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Exiling the poets

Many of us were shocked on Sunday last when we turned the front page of the Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport, to see the horrific image on page two of the Yemeni poet, Walid Mohamed Ahmed al-Ramisi, who had his tongue cut off as a result of his criticisms of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) — the opposition coalition in Yemen. According to reports, the JMP denied that they had committed this crime, blaming supporters of president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This brutal act of censure made me think of the many censureships that characterised the apartheid government. Afrikaans writers like Breytenbach and Brink were constantly faced with a ban on the publication of their work. Countless works from both local authors and writers abroad were considered a threat to the ideology of apartheid. Famously, even the story of a horse, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, was deemed unacceptable literature. In her book Red in the Rainbow (2010) Lynn Carneson (daughter of anti-apartheid activists Fred and Sarah Carneson) relates how the security police raided their house, storming into her and her brother’s room and confiscating their copy of Black Beauty. That one image illustrates so much of the insanity of totalitarianism.

The attempt by those who wield political power to silence critical voices is by no means a modern phenomenon. Already in Plato’s Republic we find a censureship of the poets. In Book II, Socrates tells his interlocutors that, in the ideal city, literary works that speak ill of the gods and of heroes, are to be banned. In Book X (the concluding chapter of the work) the argument progresses to an out and out exile of the poets. Poets are dangerous, argues Socrates, because they represent reality “twice removed” — they are not to be trusted with what is true or real or good, for they describe only sensory experiences and fail to seek the truth and reality through a life of contemplation in the pursuit of knowledge. This description of poetry is known as mimesis — literally an act of imitation. Poetry as mimesis must be understood against the background of Plato’s philosophical theory as a whole. This theory is known as the theory of the Forms or the Ideas. According to this position, the forms are ideal and what we perceive with our senses are simply imitations of the eternal Forms. Literature then, as an activity that is derived from things that are themselves imitations of the true and the real, is a weak semblence of reality.

There were, however, also political reasons (as opposed to purely philosophical reasons) why Plato banished the poets from his ideal city. This had to do with the fact that the poets of ancient Greece were also the educators. As such, they had access to and could influence young minds. Plato regarded this educational role for the poets as incompatible with his ideal of the philosopher kings who needed to be educated in geometry, philosophy and mathematics, rather than in the description of frivolous and fleeting experience.

Since the beginning, then, of Western literature, the poets are in danger (and here I am using the term “poet” to refer to the whole range of aesthetic activity). Why is this so? My own view is that poets and artists are, as the Greek origin of the word (poiesis) indicates, makers. Heidegger would remind us that poets are “revealers” of the destiny of beings. Artists are never simply satisfied with or interested in a fixed status quo. That is also why the artistic vocation is one that lends itself to political resistance and protest. The tradition of protest poetry is well established in South Africa, although it has been less prominent over the past few years. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true — over many years and in many different regimes across the world, often corrupt political power employed poets as their legitimators, forcing them to write odes and exhaltations. The most dramatic example is probably the German city of Theresienstadt where Hitler sent the Jewish cultural elite to produce performances legitimating the Nazism.

In a country rich with a tradition of the involvement of song and dance in politics (Umshini, Dubul’ ibhunu, De La Rey, Koekie loekie) it is important that we remain alive to both the destructive and the productive dimensions of the dialectical relationship between politics and art (poiesis). One thing is fairly certain, whatever we might think of particular works of art or performances: politics and law have never been able to silence art’s resounding call for justice — a justice, which, moreover, can only ever be singular.


  • Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy's Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town.


  1. ian shaw ian shaw 22 May 2011

    Stalin said that all arts inckluding poetry must be used to serve the political aims of socialism instead of reflecting selfish and individualistic emotions. This was called “socialist realism”, the only art form that was allowed. Our own more modern expression is “praise singing” about individuals and aims of the government as opposed to “biased and hostile criticism”.

  2. Nguni Nguni 22 May 2011

    How can anyone take your comments seriously when you compare the ‘banning’ of a couple of local poems or the idiocy of the ‘black beauty’ saga with cutting out someone’s tongue? Puts you in the same league of liberal dopeheads who claim apartheid was the same as naziism, where 6 million jews were killed. The same hypocrites who wail over 70 dead at Sharpville 50 years ago but who don’t bat an eyelid when a million Rwandans are butchered..

  3. Judith Judith 22 May 2011

    Which is why the Protection of Information bill must not become law

  4. MLH MLH 22 May 2011

    You forget that commissions usually come from the powerful and wealthy, who often happen to be politicians. Many a composer has historically benefited from commissions from a protector, as did the artists of the Renaissance in Italy. The church (RC et al) has also made itself responsible for the livelihoods of many artistic beings in countries where the church is as powerful as any political organisation.
    Is is not worth suggesting that the thoughts of Plato and Socrates should have progressed a little along the way?
    I’m not sure whether you might have been inferring that the work of the media be considered an art form. Were you? That would have underscored the pertinence of your post.

  5. Robard Robard 23 May 2011

    “Famously, even the story of a horse, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, was deemed unacceptable literature.”

    The policeman was in all probability Afrikaans speaking and mistook the book for BCM literature. The story rather illustrates the insular outlook and cultural imperialism of local liberals, who would take it for granted that a local policeman should be up to date with the reading lists of teenagers “back home”.

  6. Jaco Barnard-Naudé Jaco Barnard-Naudé 23 May 2011

    Ad Nguni
    Your comments are seriously out of line. In the first place, I did not, by any means “compare” the cutting out of Ahmed al-Ramisi’s tongue with the banning Black Beauty. The point was to illustrate the idiotic / insane / thoughtless dimensions of totalitarianism. I have never claimed that Apartheid is the same as the Holocaust – only that there are / were political similarities.
    Ad Robard:
    Fred and Sarah Carneson were not “local liberals” but rather active communists who were banned from being in each other’s presence as a result of their political activity. We do not know whether the policeman was Afrikaans – to assume (as you do) that he couldn’t read simply because he was Afrikaans, is deeply patronising.
    Ad MLH:
    If your read the post again, you might see that I write the following: “many different regimes across the world, often corrupt political power employed poets as their legitimators, forcing them to write odes and exhaltations.”

  7. Robard Robard 23 May 2011

    “We do not know whether the policeman was Afrikaans – to assume (as you do) that he couldn’t read simply because he was Afrikaans, is deeply patronising.”

    I didn’t assume that he couldn’t read, only that he quite likely wasn’t au fait with English teen literature. (Did he only take Black Beauty, or was the Noddy books also confiscated? If the first, then my interpretation is the only logical one, if the latter, then why only point out Black Beauty?) Your reaction doesn’t leave much to be assumed about your own reading comprehension though. Not to mention the level of hypocrisy in accusing me of being patronising, while endorsing your communist heroes’ insinuation about the insanity of Afrikaners for supporting apartheid.

  8. Nguni Nguni 24 May 2011

    My comment may have been over the top, but this was to illustrate my point. Nevertheless the topic was censorship, and I expected the same with my comment. So I was pleasantly surprised to see it wasn’t. Of course you didn’t compare directly, in this case the former SA regime was ‘guilty by association’ because cutting out the Yemeni poet’s tongue ‘made you think about’ previous injustices to local poets. Point remains: this is a completely different league of cruelty.

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