Last weekend I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. It was a chilling reminder that South Africa was one of the most exhaustively surveilled societies of the 20th Century. The Nationalist party came to power in 1948 and it rapidly set to work passing Apartheid legislation. Ensuring compliance with the Pass Laws and the Group Areas Act involved the constant physical harassment and arrest of Black South Africans by South Africa’s authoritarian police force. This was met with determined resistance, which meant that censorship and its shadowy fellow traveller, surveillance, were as important to the establishment and maintenance of Apartheid as brute force. Political parties, activists, writers and books were banned in a deliberate attempt to shut down dissent. Nelson Mandela, speaking from the dock during the Rivonia trial in 1964, argued that “all lawful modes of expressing opposition to [the principle of white supremacy] had been closed by legislation.’

From 1948 until 1994, when Mandela was elected president, a brutal state consolidated its doctrine of white supremacy through a system of relentless racial surveillance. There was no public space left unregulated, no intimate place into which the scopic eye of the Apartheid state did not intrude. One of the defining features of an authoritarian state is its Orwellian desire to know all in its attempt to control all. It is not possible to separate out mass surveillance from authoritarianism, nor is it possible to over-estimate the harm done by surveillance in the half century that Apartheid endured.

A Commission of Enquiry was set up by the Nationalist government in the 1950s.  A regulatory system was to be established to protect ‘public decency’ and a report was to be compiled on censorship. In 1957 Peter Abrahams’s autobiography, Tell Freedom, was the first work by a black author to be banned; the same year that saw the passing of the Sexual Offences or Immorality Act, which criminalized sex between people of different races. The voyeurism of this law provided a theme for a number of South African novels and plays—Athol Fugard’s 1972 Report one of them. This is perhaps because the policing of love and sex, the most intimate human domain, embodied so vividly the humiliating invasion of the state into private realm of thought, feeling, and touch that should be a citizen’s by right.

The 1960 massacre of protestors in Sharpeville ushered in an era of even worse repression in which an increasing number of books deemed dangerous were banned, as were an increasing number of South African writers. Surveillance, bannings, restriction orders, and exiles took their toll on both ordinary citizens and writers. Apartheid pushed its way into all aspects of life until it was the only subject that South African writers could address. A repressive state directly impacts creativity and literature, and South Africa was no exception, but like their counterparts in Cold War Eastern Europe, repression and surveillance also resulted in the flowering of intense and unique literature.

In 1976, the Apartheid state attempted to introduce Afrikaans as the medium of instruction for Black school children. Students saw Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor and they took to the streets. After the Soweto Riots, the state became increasingly brutal. In 1977, the writer and Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko, author of I Write What I Like, was murdered in detention. Bannings reached a peak in the late 1970s and many writers, musicians, and artists went into exile along with thousands of young people leaving South Africa. Inside the country, resistance grew in the face of an uncompromisingly authoritarian state. South Africa’s townships were burning, and in 1985, the government declared a State of Emergency.

I was a final year student at the University of Cape Town in 1985 and was a journalist on the student newspaper. Censorship was stringent and the penalties for breaking the law were severe. It became increasingly difficult to report on the violence of what was a de facto civil war. Despite the fact that all articles had to be checked by the paper’s lawyers to ensure that they did not break any of the Kafkaesque censorship laws, many editors were creative. They went to print with whole sections of a story blacked out. As time went by, however, more and more content was erased until only a few words were left—a kind of absurd ‘found poem’ made up of pronouns and prepositions. Blacking out was banned so newspapers published a headline and nothing but white space beneath. Without any apparent attempt at irony, white space was then banned. The space for inventiveness had closed; we had arrived at the that point in which there is no room left to play cat and mouse with censors.

In October of 1985 I was detained at a protest on campus and sent, to a maximum security prison. On the third night there I was woken by prison guards and taken for interrogation. Inside the small room were two security officers. One was seated at the table, a folder in front of him. He told me to sit. I obeyed. He asked me who had instructed me to go to the protest, to do the things I had done. My answer—because what was happening in the country was wrong—did not satisfy him. The other man did not speak but he stepped closer to me. I was acutely aware that all I had on was a nightie.

