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.