#100PENMembers No.68: Margie Orford

Margie Orford is an internationally-renowned writer and journalist and former President of PEN South Africa.

A lifelong activist and campaigner, she was imprisoned as a student during the 1985 State of Emergency in South Africa.

Since that time, she has been highly involved in politics both in South Africa and globally, particularly on free expression issues, which was what attracted her to PEN.

In an interview with this project’s Co-Investigator, Peter McDonald, she describes a childhood and an education in which ‘all the books were banned’ citing this as the reason for her ‘sensitive spot about what you can read and what you can’t.’

When the Apartheid regime was lifted there was, she says ‘such a sense of liberation and opening that sort of space that had been closed off so completely under Apartheid – no light, no oxygen – it really opened and expanded and into that came so much publishing and writing.’

Yet many of the undertakings of South African PEN in the intervening decades have been to address its legacy, from promoting new and emerging literature to tackling continued censorship of the media.

One of the biggest battles during Orford’s time with PEN was the so-called “Secrecy Act”, which sought to criminalise the publication of information which went against South Africa’s “national interests”. Orford describes it as ‘as broad and as Orwellian as you like.’

She continues: ‘And the consequences for journalists, writers, and the people who passed on the information – whistleblowers – were sentences up to twenty-five years.’

The legislation was especially chilling ‘for a country with a very immediate memory of apartheid and an era in which many, many writers were banned, detained, and imprisoned.’ Thanks to PEN South Africa and its allies, the legislation was never passed by the South African parliament.

PEN also campaigned in South Africa around literacy and citizenship – specifically how access to literature impacted the ability to partake in and benefit from being part of democratic process.

Orford became President of PEN South Africa in 2014 and was instrumental in campaigning on issues around gender and race, and particularly the intersections between the two as well as on free expression matters. For her the systemic violence against women in South Africa – and elsewhere – was itself a form of censorship: ‘It’s systemic, it happens, you know, there’s a kind of spectrum of it that happens from trolling on the internet to the murder of Jo Cox the MP, for instance.’

Orford joined with #100PENMembers and PEN International President Jennifer Clement to push through PEN’s Women’s Manifesto in 2017, a crucial turning point in thinking about systemic and institutional gender-based violence within the wider world but even with the organisation itself. 

She explained, ‘Jennifer’s from Mexico I’m from South Africa – and both of us have dealt for years with violence against women and violence against women as a form of censorship.’

The Manifesto was 25 years in the making, thanks to the efforts of the PEN International Women Writers Committee but it was perhaps fitting that it finally came to fruition under the organisation’s first female President.

The Manifesto listed six key principles, with signatories from 22 centres. Tackling ingrained inequality, it seeks to address all of the areas which restrict and censor women and female-identifying people’s ability to speak out, from internet trolling, education, access and safety to roam physically and intellectually without fear of violence or intimidation.

The Manifesto points out ‘For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.’

It goes on that ‘PEN believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It is a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge.’

Whilst she stepped down as President of PEN South Africa in 2017, passing the baton to Nadia Davids, Orford remains active within PEN as a member of the Executive Board of PEN International.

Listen to our recent interviews with Margie.

#100PENMembers No.13: Nadine Gordimer

Today we focus on one of the most pivotal PEN members in its history. Nobel Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer, was not only a prominent figure within International PEN for many years, she also played a leading part in challenging the racist exclusions within South African PEN. She was central to the creation of the short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN from 1978 to 1981, and a lifelong campaigner against apartheid. 

Nadine Gordimer
Photo: Nobel Prize Foundation Archive

Up until this point, South African PEN had largely excluded black writers. Gordimer was, like the wider PEN membership across the world, concerned about the South African centre’s long-standing failure to live up to PEN’s non-racial ideals. She had been a combative figure in South African PEN since the early 1960s, and had long thought that most members were amateurs, not really writers. In 1975 the newly formed local Artists’ and Writers’ Guild chastised Cape Town PEN – then the only active branch – for its ludicrous categories of membership and for being unaware of the names of black writers. 

