Bananas and Baboons

This time, R.W. Johnson, the British-South African writer, had gone too far even for the London Review of Books ' editors. They took down a post of his.

If you’re into opinion and analysis, by now you might well have heard about “the apology” published by The London Review of Books following complaints about the writings of RW Johnson, the LRB’s ‘man in Africa.’ Not a lot of people would care, except that the LRB is be considered the UK’s leading left-of-center literary publication.  Reporter Gary Younge, writing in The Guardian, summarized the events of the last week the best here and here.

Here’s our quick recap though.

Johnson has been writing quite regularly for the LRB’s new blog as well as in the review itself in a series of”Diary” pieces about the 2010 World Cup. Many of the pieces/posts have been ill-informed with factual inaccuracies and stereotypes about South Africa. Before the tournament he went on about how South Africa would fail in hosting the World Cup. (He repeated this nonsense elsewhere also.) Johnson also made up a story about a plan to slaughter an animal “a bullock or a goat” out on the field before the start of each World Cup game. Yes he did.  At one point he also tried his hand at blogging about football outside South Africa and made a fool of himself. Just see the comments to his post on “Football and Fascism.”

Before we go further, who is R.W. Johnson?

Most recently he finished a book on South Africa’s decade and a half of democracy called “South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid.”  The book is a mess of unsubstantiated rumors, half-truths and conjecture. In the book, Johnson accuses ANC leaders of murdering Chris Hani and President Robert Mugabe of being party to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. He also compares South Africa to Zimbabwe, suggesting that whatever you say about colonialism, at least it was efficient.

Despite this, most critics praised the book. But there were some exceptions. Take the South African political scientist Roger Southall’s review in the selfsame LRB in October last year. Southall contained himself, but concluded that “… in its simplicity and excess, [Johnson’s book] displays an alarming ahistoricism.”

In an August 2007 LRB review of a book about the 1964 Rivonia Trial, Johnson suggested that Nelson Mandela was basically a stooge of white Communists. He wrote that Mandela didn’t write his own speeches and that Mandela’s lawyer, Bram Fischer, did. Basically, whites did the thinking for the black liberation movement. This all without any proper referencing. Even Arthur Chaskalson, former Chief Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, set Johnson straight at the time).

In a 2008 piece Johnson compared South Africa under President Thabo Mbeki to Zimbabwe under Mugabe. No serious scholar, whatever they thought of Mbeki or Mugabe, would make such a comparison or take it serious. Johnson also suggested Mbeki’s attitude towards the small, mainly white conservative opposition party, the DA, was the same as Mugabe’s towards the Movement for Democratic Change.

Earlier this year he suggested the only worthy South African Nobel prize-winner is J M Coetzee because Coetzee’s award has nothing to do with Apartheid. In every other case,  “… the desire to reward the anti-apartheid cause led to a certain inflation of careers and reputations.”

We could on and on, but will still there.

The post that, belatedly, had people pay an interest into his noxious writings, was when he wrote a World Cup post-mortem, “After The World Cup,” posted on July 6. The World Cup went off seamlessly and there was no goat slaughter. Gary Younge,  in “The Guardian,” summarized the LRB. blog post:

… “We are being besieged by baboons again,” [Johnson writes] before going on to describe how the apes scavenge for food and had seen off a local rottweiler that attacked them. In the next paragraph Johnson referred to African migrants, writing: “they too are here essentially searching for food”. He went on to relate how several dozen of the migrants had been murdered at the instigation of “local black shopkeepers”.

For many readers–even those who recoil at the sight of another Johnson missive in the LRB–this is vintage Johnson, so they shrugged it off. But others thought he had gone too far this time.  A letter was drafted to the LRB editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, and 73 people, mostly based in the UK but also including South Africans and Americans, signed it. The signatories included “… award-winning writer, Caryl Phillips, poet Michael Rosen, playwright and broadcaster Kwame Kwei-Armah and London School of Economics professor Paul Gilroy.”

I also signed. (You can see the letter here; just scroll down).

The letter stated that the signatories “find it baffling” that the LRB continues to publish Johnson’s work despite the fact that it is, “often stacked with the superficial and the racist.” The letter points out that this sits uneasily in a publication which is widely understood to be “progressive.”

Minutes before the letter was sent off, the organizer, Lara Pawson, noticed that the offending blog post had been taken down. An hour later, she received an email from the LRB stating: “We had already taken this post down before we received your letter. Thank you for your concern.”

So Lara wrote back, arguing that this was an inadequate response: she and the other 72 signatories wanted to know why the post, which was clearly egregious, had stayed up on the site for 13 days. She asked that they publish our letter with a response from the LRB. But the LRB did not respond.

