PEN South Africa was founded in 1927 with the novelist Sarah Gertrude Millin as the first President. Although Millin attended international congresses and events in this capacity, the organisation, then based in Johannesburg, remained small and exerted little influence nationally or internationally.
Partly in response to the success of the more active local Afrikaans groups, Lewis and Dora Sowden revived its fortunes in the mid-1940s, attracting many more members and organising more readings and literary events.
By the 1950s, with its membership standing at around eighty, a second branch was established in Cape Town and SA PEN began to publish a yearbook. Later in the decade, it started to take a more outspoken stance towards the Nationalist government, which came to power in 1948, campaigning against the increasingly draconian censorship laws introduced to bolster apartheid. In the following decade it protested actively against the new censorship apparatus, which by then affected locally-produced as well as imported publications, though with little success.
Dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of its strategies, other white-led local groups, notably the English-language Pasquino Society, the Writer’s Guild and the anti-apartheid Afrikaans Skrywersgilde (Writers’ Guild) took up the initiative in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though SA PEN continued to protest against censorship and to champion South African literature by publishing a series of anthologies of new writing (P.E.N. 1960, New South African Writing, 1964-67 and 1977), it did not play a significant part in the larger resistance to apartheid.
In the late 1970s, the Johannesburg branch enjoyed a brief revival when PEN International, encouraged by Nadine Gordimer and others, approved the formation of a new black-led group under the chairmanship of the writer and journalist Mothobi Mutloatse. For the first time, the South African centre began to attract a significant black membership, much to the alarm of Mary Renault, then head of the more genteel Cape Town branch. In the era of Black Consciousness, however, the non-racial Johannesburg branch remained divided and it was disbanded in 1981. The exclusively black African Writer’s Association emerged in its place, though at the end of the decade the non-racial ANC-aligned Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) became the dominant writers’ group in the final years of apartheid.
After a period of relative inactivity, SA PEN took on a new lease of life in the new millennium under the direction of Dolores and Anthony Fleischer who focused on promoting literature among new generations of writers and readers. In 2005, they launched the PEN literary awards, initially judged by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee. They also revived the tradition of publishing anthologies (African Compass, African Road, African Pens and New Writing from Africa 2009 and African Pens 2011). In response to the 2010 Information (‘Secrecy’) Bill, the organisation, now headed by the crime writer Margie Orford, returned to campaigning for free expression, making submissions as part of the Right2Know campaign. Working in concert with other local groups, including the Freedom of Expression Institute, SA PEN has continued to respond other governmental initiatives – most recently the 2016 Hate Speech Bill – that represent a threat to free expression as guaranteed by the 1996 Constitution and codified in the PEN Charter.