On banning books and futile exercises

On 10 July 1964, the South African Publications Control Board published the decision that the book "When the Lion Feeds" by Wilbur Smith "is indecent, obscene and objectionable" on the basis that parts of it are deemed to be "indecent, obscene or are offensive or harmful to public morals." An appeal was lodged against the decision, and the High Court (then the Supreme Court) of the Cape, upheld the appeal by a majority of the judges.

In an appeal against the decision of the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal (then the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court), upheld the appeal by a majority, and reversed the decision by the Cape High Court. In the result, the book was banned, and could not be sold or bought in South Africa. The decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal was subsequently published in the South African Law Reports under reference Publications Control Board v William Heinemann Ltd 1965 (4) SA 137 (AD).

In dealing with the passages from the book that were deemed to be "indecent, obscene, or offensive", the Chief Justice was careful to steer as far clear as possible of using any direct quotes or referring to the passages by using words which in their turn could give offence. The result of his judgment was that the book was banned from bookshelves in South Africa. Nobody in South Africa was to be allowed to see the passages that gave such grave offence that the (then) highest court in the country had to pronounce judgment on it. That, after all, is what banning a book intends to achieve.

Curiously, though, nothing prevented Mr Justice Rumpff (he later became Chief Justice himself) from quoting the passages in a minority opinion dissenting from the learned Chief Justice. The law reports are widely published, and available in virtually every lawyer's office or chambers, with the result that anyone in 1964 who was interested in seeing what exactly Wilbur Smith had written that was so offensive, obscene and indecent that the book had to be banned, could do so at his or her leisure in the offices of any lawyer or any reasonably well-stocked library.

This of course begs the question: What was the point? The book was in any event later unbanned. Looking at the passages again, it is hard to see what was so bad that the book deserved to be banned. Such is the nature of censorship: What is offensive today, may be a mere commonplace tomorrow. "When the Lion Feeds" became a bestseller worldwide.