To burn books is to make a strong political statement. To burn a book is a symbolic act culturally understood to stand in for a hatred of ideas.
Book burning – like flag burning – is ceremonial: an overt statement of an intention to oppose freedom of thought. It is emblematic of a narrow worldview, of censorship, of a desire to silence dissent.
In the early morning hours of 4 February 2014, the Zithobeni Community Library in Bronkhorstspruit, east of Pretoria, was set alight. The library was built in 1986 and it served a large community that included two high schools and three primary schools.
It is moot that this deplorable act of violence by protestors against their neighbours was meant symbolically, but it’s worth asking if it was, and of what it might be symbolic.
The Nazis made a bonfire on Opernplatz in Berlin in 1933 and burned the books of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Émile Zola, Friedrich Engels, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway. They also burnt the books of Heinrich Heine, a Jewish-born German poet, journalist and essayist, who’d written in a play just over 100 years earlier, that: “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” [“Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people.”]
Never was that direct correlation between the burning of books and the burning of people more literal than in Nazi Germany.
The service delivery protests – the inflamed rash on the nation’s skin pointing to a severe underlying infection which risks bringing this fragile democratic body to within an inch of its life – are not surprising.
But the burning of this library is a visceral shock.
The violent Bronkhorstspruit protests – where not only a library was burnt – continued for two days. According to one news report, police shouted at those arrested: “You don't want better lives. You are burning your children's education. You are burning their books.”
Biopro sends out its empathy for the hell in which millions of South Africans live, threatens to dilute horror at the burning of those books. Children on their way to school must jump across bubbling rivers of sewage spilling from manholes, and balance their bodies over festering pits when they need the toilet. Rubbish not collected by municipalities lies stinking next to homes, and the desperately poor scavenge there for scraps of food among the maggots and used sanitary towels and nappies.
Families share their shacks with rats and roaches and, when they get ill, they must walk far to a local clinic where they queue for hours before they are, very often, treated to toxic doses of the effluent that arises where nurses are overworked and underpaid: rudeness, impatience, intolerance, mockery, disdain.
Something must give – and is giving – under the extreme juxtaposition of the promised life of freedom and the dire, fetid circumstances in which so many must daily attempt to live, and live with dignity.
Perhaps there was nothing at all sinister in the burning of the library. It – like clinics and homes that have also succumbed to the conflagration – is quite likely simply “collateral damage”.
Yet, we have come to understand that “collateral damage” is euphemism for murder, committed under the banner of what some feel is a justified cause.
So the burning of Zithobeni Community Library is chilling.
If it was meant to be symbolic, what was it symbolic of? If it was not symbolic, then how profoundly has education failed in this country if it has not entrenched in every single citizen the incontestable necessity of books for a hopeful future? How far gone are we if the hope that books represent is dead enough to be cremated? How little are children loved and valued if their books are burnt?
Ray Bradbury, who wrote Fahrenheit 451 – a novel in which books are banned and “firemen” burn any that are found – once wrote: “...when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history, they are one and the same flesh.”