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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Copying, circulating, concealing and contesting in Cape Town’s reading cultures

Archie Dick - 2011-10-13

Delivered at the Open Book Literary Festival as part of the session “Reading Cape Town - Who reads what and so what?”


As an outcome of this boekjol the social movement Equal Education will hand over a fully stocked and functioning library to Matthew Goniwe High School in Khayelitsha. I’m a product of a Cape township high school and I remember that the library was kept under lock and key in the principal’s office, more for the benefit of reporting to the school inspector that no books had been lost or stolen. It is sad that not very much has changed in some of the schools in Cape Town.

But this does not mean that no reading is going on in working-class areas. I believe that there is just as energetic a reading culture today as there was during my school years in the late sixties and early seventies when swopping books and photo-comics was commonplace and when commercial book exchanges ensured a steady supply of skop, skiet en donder literature. And then there was the modest public library, usually in a community centre or a converted council house. I discovered subsequently that there was always some kind of reading culture in Cape Town’s many pasts.

I want to talk briefly about Cape Town’s common readers by looking at what they read, how they read, when and where they read, and why they read. Key to understanding their reading cultures are the activities of copying, circulating, concealing and contesting, which I will illustrate as I go along.

In the earliest days of the Cape settlement, slave and Free Black (manumitted slave) readers and writers often hid their literacy skills from view. In 1680, Louis of Bengal explained in a Cape court that he cut wood in an unauthorised area because he could not read the placaat (proclamation) that announced this prohibition. The court did not accept his argument as a defence because slaves and Free Blacks often played down their reading skills in the hope of being let off the hook completely, or of receiving a lighter punishment. Louis had a good reason to hide his ability to read, because an admission of guilt carried a fine. On the other hand, the ability to read was liberating to slaves who could now crack the code of a system of letters and words that established their status as property in pieces of writing such as ownership papers, inventories, wills and auction notices.

The DEIC (Dutch East India Company, or VOC – Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) actually prohibited the destruction or tearing down of placaats and notices, which were displayed in popular locations for all to read its written communications to the community of the early Cape settlement, and so that no-one could plead and pretend ignorance of the regulations. This and other kinds of handwritten street literature were not uncommon, and slaves could either read these notices themselves or they knew someone who could do so.

The recently transcribed notebook of a Slave Lodge School teacher, Jan Smiesing, reveals that Slave Lodge children learned to read using Dutch ABC boards and ABC books. These usually contained the letters of the alphabet, the Ten Commandments, the Paternoster, the Catechism, morning and evening prayers, and Christian proverbs that began with the letters of the alphabet. ABC books were the forerunners of the more popular Trap der Jeugd books found in many Cape households by the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

However, common readers obtained reading material mostly as a result of a copying and circulating culture which was widespread at the Cape throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Common readers and writers copied and distributed handwritten pietistic works, hymn books, school books and children’s stories. At the end of the 18th century, Lady Anne Barnard complained that only one copy of a printed almanac (a calendar and street directory with other general information) was sold in each of the Cape’s districts, because all the inhabitants copied out of that one. As messengers, slaves often carried their owners’ newspapers to neighbouring farms, and those who could read communicated news of revolutions and slave rebellions in other colonies to their fellow-slaves. They also picked up international news from soldiers and sailors in taverns and canteens owned by Free Blacks, like Anthonij of Bengal.

Competing religious views raised the literacy levels in Cape Town from the times when the VOC required their slaves to be schooled in the Reformed Catechism to the times when the first British governors promoted the growth of Christian schools to restrict the spread of Islam, and to teach slaves to read in order to become obedient and accept their subservient place in society. But Christian missionary zeal ironically encouraged a more determined Islamic da’wah (propagation). Muslim leaders had already undermined VOC education through a parallel and alternative system of schooling from the earliest days of settlement. Koplesboeke (student notebooks) used at the Muslim schools, or Madaris, can still be viewed at the National Library of South Africa.

Improved literacy among the labouring poor led to different responses in the early 19th century. The anxious middle classes expanded reading resources and facilities for common readers with a view to their moral, religious and social control. They advocated cheap and wholesome reading for sound and useful knowledge and stressed the value of “penny literature”, “cheap books” and “little tracts” for common readers. As a result, a Penny Subscription Library or Popular Library was opened in 1834, and many slave apprentices became subscribers.