So a second letter was sent the next morning: it acknowledged that the post had been taken down but once again, we asked why it had remained up for 13 days and invited the LRB to write a public apology.

This time, Wilmers herself responded. She said that the LRB would not publish the letter because the signatories, in her opinion, had imagined an “explicit connection” between baboons and migrants that did not exist in Johnson’s own writing.

Normally, that might be where this sort of dispute would end. I can attest to that personally. I have written a few ‘readers’ letters’ to the LRB complaining about Johnson, including a signed letter with four other South African scholars a few years ago. None of those letters were ever published.

Gary Younge, who is a prominent British journalist and probably the country’s preeminent black journalist now, decided to write a piece for the Guardian. Gary (full disclosure: he is a friend) wanted to represent everyone fairly and so, of course, he called up the LRB to get Wilmers’ point of view. In the end, he published two pieces and, hey presto, the LRB published  an apology signed by “The Editors” of the LRB:

We have had a number of complaints about a post on the LRB blog on 6 July on the grounds that it was racist. The LRB does not condone racism, nor does the author of the post, R.W. Johnson. We recognise that the post was susceptible of that interpretation and that it was therefore an error of judgment on our part to publish it. We’re sorry. We have since taken the post down.

That’s an apology?

What an odd apology it is. Summarized: “We’re not racist. Johnson’s not racist. The blog post is not racist. Maybe you interpreted the post as racist. A slip of judgment. We took down the post. Sorry.” Huh?

I know.

However, a close observer of the British literary scene suggested to me that just getting the apology is good in itself. While it may not appear to some to be a climbdown, in the world ofthe British literary establishment–and especially that of Wilmers and the LRB–it is a total climbdown. As my friend put it:

Not a sophisticated expression of anti-racism–although if they were capable of that we wouldn’t be in this situation–but a recognition of their failings and 180 degrees from where they were 24 hours earlier. More to the point they’ll think twice about publishing him again.

My friend may be too optimistic about the LRB never publishing Johnson again on South Africa again. They may still publish him on other places. I feel sorry for Nigerians.

As to where was Johnson when all this was going down? On a game reserve. For real. Feeding bananas to baboons?

No one expects Johnson and his supporters (including Wilmers) to just take this lying down. But we made a stink. It made the news in South Africa and caused a stir in the British literary world, and among the left-wing and liberal intelligentsia.

Not surprisingly the signatories to the letter are already accused of: acting like the thought police (words like “Goebbels,” “book burning,” etcetera, are being thrown around); that most of us don’t know South African idioms so we’re misinterpreting (when did I hear this accusation the last time?); that Johnson’s best friends are black (more on that below); or, that Johnson has impeccable anti-apartheid credentials. By “anti-apartheid credentials” we hope they don’t mean his long-held support for the rightwing Zulu-nationalist Inkatha and its life president Gatsha Buthelezi.

So I waited for the responses in the South African media before I posted this.

I was not surprised. After all, though in some quarters Johnson is thoroughly discredited, he still has a column in the leading financial newspaper, the Business Day. With the exception of the blog, The Daily Maverick, much of the South African response has been to defend Johnson. In one case, a Johannesburg talk radio show invited a signatory to the letter to the LRB to participate in a live discussion on the matter but in the end the station cancelled it because they couldn’t find someone prepared to go on air to defend Johnson’s post.

South Africa’s Sunday Times basically published what one observer called  a “comeback” piece. In it, Johnson compares himself to Salman Rushdie and calls our letter a ‘fatwa.”  For reporter Rowan Phillip, whatever Johnson wrote, he must have meant well (according to Philip, Johnson only wanted to highlighted the plight of immigrants) and anyway he is not a racist, because he, Johnson, says so. Johnson reminded readers that “quite a few members of my family are black” and that he harbors “two Zimbabwean refugees” at his house.

Frans Cronje of the not very liberal South African Institute of Race Relations, quoted in the article, had some advice for Johnson: “… “Obviously, in this case, he slipped up. He needs to be more careful.”  The reporter, Rowan Philip, also made things up. The signatories were accused of demanding that the piece be taken down, which we never did. Phillip also claimed that we demanded that Johnson never write for the LRB again, which we never did. All we did, was express our concern (and objection) that the piece had remained online for 13 days and thatreactionary and racist work gets published by the LRB. Finally Phillip calls on a Johnson-fellow-traveller-in-writing-doomsday-scenarios-about-Africans-and-South Africans, Rian Malan (who oddly gets a lot of time on Al Jazeera English) o defend the Oxford emeritus professor.

In any case, I am going to feed my cats now.

Further Reading

We are here

As the slaughter continues unabated in Gaza, it is abundantly clear that both the present and history are often written by the victors.