Why the first South African novel to be banned under apartheid law is also one of the worst ever written
Published in the Sunday Times
Rosa Lyster conducted a forensic-detective-style search for the author of the forgotten book An Act of Immorality, which despite its pseudo-liberal credentials she believes is one of the worst local novels ever written
In 1963, the state tried to take control of South African literature. While other legislation was already being used to censor “undesirable” material, the 1963 Publications and Entertainment Act was the first to make statutory provision for the control of locally produced work, allowing the apartheid state to operate one of the most comprehensive censorship systems in the world. It is difficult to communicate the scale of the endeavour, except to describe it as a kind of mania. The censors tried to read everything, were suspicious of everything, wrote dense and detailed reports on everything, in an attempt to neutralise the perceived threat of literature. They failed, ultimately. But they tried.
The first South African novel to be banned under the new legislation was titled An Act of Immorality, published by Trans-World in 1963, and written under a pseudonym: Des Troye. The book jacket advertises it as “A Startling Expose of Sex Across the Colour Line”, featuring a lawyer who “prosecutes offenders of the Immorality Act by day” and “by Night, under neurotic compulsion … breaks the immorality act.” The author is described as “a Johannesburg Attorney who holds a degree in psychology … He writes under the pen-name ‘Des Troye’ to avoid victimisation and publicity”.
An Act of Immorality sold 40,000 copies on publication, breaking previous records on South African sales by 25,000 units. In late 1963, an American film crew entered South Africa illegally through Swaziland in order to make a film of the book, drawing the attention of the Security Branch. Further scrutiny followed about six months later, when An Act of Immorality was submitted to the censorship board by the Police Commissioner. The novel was quickly banned. Censors’ reports describe it as “an attack on the National Party” and on apartheid. Attached documents reveal that the offices of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, and the National Commissioner of Police were engaged in a joint effort to unmask Des Troye, who they had identified only as a white Johannesburg-based lawyer who might be working at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. It is unclear, in these memos, whether this information has been gathered from analysis of the novel itself, or from other sources of intelligence. What is clear is that they badly wanted to find out who he was.
This is the first half of the story of An Act of Immorality. I have told it to a few people, and the response is always the same: they cannot understand why they haven’t heard it before. It’s such an interesting story, after all: anonymous author, 40,000 copies sold, first South African novel to be banned. The most interesting thing about Act though is that almost no one seems to know anything about it, even the people who should know. I can offer myself as a test case: I am in the process of completing a doctoral thesis about literary censorship during apartheid, and all I knew that the book was that it existed, and that it was long out of print. I had never read it, and I had no idea of the author’s real identity. It’s not just me – in wider discussions of literary censorship, the novel is mentioned only in passing, and only the pseudonym is provided. Peter McDonald, the author of The Literature Police (Oxford University Press) and an authority on the subject of apartheid censorship, didn’t know who Des Troye was, either. I asked him about it over email, shortly after I became interested in the case. He replied saying that he hadn’t been able to get to the bottom of it, and encouraged me to do some more digging.
I started with the book itself, which I read over two days in the National Library, sitting with all the people rustling their newspapers and doing their maths homework. I’m not sure what I expected it to be like. Earnestly liberal, maybe. Probably a bit racy, with some bad sex scenes and an implausible plotline. I didn’t think it was going to be good. I did not anticipate how bad it actually is.
An Act of Immorality is a very bad book. It begins with the sentence “It was afternoon, a warm, sensual afternoon”, and it is all downhill from there. Characters are coarsely drawn; description is weak; plot twists are produced at the last moment; whole characters exist only to illuminate the nobility of the protagonist, Johannes Burger, an obvious stand-in for the author; and dialogue is comically bad. It urgently needs an edit. The tone moves awkwardly between laboured raunchiness and long stretches in which characters have impossibly unlikely conversations about psychology. Remember the psychology thing, because it becomes important later.
Open Act at any page, and you will find something to cringe at. It’s not a sin, though, to be a bad writer. The real problem is that it is also a horrible book. The novel continually expresses views which are repellent, while also presenting its protagonist as an exemplar of liberal humanity. On the one hand, it weighs against the Immorality Act, calling it “an act of death”, and provides countless scenes of the damage the act wrought. On the other, it contains many sentences like these: “It was obvious to all present, even to the most ignorant African onlooker, that here was a man different from other men”; “[e]ven the most illiterate non-white in the gallery could see that Johannes was a man of conviction”; “her voice, poise and attire were extremely sophisticated for a black woman”. The protagonist’s desire for black women is described as a “neurotic compulsion”, and it is strongly implied that the root of this “compulsion” is his sexual abuse at the hands of his mother. It is further intimated that both parents were driven to suicide by their own “neurotic” desire for black men and women. White people’s desire for black people is continually depicted as pathological, the product of a troubled mind, and the root cause of the suicide of at least four white people in the novel. It is literally what kills them. The novel was banned on the grounds that it was “a slashing attack on the Immorality Act and apartheid,” but it could almost have been used as state propaganda.
Reading Act made me understand why the author had been so coy about his identity. I went back to the censor’s report hoping to find something, some clue about who he was. I found it: a typed memo at the back of a file I had looked at probably 20 times before, and yet somehow failed to properly see: “It may be mentioned that the ‘Sunday Express’ of the 29th September contains a report to the effect that an American film company is secretly filming the novel. The department has notified the SAP, and will be advised as to the authenticity of this statement. According to the Press report, the author is Mr Simon Meyerson.”
I can’t think of a more vivid example of the lunacies of the apartheid state than the fact that three state offices, between them, were apparently in doubt as to the identity of someone whose full name, occupation, and photograph had recently been published in a national paper. The secret of Des Troye’s identity was never a secret at all.
Ordering the microfilm from the National Library, I expected to find a small piece somewhere towards the back of the paper. It was on the front page. A screaming headline: SEX BOOK IS FILMED SECRETLY ON RAND: AMERICAN UNIT “SHOOTS” “ACT OF IMMORALITY” The article describes the author in the same terms used on the book jacket and states that “until today, his identity has remained a well-kept secret”. The writer goes on: “I am now able to disclose that the author is Mr Simon Meyerson, a 27-year-old student at the University of the Witwaterstrand”.
The subsequent interview of Meyerson makes for revealing reading. The writer of the article, Gordon Winter (subsequently revealed to be an apartheid spy), quotes Meyerson as insisting that the book was not “political” and instead was an interrogation into “the underlying psychological reasons … why people broke the Act in spite of its disastrous consequences.” In a follow-up report a week later, Meyerson insisted again that his motives were not political. Discussing an upcoming trip to London in order to negotiate world film rights for the novel, Meyerson stated: “I … wish to tell [the Minister of Information] that I do not intend being a bad ambassador for South Africa when I go to London on Thursday.”
It is difficult to say what he was thinking when he gave this interview. Also, it is important to remember that the writer of this article was an apartheid spy – he might have quoted Meyerson unsympathetically, or out of context. It is difficult to say. It looks very bad, though, especially the part about being an ambassador for the apartheid state.
Where is Meyerson now? An online search found a psychologist of the same name and age, also born in South Africa, who has an LLB and now lives in London. He did not respond to repeated email requests for comment, so it might be him, or it might not. Nowhere in this Meyerson’s biography or list of achievements is there any mention of An Act of Immorality.
Whoever wrote the book has succeeded in obscuring this part of his past. There is, in fact, very little remaining evidence that the book existed at all. It has fallen almost entirely from view. The question as to why this has happened might be easy to answer: this is a horrible story, and one that we would prefer not to remember.
Follow Rosa Lyster @rosalyster