The library’s middle-class committee members hoped that this institution would keep slaves and servants from reading impious and profane fiction such as fairy tales and love adventures. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, started newspapers to capture this growing readership. But many of these ventures failed quickly and editors bemoaned the fact that there was no reading appetite among the Cape working classes. However, they misunderstood that Dutch was the preferred language of most common readers and that their reading culture had a strong communal character. Joseph De Lima, a well-known Cape character, knew better, and his Cape of Good Hope Penny Magazine and bilingual De Verzamelaar (The Gleaner) newspaper published international news, general knowledge items, fables, legends and songs to promote reading and writing among common readers. He advertised the Foreign Book and Stationery Warehouse, called the South African Bazaar, from which he sold Arabic and Malay Books.

There were also Dutch translations of Walter Scott’s The Pirate and The Black Dwarf. Charles Dickens’s popularity at the Cape grew stronger when his books were translated into Dutch and recited at public readings in 1851. Through newspapers Dickens’s characters became a common factor of interest and conversation among readers of different classes and walks of life. They were family entertainment and family gossip. Sergeant Buzfuz and Augustus Snodgrass of Pickwick Papers became well known through the pages of the Cape Town Mail and Mirror of Court and Council in 1841, and the African Journal introduced David Copperfield to readers in 1849. When Dickens was eventually added to the elitist South African Public Library in 1842, the librarian’s excitement or dismay may have led to the catalogue title entry for “The PicNic Papers”!

The working classes also read street literature such as printed handbills, and advertisements and announcements posted on walls around the city in attractive lettering and designs. Illuminations conveyed news of events like the British victory over the Boers at Boomplaats in 1847, and illiterate and literate residents learned history, politics and morality through pantomimes and plays.

These Cape reading cultures and traditions persisted into the 20th century, and by the 1930s and 1940s radical debating societies and discussion groups still emphasised books as well as oral discourse. The Lenin Club, the Spartacus Club, the New Era Fellowship, and other Trotskyist groups in District Six taught reading and writing and circulated the books of the Left Book Club.

Christian Ziervogel, who belonged to the radical Fifteen Group, owned a private collection of about 15 000 books and became the first librarian at the Hyman Liberman Institute in Muir Street in District Six in 1933. He donated 3 000 of his own books to the library collection, and was stopped from adding more. Ziervogel used the library space for political debates and discussions. Progressive intellectuals came to the library not to look for a book but to look for an argument, and Ziervogel invited members of the Lenin Club to debate coloured nationalists in crowded meetings in the library.

Other self-made intellectuals and book collectors, like James La Guma, Johnny Gomas, and Cissy Gool, introduced young men and women from the townships to books and music at social events.

Another library in District Six benefited later from a more unusual donation. Sedick Isaacs recalls a notorious gangster approaching the venue where a Muslim Youth Movement had started an international library in the 1960s. The gangster said that his reputation prevented him from entering such a holy place, but he offered a collection of books. He never said how and where he had acquired the books, and Isaacs did not ask either.

The clandestine circulation of books and the reading culture took on a more activist character in the apartheid era.

At probably South Africa’s first MK camp at Mamre in 1962, Looksmart Ngudle read aloud to new political recruits from Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story The Wall and from Ché Guevara’s writings. These public readings were followed by discussion to inspire the recruits, and to teach them about the worldwide struggle against oppression. Sadly, Looksmart died in detention in 1963.

Reading began to contest and subvert apartheid ideology in inventive ways. Cecyl Esau, who was a student leader in the 1980s and a member of the Elsies River public library, tells how members of his activist reading circle used that library’s so-called “safe” anti-communist books to actually learn more about communism. They did so by concentrating solely on the communist passages quoted in these library books and which were singled out for ridicule by their anti-communist authors.

As in earlier times, Cape Town’s common reading cultures operated both inside and outside of the library, and sometimes even produced reading matter. Robert Kriger remembers how Paulo Freire’s classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed was translated and typed in Afrikaans on a battered old typewriter, and then circulated secretly to activist reading circles in the 1980s. The typewriter was sought in vain by the security police as evidence to lay charges. It still lies buried today under a palm tree on Moravian Hill, the site of a bed and breakfast motel in Cape Town.