Things came to a head at the International Congress in Stockholm in 1978. The new black-led Johannesburg PEN centre received strong backing from delegates at the Congress, including Wole Soyinka, who spoke on behalf of the Union of Writers of the African Peoples and Per Wästberg, the President of Swedish PEN. 

At the meeting Mothobi Mutloatse, who went on to chair the Johannesburg centre, also called for the disestablishment of Cape Town PEN, ‘for its unsatisfactory record up to date.’ Though Peter Elstob, the International Secretary, defended its record, Mutloatse’s intervention provoked a media storm and much heated debate. 

In the end, Johannesburg PEN, with Gordimer’s help, brought together members of other writers organisations to create a genuinely mixed racial grouping. 

By so doing it represented a new departure for South African PEN, though, as Gordimer commented, the alliance was fragile. ‘It is such a delicate fabric that we have managed to weave crisscross’, she wrote in a letter, ‘we are aware that a snagged fingernail could rip it’. The ‘snag’ proved to be the wider political climate at the time that made co-operation untenable. 

After the new centre was disbanded in January 1981, key black members, including Mutloatse, Sipho Sepamla and Miriam Tlali, formed the African Writers Association, which was not aligned to International PEN. 

Gordimer, however, continued to work for International PEN. As John Ralston Saul, PEN International President, said when she died in 2014, she was, ‘a great writer imbued with great courage.  Nadine Gordimer was one of the defining voices of PEN in the modern era, combining creativity, ethics and the resolve necessary to stand up to racism and authoritarianism’.

‘Europeans Only’: A Note on ‘The South African Centre of PEN, Johannesburg’, 1927-74

Our South African Research Associate Kate Highman talks us through the racial politics she uncovered whilst investigating the archives of the Johannesburg PEN Centre…

There is a telling moment in the archives of Johannesburg PEN – the iteration of it that ran from the 1927 to 1974 – where a funding application to the Department of Education, Arts and Science lists as the persons whose interests PEN represents as ‘Europeans’, rather than ‘non-Europeans’.

Telling, as the Centre generally insisted on its non-racial bona fides  – after all, the 1948 PEN Charter pledged its members ‘to do their utmost to dispel all national, race and class hatreds’ and stipulated that membership will be open to all, ‘without regard to nationality, race, colour or religion.’ (In 2017, the Charter was reformulated so that members are now pledged to ‘dispel all hatreds’, not confined to those of nationality, race, colour or religion.)’

Nevertheless, the Centre remained almost exclusively white for its entire duration –with at most three members of colour over its span of nearly half a century.

Even in the early 1970s, when the dwindling organisation was desperate for new members –  cold-calling various white individuals to solicit their membership – they clearly struggled to extend these invitations to writers of colour.

Minutes of a 1972 meeting show extended debate about whether to invite black author ‘Oswald Mshali’ (sic) to join PEN, as well as an unusually direct glimpse of the racism that appears to have subtended its ostensibly hapless racial exclusivity: ‘several members had indicated that if Non-Europeans joined they would resign’.

Whether Mtshali joined is unclear from the archives (in the end it was ‘unanimously agreed’ to invite him); either way, the organisation was shortly defunct. Had Mtshali declined membership, it would not be surprising given PEN’s earlier treatment of him.

While a contributor to the PEN publication New South African Writing (1969), he was not invited to its launch party, for this would have necessitated holding the event at a venue open to all races or applying for a permit for him to attend – something the Chair, Edgar Bernstein, did not do, instead writing to Mtshali that while the Centre would have ‘liked’ to invite him, PEN was bound by ‘the laws of the land’.

Bernstein letter

Reproduced with the permission of Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Collection A977; folder 5.13)

Going through the Centre’s papers, it becomes clear that again and again it is PEN’s adherence to petty apartheid and the letter of the law that helps keep it so overwhelmingly white. And ironically, it is the sociality that lies at PEN’s core (it was originally conceived as dinner club for writers) that enables this. For the PEN ‘luncheon’ (it’s never simply ‘lunch’) or ‘sherry party’ is invariably held at a ‘whites-only’ venue.

