Skip to main content

South Africa bookshop accused of 'censorship' after children's book on Palestine pulled

A colouring book on the history of Palestine was reportedly removed by the country’s largest chain of bookshops following complaints it 'indoctrinated children'
The cover of the children's colouring book 'From the River to the Sea' by South African author and illustrator Nathi Ngubane [Social Bandit Media]

South Africa's literary scene has become embroiled in controversy after the country's biggest bookstore chain pulled a children's colouring book on the history and culture of Palestine, resulting in outrage and censorship accusations.  

Exclusive Books pulled From the River to the Sea: A colouring book by South African author and illustrator Nathi Ngubane from its shelves just as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) called for the "immediate cessation" of its publication on the grounds that it "indoctrinates children."

The move comes as South Africa continues its genocide case against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and as the court moves to limit the Israeli assault on Gaza, which has killed over 36,500 Palestinians, the majority civilians.

In an online post on 30 May, the SAJBD said that "it is repugnant that this publication promoting the obliteration of Jews from our historical and rightful homeland, Israel, can be published and targeted at young minds.

"While we are saddened by the ongoing conflict, campaigns like this only perpetuate animosity and prolong the cycle of hatred. We urgently call for the immediate cessation of this extremely irresponsible publication."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Following what the author described as a campaign of hate, the colouring books were pulled from the shelves and removed from its online store, sparking a wave of protest online. Some customers took to social media to say that Exclusive Books was cancelling orders of the colouring book.

One customer who spoke to MEE said that they were informed by the staff at the bookstore that the books could not be placed on the shelves but they were able to purchase a copy from the storeroom.

A similar incident also occurred when Ameena Pandor inquried after the book at the Gateway Theatre of Shopping branch, and saw the salesclerk head to the storeroom and bring out the book. "I was surprised and asked her why it wasn’t on the shelf," Pandor told MEE. "She said they were told not to keep it on the shelf."

"Exclusive Books thought they could quietly remove the books without anyone noticing," Ngubane told MEE. "At the same time, they think it's perfectly fine to hide the books in a storeroom and sell it to a customer when they ask for it."

'We urge bookstores to stand on the right side of history. We may not all agree on everything, but we must all reject censorship of any kind'

- Nathi Ngubane, author

MEE spoke to another customer, who said that they were told by staff that they were no longer stocking the book, but could not comment on the reason why, and were directed to the head of marketing and retail, Batya Bricker, instead.

Readers were further frustrated by this redirection as Bricker authored the children's book Goodnight Golda – a handbook for brave Jewish Girls, which focuses on 32 Jewish women who shaped Jewish history from the Bible, the Inquisition, the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. 

The author, Ngubane, said that her book was created with the aim of educating children about the history and culture of Palestine.

"I am concerned about this. It seems like my freedom of expression is being violated. I believe that Palestinian content should have a place on our bookshelves," the author told MEE.

"We urge bookstores to stand on the right side of history. We may not all agree on everything, but we must all reject censorship of any kind."

Responding to the move by the national bookselling chain, Social Bandit Media, the independent media collective behind the book, released a statement urging stores "to stand on the right side of history and use this opportunity to feature more books on Palestine.

"It is also extraordinary that these pressures have been exerted as the South African government takes Israel to the International Court of Justice on the charge of genocide," the statement continued.

"It is not enough that more than 36,000 Palestinians have been murdered since October, now Zionists want to burn South African children’s books too."

On 7 June, Exclusive Books released a statement in response to the backlash, saying the company is a chain of independent book stores.

"As a company, we do not censor or approve books for sale in our stores. Each store independently selects and stocks the books they wish to sell, as we do not have a central purchasing function," the statement said.

"As each store buys books based on their customers' needs, not all stores carry the book. However, our booksellers can order any book that a customer wishes to purchase... We are sensitive to the current global issues transpiring between Israel and Palestine as we believe that we provide a diverse range of perspectives through the literature we offer. Our intention is never to offend anyone," the statement continued.

Many social media users, however, called the statement insufficient and said it did not address the concerns raised by customers.

"So why is it not on the website???" asked one user in a comment on Instagram.

"Why is a children's colouring book 'controversial'?" asked another.

"When corporates start labelling books as such, YOU create controversy and the implication is that people should think twice about buying them."

Anger online

Social media users responded in anger at the pulling of the book from the popular South African chain, with many describing it as censorship of Palestinian solidarity. 

"From the River to the Sea is an anti apartheid call for democracy, who could disagree with that, especially in South Africa? This is an educational colouring in children's book calling for #FREEPALESTİNE,” posted SA Jews for a Free Palestine on X. 

'There is an ongoing genocide in Palestine and you are censoring a book meant to educate the next generation on the stain of settler colonialism'

- online comment

"Exclusive Books have received an email from me cancelling my membership and informing them that my money will not go to an organisation which engages in censorship, particularly when the aim is to protect baby killers," commented one user

"Exclusive books - do better. That book is NEEDED as much as every other book in your store," commented another. "It actually has the ability to bring about changes and educate people on the genocide taking place in Palestine. Racism at a bookstore which is meant to breed knowledge and raise awareness isn't cool or cute."

"This is deplorable. There is an ongoing genocide in Palestine and you are censoring a book meant to educate the next generation on the stain of settler colonialism," commented another user, calling for the boycott of the popular book store.

The phrase "from the river to the sea" has featured prominently and historically in pro-Palestinian movements, but has recently come under renewed criticism with pro-Israeli advocates arguing that it implies the destruction of Israel.

Palestinian advocates however stress the slogan refers to the political and geographic landscape and is a call for equality and for the freedom of Palestinian people. 

"'From The River to The Sea' isn't antisemitic at all. The phrase is simply an inspirational call for freedom, human rights and coexistence," Ngubane said.

"I am receiving these hate messages while children and their parents are being burned alive in Rafah and yet, a colouring book is where the line is drawn?

"The people of Palestine deserve their story to be told and as a visual artist and writer, it is my responsibility contribute to the political education of our youth."

MEE repeatedly reached out to Exclusive Books for comment but did not receive a response.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include the media statement by Exclusive Books.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.