The late Vincent Kolbe, a librarian who grew up in District Six and worked in the Hyman Liberman library, said that sometimes “the books were just the props” and he used the libraries in Bonteheuwel and Kensington townships as a marketplace to debate ideas and opinions. The library had become a contested but shared space and young people discussed alternative anti-apartheid strategies at meetings held in the library. These meetings were usually held under the guise of “the chess club”, “the dove club” or “the cultural society”. A young Trevor Manuel was a member of one such reading group at Kensington public library. (There is a rumour going around that he still has outstanding fines for overdue books there.) At Observatory library Kolbe used an inconspicuous sports bag under a library desk to hide materials that activists would circulate discreetly. During police raids of course no one knew whose bag it was or how it had got there.

These reading cultures manifested across the anti-apartheid political spectrum in Cape Town. The New Unity Movement, which opposed the views of the UDF and the ANC, had its own South Peninsula Education Fellowship (SPEF) library, which was run from the Wynberg home of Dawood Parker, a non-professional librarian. As a travel agent, Parker was able to frequent bookshops in London and other cities, where he placed orders for books banned in South Africa. He used to bribe a contact person at the South African customs office with koeksisters and samoosas to intercept the books and deliver them to his home. He also scooped up hundreds of books dumped on Cape Town’s Grand Parade bookstalls by nervous members of the public after the government’s list of banned books grew longer, and visits from security police became more indiscriminate and frequent.

The SPEF library gradually swelled to 15 000 items. Parker kept book-borrowers’ records in old telephone directories stacked under the new one so that raiding police could not discover the identities of readers and what they were reading. 

Although the SPEF collection was universal in outlook, the political books and reading kits from the library’s underground section were used for discussions in study groups, which met secretly but in quite unusual places, such as a farmhouse directly opposite Pollsmoor Prison, or in the caves of Devil’s Peak. Popular titles included Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World and Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China.

The possession of banned books was not unusual either among young Cape Town UDF activists. An Interschool Magazine Committee formed by the so-called Committee of 81 produced school magazines, arranged interschool debates and exchanges, and set up study circles with readings of politics, economics, alternative versions of South African history, Marx, Engels and Lenin. Committee members screened movies such as Viva Zapata and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Students sang Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and Bob Marley’s songs. They wrote and acted in plays about the boycotts and read their own poetry, and pieces from the Staffrider literary magazine. At Trafalgar High School, teacher and actor Cosmo Pieterse had encouraged students to read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities as a way of getting to grips with the French Revolution, or Émile Zola’s work in order to understand the revolutions of 1848. Some student activists later set up the alternative Grassroots community newspaper based on their reading of Lenin’s banned book What Is to Be Done?, of which a few copies were circulating clandestinely.

Similar books could, however, be read at the South African Library in the Gardens. Mxolisi Mgxashe, who was a member of the Kensington night school and a Pan-Africanist Congress activist, regularly used the reference section of that library to read and photocopy passages from books on communism, Garveyism (after Marcus Garvey), and Pan-Africanism. When he was arrested by security police he was relieved that he had just handed in an essay the previous day on the French Revolution in which he had predicted a revolt by oppressed South Africans.

Ironically, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital circulated quite openly to and from Robben Island’s General Section library. Mrs Haslam of the University of Cape Town Library sent Sedick Isaacs boxes of books after he had requested material for the prison library. When the prison censor vetting the incoming books looked at the title he considered it to be acceptable because he said it was a book “about money”.

Serious literature was not always necessary, however, to deal with prison life and for political education. Second World War fiction and non-fiction books on concentration camp life, Manohar Malgonkar’s A Bend in the Ganges, the works of Chinua Achebe, and selected biographies were popular substitute reading material when prison authorities confiscated political books. Isaacs also taught prisoners how to do speed reading, which enabled them to devour contraband literature fast and furtively.

Through copying, circulating, concealing and contesting, Cape Town’s reading cultures overcame the strictures of slavery, social regulation and apartheid censorship in the past. They will also undermine and overcome the censorship consequences of any protection of information legislation in the future.

The evidence of common reading illuminates the mentalities and world views of ordinary South Africans. We can recover what was actually read, for example, in the intellectual struggle against apartheid. It is possible to compile a fairly accurate list of exactly what works of fiction and non-fiction, magazines, and newspapers political activists and prisoners read and discussed, as well as what movies, documentary films and videos they viewed. These are the key “texts” that shaped the ideas and strategies of smaller and larger political organisations involved in the liberation struggle. Revealing hidden books and hidden readers reveals also how ordinary people make sense of their lives, and how they create “new worlds” in difficult circumstances.


– Department of Information Science, University of Pretoria