The fundamental bad faith of hosting PEN events in whites-only venues is something that Nadine Gordimer pointed out in 1965, in an archly polite letter explaining her refusal of their invitation to host a lunch in her honour:

‘For some time it has seemed to me to be improper and distasteful that PEN – a non-racial, no-colour-bar body by constitution – should hold official gatherings in hotels and restaurants which, in accordance with licensing laws, are reserved for the use of white people only. I feel there is little excuse for us to meet in self-congratulation, as it were, while we have so little cause for congratulation where efforts to make the comradeship of South African writers non-racial are concerned’.


Gordimer letter

Reproduced with the permission of Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Collection A977; folder 3.7)

Gordimer’s phrase ‘meeting in self-congratulation’ sticks, as does her barb about what is ‘(im)proper and (dis)tasteful’. For she not only touches here on the Centre’s inflated sense of its own importance, but does so in the terms that matter most to it.

Leafing through the archives it becomes clear that the organisation is animated by an almost neurotic concern with what is ‘proper’ and ‘tasteful’.

This is evident in its anxiety that membership be limited to writers of sufficiently ‘literary’ merit (a mystical term of much confusion), as well as the menus for the luncheons and sherry parties, the choice of venues, the official letterheads, etc. It is an anxiety and self-importance very much rooted in the Centre’s awareness of itself as part of a prestigious international organisation — one, moreover, of European origin, with its headquarters in England, the imperial centre.

Reflecting back on the funding application which  describes the people whose interests PEN served as exclusively ‘Europeans’, it is telling not just because it is unusually frank about the Centre’s actual membership, but because of the way PEN inscribed itself into South African society — at least until 1978, when a new, black-led PEN emerged in Johannesburg.

Answering to, and in the language of, the white supremacist government, the organisation (as constituted by the Johannesburg and Cape Town Centres and the Afrikaans Skrywerskring, which disaffiliated from PEN in 1967) arguably not only paid it lip service but – more troublingly — served to uphold, or at least legitimise, the status quo of European domination in South Africa, using ‘literature’ to do so.

All of this raises a number of questions that we hope to consider in conversation with the current, very different South African PEN Centre, in a conference planned for September 2020:

– How does (and did) PEN, an organisation founded in England but born in the spirit of internationalism, ‘translate’ across different political, legal and cultural contexts?

– How have issues of race played out in the history of PEN internationally, and how did International PEN, and the wider community of PEN centres, shape, regard and respond to the practices of the various PEN centres in South Africa?

– How do issues of race and free expression continue to intersect, and how does PEN address such intersections?



Un-covering PEN’s archives: Four months at the Harry Ransom Center

I should begin by pointing out that a mere four months is by no means enough time to get through PEN’s enormous archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In order to approach the archive, I had to work closely with Professor Rachel Potter, the PI on the project, to ascertain precisely the best way to tackle the archival holdings which comprise hundreds of archive boxes.


The reading room at the HRC

These boxes hold not only committee and meeting minutes but also financial records, personal and organisational letters between figures from H.G. Wells to Glenda Jackson, Salman Rushdie to George Bernard Shaw and countless other items of ephemera from theatre programmes to menus from PEN dinners.

We decided to concentrate primarily on working through the meeting minutes, year by year, which would guide us outward to other documents whilst making sure that we still viewed events within their historical context and in chronological order.

This would help to track the development of discussions around free expression but also the growth and influence of the organisation as a whole.

As Rachel had already made inroads into the earlier part of the archive, my job was to begin in 1951 with the congress in Lausanne, Switzerland.

This method allowed me to watch the history of the second half of the twentieth century unfurl through PEN, observing how its members, their debates and opinions echoed the debates taking place internationally.

I began then, with the aftermath of World War Two, with PEN dealing with UNESCO to address the ongoing paper shortage on a practical level.

On a political level, meetings at this time were also preoccupied with the difficulties of dealing with the re-establishment of Centres in formerly fascist countries and with extending membership to writers who had either sympathised with or who had not actively condemned the actions of fascist governments.

