Gordimer knew that Burger's Daughter would be banned in South Africa. After the book was published in London by Jonathan Cape in June 1979, copies were dispatched to South Africa, and on 5 July 1979 the book was banned from import and sale in South Africa. The reasons given by the Publications Control Board included "propagating Communist opinions", "creating a psychosis of revolution and rebellion", and "making several unbridled attacks against the authority entrusted with the maintenance of law and order and the safety of the state".
In October 1979 the Publications Appeal Board, on the recommendation of a panel of literary experts and a state security specialist, overruled the banning of Burger's Daughter. The state security specialist reported the book posed no threat to the security of South Africa, and the literary experts had accused the censorship board "of bias, prejudice, and literary incompetence", and that "[i]t has not read accurately, it has severely distorted by quoting extensively out of context, it has not considered the work as a literary work deserves to be considered, and it has directly, and by implication, smeared the authoress [sic]." Notwithstanding the unbanning, the chairman of the Appeal Board told a press reporter, "Don't buy [the book]—it is not worth buying. Very badly written ... This is also why we eventually passed it." The Appeal Board described the book as "one-sided" in its attack on whites and the South African Government, and concluded, "As a result ... the effect of the book will be counterproductive rather than subversive."
Gordimer's response to the novel's unbanning was, "I was indifferent to the opinions of the original censorship committee who neither read nor understood the book properly in the first place, and to those of the committee of literary experts who made this discovery, since both are part of the censorship system." She attributed the unbanning to her international stature and the "serious attention" the book had received abroad. A number of prominent authors and literary organisations had protested the banning, including Iris Murdoch, Heinrich Böll, Paul Theroux, John Fowles, Frank Kermode, The Association of American Publishers and International PEN. Gordimer objected to the unbanning of the book because she felt the government was trying placate her with "special treatment", and said that the same thing would not have happened had she been black. But she did describe the action as "something of a precedent for other writers" because in the book she had published a copy of an actual pamphlet written and distributed by students in the 1976 Soweto uprising, which the authorities had banned. She said that similar "transgressions" in the future would be difficult for the censors to clamp down on.
While Burger's Daughter was still banned in South Africa, a copy was smuggled into Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island, and later a message was sent out saying that he had "thought well of it". Gordimer said, "That means more to me than any other opinion it could have gained." Mandela also requested a meeting with her, and she applied several times to visit him on the Island, but was declined each time. She was, however, at the prison gates waiting for him when he was released in 1990, and she was amongst the first he wanted to talk to. In 2007 Gordimer sent Mandela an inscribed copy of Burger's Daughter to "replace the 'imprisoned' copy", and in it she thanked him for his opinion of the book, and for "untiringly leading the struggle".
What Happened to Burger's Daughter
To voice her disapproval of the banning and unbanning of the book, Gordimer published What Happened to Burger's Daughter or How South African Censorship Works, a book of essays written by her and others. It was published in Johannesburg in 1980 by Taurus, a small underground publishing house established in the late-1970s to print anti-apartheid literature and other material South African publishers would avoid for fear of censorship. Its publications were generally distributed privately or sent to bookshops to be given to customers free to avoid attracting the attention of the South African authorities.
What Happened to Burger's Daughter has two essays by Gordimer and one by University of the Witwatersrand law professor John Dugard. Gordimer's essays document the publication history and fate of Burger's Daughter, and respond to the Publications Control Board's reasons for banning the book. Dugard's essay examines censorship in South Africa within the country's legal framework. Also included in the book is the Director of Publications's communiqué stating its reasons for banning the book, and the reasons for lifting the ban three months later by the Publications Appeal Board.