The seated officer opened the folder squared in front of him and took out a series of photographs of me, of people I knew at public gatherings, at political meetings, at parties; of me going into a house with someone, with whom I had had a brief and best-forgotten affair. My skin crawled. Precisely the same feeling I had experienced years earlier on a crowded subway in London when a man I could not identify had shoved his hand up my skirt. Looking at these grainy photographs I felt the same nausea, the same fear, the same shame I had on that train.

Surveillance reaches into deeper places than those accessed by the censor; its purpose is to watch a target secretly and catch them doing something clandestine. However, paranoia is surveillance’s doppelganger: if the surveilled does nothing wrong does it indicate innocence or does it indicate a talent for secrecy that deserves ever-closer scrutiny? Once a person realizes they are being watched they will always be looking over their shoulder. Think of the woman who is stalked by a stranger or a rejected lover. The victim is forced to self-censor what she says, to modify where she goes, and who she sees. Surveillance acts as an invisible prison, a panopticon that affects both mind and body. Fifty years of surveillance certainly left enduring fault lines on the political, social, and creative life of South Africa, and two decades has proved too short to heal them all.

So what happened after 1994 when Mandela was elected president? South Africa’s Constitution, adopted in 1996, explicitly protects freedom of expression (Article 16). The right includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity; academic freedom and freedom of scientific research. This crucial right has been contested in recent years. There have been calls for the introduction of insult laws ostensibly to save the President and the ruling elite from the biting satire meted out by the cartoonist Zapiro, who has also faced lawsuits for up to 150 million rand. These have been dropped, but the threat of financial ruin for individuals, editors, and publishers is a grave threat to free speech.

The biggest threat to South Africa’s post-Apartheid democracy, however, is the Protection of State Information Bill. Widely viewed as an attempt to hide rampant state corruption, the Secrecy Bill, as it is known, threatens writers and whistleblowers with twenty-five year sentences if they use classified material. It is as if decades of repression and surveillance created an instinct for secrecy for those who are now in power.

But that is politics. What was the creative legacy of so much surveillance? Apartheid, in its very desire to silence, worked to ‘produce’ a unique and world-acknowledged body of literature that claimed back the humanity of its country’s people despite the power of the state, the censor, and the security policeman. The post-apartheid literary life of South Africa’s two Nobel Literature Laureates has been an interesting one. There was always a ludic strangeness in the works of JM Cotezee, which were never banned. Interestingly his work has endured after apartheid in ways that Nadine Gordimer’s work, whose oeuvre was political in a narrower sense and who had several novels banned, has not.

Some writers, an older generation especially, have struggled to define what it is that they should write about after apartheid. Was there a framing comfort in surveillance that is now absent? Is there a perverse pleasure for the writer in being watched? After all, no one ever paid as much attention to a writer’s work as a censor, so when that gaze is removed do writers simply stop? Some South African writers did, as did many of their counterparts in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. I have heard authors from Eastern Europe say that the repressive era was an extremely creative one; that they felt adrift and aimless and meaningless afterwards, despite the fact that real harm was visited upon some. Is it, perversely, that an extremely attentive relationship between the watched and the watcher was necessary for the writing?

In 2011, South African PEN organized a reading of the imprisoned Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiabo’s writing in Cape Town.  Ten South African writers read from their own work—all of them had been imprisoned, banned, detained, or exiled. It was also a salutary reminder of the extent to which creativity had been stifled and freedom of expression had been policed and punished before the advent of democracy in 1994.

In truth, South African literature has flourished post-apartheid, producing a range of new voices and genre literature for the first time, although the identity of our literature as a ‘national one’ is hard to define (perhaps that is no longer possible anywhere in a globalized world). Many writers could only begin to write once apartheid had been dismantled, once there was space to breathe again—a new place to imagine and real opportunities to publish.

So how does one assess the harm caused by surveillance? There might be a paradoxical benefit in the intense creativity that accompanies surveillance. But then there is a withering—a dry, white season. Surveillance is ultimately crippling; it is like being a plant under a rock. It grows an individual and a community into unnatural shapes. Impressive sometimes, but unnatural. And recovery takes years.