Clearly, for countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France, it was unconscionable to allow collaborators back into PEN and this raised a number of thorny issues around PEN’s commitment to stand above politics and national sympathies.

There followed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, significant clashes between Communist and Western centres, each citing PEN’s commitment to political impartiality, whilst trying to uphold PEN’s commitment to defend free speech, and to prevent the writer from becoming part of the apparatus of the State.

As a clipping from The Times discussing PEN’s 1959 Congress explains: ‘‘Behind a façade of unity there lies a deep rift among members of the club about the attitude the club should take toward the Cold War. This has resulted in a policy of “neutrality” and “coexistence”, to which the directors have given a distinct fellow-travelling tinge’ (The Times, 24 March 1959).

This attitude changes markedly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which often see PEN taking a harder line with countries such as Russia and Hungary, who were persecuting writers who could be seen as subversive or critical of the Communist state.

PEN remained engaged in these debates until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the admittance of a mainland China Centre in 1980 and a Russian Centre in 1989.

Beyond the machinations of the Cold War, PEN addressed many other key issues of the times, speaking out about the use of atomic weapons, critiquing the Communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism in the US and even fighting Apartheid in South Africa.

It was also at the forefront of campaigning for writers’ freedom for almost a century, playing a key role in the cases of Boris Pasternak, Salman Rushdie and Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many hundreds of others.

There was even a spirited discussing in the 1990s about whether Nelson Mandela qualified as a writer and therefore could legitimately be given PEN’s support, unfortunately it was decided that this was something of a stretch and the organisation should concentrate their activities elsewhere. They remained vocal supporters of Mandela however, despite not themselves undertaking direct action to secure his release.

The incredible historical value of this archive has now been properly recognised and it is being fully-catalogued and, in places, digitised which we hope will help other researchers to tease out other areas of the archive.

I had no time, for example, to look at the records relating to individual national Centres housed at the HRC (as well as in PEN Centres and former Centres across the world), or to investigate fully PEN’s activities with, for example, queer activism, feminism or postcolonialism.

There is much work currently being undertaken – as you can see from our growing research network – and much, much more still to be done.

The next stop for me and the rest of the team is the PEN Archive at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa.

Do you work on any aspect of PEN’s work, on freedom of expression or on another writers organisation? Do get in touch.

If you would like to write a blog for our website about any of the topics discussed in this post, do get in touch.





Margie Orford: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t’

In Part One of our interview, Peter McDonald talks to Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa, talks about why she is sensitive about the topic of banned books, why she joined PEN and why freedom of expression is a global concern…

Inspired in her politics and in her writing by her experiences growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, Orford first came to PEN as an activist:

‘I was educated in South Africa in the eighties and all the books were banned.’

‘I did economic history, half the books were banned – my shaping of the world was having restricted access to books.’

‘Most of the African writers and the criticism I wanted to read, were banned.’

1 Italy smile

Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa

As a result, she has a real resistance to the censorship of books and the curtailment of freedom of expression for writers more generally: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t.’

She describes how, later, with the new South African constitution in 1994 it seemed that ‘the right to free expression is constitutionally protected’.

‘There was such a sense of liberation and opening that sort of space that had been closed off so completely under Apartheid – no light, no oxygen – it really opened and expanded and into that came so much publishing and writing.’

She describes how, despite its difficult history in terms of free expression she has always found South Africa ‘an extremely outspoken country even under the worst of Apartheid people might be banned or detained but there was a determination that the truth would be told.’

It was later, under the Zuma government, that she realised she needed to join PEN: ‘My interest with PEN was very specifically around the Secrecy Bill, this was legislation that could put people I know and know well into prison.’

Since then she’s never looked back: ‘I like international work, I think that freedom of expression issues are global.’

Echoing the words of the PEN Charter itself, she adds: ‘If you’ve grown up as a reader, national borders are irrelevant.’

Listen to the first part of Margie’s interview with Peter McDonald, to hear her discuss Danish cartoonists, absolutes in free expression and why speech is always political.