I pointed out the possibility of resubmitting banned books to the Censorship Board for review, but the authors concerned made it quite clear that they did not want to co-operate with the system, nor give it any recognition.

From that date and for many years afterwards (...) I submitted hundreds of publications to the Censorship Board for review, most of which were unbanned as a result. Members of the general public had to pay R50 for every book submitted, but we, claiming poverty, were exempted from this fee.


By 1992 political censorship had died a quiet death and books were no longer being banned. I felt very gratified to be appointed by the new government as member of a working committee which in 1994 drafted a new Act which laid down the functions of the current Censorship Board. The main function of this Board has since then been to place age restrictions on films. Today only material of an extreme pornographic or violent nature, or publications injurious to certain groups, can be restricted.

Thinking back over the apartheid years, I have an uneasy feeling that librarians (including myself) should have opposed the censorship system much more strongly. I was always careful not to antagonise the powers that be and was sadly not vocal enough; but perhaps today most of us feel that we could have done far more in fighting the apartheid system and everything bad that that went with it.

(Short talk given at a meeting of the Society of Bibliophiles at the University of Cape Town, 4/2/08)

Piet Westra involved in book-burning!

Piet Westra

In another article, Westra confessed to the unspeakable.

One of my duties at the State Library was to build up a collection of banned material relating to South Africa. Remember, this was during the height of the apartheid years. My duties involved visiting police stations about twice a month and working through piles of banned or suspect books and periodicals confiscated by the police or left behind on aircraft entering the country, etc. We were of course mainly interested in material banned for political reasons, but my boss, Dr HJ Aschenborn, asked me also to select examples of various genres of pornographic material for the State Library. From 1950 to the early nineties some 35 000 books, periodicals and pamphlets, mainly pornographic, were officially banned in South Africa, but I must have sifted through many more items than that during my years at the State Library.

It is amazing that my quite innocent mind (I like to think) came out of all this relatively unscathed, at least so far as I can judge! It was indeed shocking to see how carelessly the police handled this material, which lay about in the offices of the various police stations I visited. Meanwhile, if the man in the street had been caught with a Playboy magazine, for instance, it would have resulted in a hefty fine or even imprisonment. An ex-staff member of the South African Library once told me that the Claremont police station was the best place in Cape Town to hire pornographic material at this time.

The day arrived when the Pretoria Central Police Station wanted to get rid of the heaps of stuff they had gathered and asked us for advice on how to do this. My boss suggested that it could be burned in one of the enormous ovens that ISCOR used in their steel-producing process, and I was asked to organise this. I must get this of my chest publicly: I want to confess here, after so many years, that I have been guilty of the terrible act of book-burning. This is a major sin, especially for a librarian, who is supposed to enhance the free flow of books and information. In mitigation I can, however, state that I was involved only once in this deplorable activity, that I acted on instruction, and that the publications concerned were of no value to libraries.

Under my supervision a truckload of mostly periodicals and pamphlets was taken to a big dark hall at ISCOR where its main round oven was situated. This oven may have been as much as 25 metres high, spitting flames and smoke from an opening at the top. Hundreds of items were scooped up by a massive mechanical shovel from the lorry and dumped into the opening at the top of the oven, and huge flames shot up. But at about the third scoop something appeared to go wrong. Midway between the lorry and the oven the shovel hesitated, suddenly tipped, and hundreds of publications, Playboys, Hustlers, Men Only and others far more explicit were dropped on the floor.

What happened next reminded me in a way of a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Seemingly from nowhere, from all the dark corners of the hall, dozens of helmeted workers in overalls suddenly rushed in, scooping up into their arms as many items as they could carry and disappeared again into the darkness as quickly as they had appeared! This had clearly been pre-arranged! The news of our operation must have leaked out. But the end result was that we not only burned a lot of publications, but also redistributed quite a few.

The police did not feel very happy about this incident, but accepted that it happened beyond my control. Anyway, this was the first and last time that I was ever involved in book-burning.

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