Doris Lessing: Being Prohibited

In this article written on 21 April 1956 Doris Lessing describes her experiences with immigration officers in South Africa in her youth and in 1956 when she was banned entry into the country.

Doris Lessing.
Doris Lessing outside her north London home in 2007 after winning the Nobel Prize. Photograph: Shaun Curry/Getty Images.

Between 1956 and 1971, Doris Lessing wrote poetry, essays and reviews for the New Statesman. The following article, written 21 April 1956, was her first contribution to the magazine. In it, she describes her experiences when being refused entry into South Africa, a ban that would last 30 years. It is worth noting that Lessing was an committed member of the Communist Party during this time, however, she later renounced the Party calling the decision “crazy”.

Being Prohibited

A large number of my friends are locked out of countries and unable to return; locked into countries and unable to get out; have been deported, prohibited and banned. Among this select company I can now hold up my head. I am troubled, however, by secret doubts.

Before planning my trip to South Africa, it crossed my mind to wonder whether I should be allowed in; humility checked me. What have I, in fact, done to the Union government? In 1947 when I was holiday, I worked for the Guardian in Cape Town for two months, as a typist. The Guardian, like the Daily Worker now, was in permanent financial crisis; and that brave band of people, the finance committee, sat in almost continuous session, wondering how to pay for the next issue and muttering enviously about Moscow gold. I wrote a lot of letters for this committee.

In 1949, on my way through to England, I undeniably, consorted with people since named as Communists. Some were, some were not.

Of course, since I joined the Communist Party in England I have made no secret of the fact; but the idea that M.I.5 would send warnings to South Africa of my approach seems to border on megalomania. This state of mind was ably described by a friend of mine who not only believed that the sword was mightier than the pen, but acted on it – an admirable person, he said that his chief handicap as an agitator was that at moments of crisis he could never really believe he was about to be arrested, because he was obviously right in his views and surely everyone must agree with him when it came to the point. My friend also used to say that the main fault of the Left was that we continually ascribe our own intelligence and high-mindedness to our opponents. Apropos, I remember that once, by a series of mischances, I spent an evening with the backroom boys of the Nationalist Party. It was a salutary experience. I still find it hard to believe that such cynical oafs can keep a whole sub-continent in thrall.

Some weeks before leaving England this time, I was visited by two people, deported from South Africa, who told me I was mad to think I should be allowed in and that I was politically very naïve. Almost immediately afterwards, came another visitor, a political émigré of a superior kind who has for some years now been conducting a really epic fight with the Nationalists.

He said: “What’s this I hear? What makes you think you are so dangerous that you won’t be allowed in? You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You are on the official list of South African authors at South Africa House.” It will be seen why I was in a confused state of mind when I left England.

I had worked out a really cunning plot to enter the Union: it depended on an intimate knowledge of the habits of their immigration officials. This plot was received with amusement by my friends in Salisbury, who suggested I was suffering from a persecution complex. Not for one moment do I blame them for their attitude: the atmosphere of Southern Rhodesia, in contrast with the troubled territories north and south, is one of good humour. Everybody one meets says how efficient the C.I.D. is and that nothing one does ever escapes them; but it is rather as one speaks of a benevolent uncle. And I have it on the highest possible authority that the leaders of the Africans in that country are both “pleasant and sound”. No, I have no doubt that if I lived again in Salisbury, within six months I should be talking about trouble-makers and agitators with the best.

Lulled, therefore, into a state of innocence. I spent four days seeing old friends and reviving the sundowner habit before actually flying south. In the aircraft there was plenty of time for reminiscence: that first time, for instance, that I entered the Union , in 1937…

The border is Mafeking, a little dorp with nothing interesting about it but its name. The train waits (or used to wait) interminably on the empty tracks, while immigration and customs officials made their leisurely way through the coaches, and pale gritty dust settled over everything. Looking out, one saw the long stretch of windows, with the two, three, or four white faces at each; then at the extreme end, the single coach for “natives” packed tight with black humans; and, in between, two or three Indians or Coloured people on sufferance in the European coaches.

Outside, on the scintillating dust by the tracks, a crowd of ragged black children begged for bonsellas. One threw down sandwich crusts or bits of spoilt fruit and watched them dive and fight to retrieve them from the dirt.

I was sixteen, I was not, as one says, politically conscious; nor did I know the score. I knew no more, in fact, than which side my bread was buttered. But I had already felt uneasy about being a member of the Herrenvolk. When the immigration official reached me, I had written on the form: Nationality, British, Race, European; and it was the first time in my life I had to claim myself as a member of one race and disown the others. I remember distinctly that I had to suppress an impulse to write opposite Race: Human. Of course I was very young.

The immigration man had the sarcastic surliness which characterizes the Afrikaans official; and he looked suspiciously at my form for a long time before saying that I was in the wrong part of the train. I did not understand him. (I forgot to mention that where the form asked: Where were you born?, I had written Persia.)

“Asiatics,” said he, “have to go to the back of the train; and anyway you are prohibited from entry unless you have documents proving you conform to the immigration quota for Asians.”

“But,” I said, “I am not an Asiatic.”

The compartment had five other females in it; skirts were visibly being drawn aside. To prove my bona fides I should, of course, have exclaimed with outraged indignation at any such idea.

“You were born in Persia?”

“Yes.”

“Then you are an Asiatic. You know the penalty for filling in the form wrongly?”

This particular little imbroglio involved my being taken off the train, and escorted to an office and kept under watch while they telephoned Pretoria for a ruling.

When next I entered the Union it was 1939. Sophistication had set in in the interval, and it took me no more than five minutes to persuade the official that one could be born in a country without being its citizen. The next to times there was no trouble at all, although my political views had in the meantime become nothing less than inflammatory: in a word, I had learned to disapprove of the colour bar.

This time, two weeks ago, what happened was as follows: one gets off the plane, and sits for about fifteen minutes in the waiting-room while they check the plane list with a list, or lists, of their own. They called my name first, and took me to an office which had two tables in it. .At one sat a young man being pleasant to the genuine South African citizens. At the one where they made me sit, was a man I could have sworn I had seen before. He proceeded to go through me form item by item, as follows: “You say, Mrs. Lessing, that, etc. …” From time to time he let out a disbelieving laugh and exchanged ironical looks with a fellow official who was standing by. Sure enough, when he reached the point in my form when he had to say: “You claim that you are British; you say you were born in Persia,” I merely said “Yes,” and sat while he gave me a long, exasperated stare. Then he let out an angry exclamation in Afrikaans and went next door to telephone Pretoria. Ten minutes later I was informed I must leave at once. A plane was waiting and I must enter it immediately.

I did so with dignity. Since then I have been unable to make up my mind whether I should have made a scene or not. I never have believed in the efficacy of dignity.

On the plane I wanted to sit near the window, but was made to sit by myself and away from the window. I regretted infinitely that I had no accomplices hidden in the long grass by the airstrip, but, alas, I had not thought of it beforehand.

It was some time before it came home to me what an honour had been paid me. But now I am uneasy about the whole thing: suppose that I owe these attentions, not to my political views, but to the accident of my birthplace?

Mr. Donges was asked about the incident, but all he said was, “No comment”.