Baboons and Bananas

By now you might well have heard about “the apology” published by The London Review of Books last week following complaints about the writings of RW Johnson, the LRB’s ‘man in Africa.’  No one would have cared, 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.”

But the post that people outside those caring about football taking notice was when he wrote a World Cup post-mortem, “After The World
Cup,” posted on July 6. As Gary Younge reports in “The Guardian,” the piece began with:

… “We are being besieged by baboons again,” 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 was just the latest in a long line of objectionable pieces of his writing. However, for some it was one step too far. A letter was drafted to the LRB editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, and 73 people, mostly based in the UK but 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 decided to write a piece for the Guardian. He 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?

Yes. And what an odd apology it is. 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.


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. But I wonder if Wilmers will publish Johnson’s writing on South Africa again. 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, etc., are being thrown around), that most of us don’t know South African idioms (when did I hear this defense 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” they 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 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. Johnson compares himself to Salman Rushdie and calls our letter a ‘fatwa.”  For reporter Rowan Phillip, whatever Johnson wrote, he meant well (he wanted to highlighted the plight of immigrants) and anyway he is not a racist, because he 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. We expressed our concern that the piece had remained online for 13 days and concern that reactionary and racist work gets published by the LRB.

Finally Phillip calls on Johnson’s fellow traveller in writing doomsday scenarios about Africans and South Africans, Rian Malan –who oddly gets a lot of time on Al Jazeera English–to defend the Oxford emeritus professor. That’s desperate.

* Now, after all of that, you may still be wondering: who is RW 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 Roger Southall’s review in the 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. Whites did the thinking. 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 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 MDC.

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.”

I am going to feed my cats now.

Sean Jacobs


9 thoughts on “Baboons and Bananas

  1. Interesting.

    This RW chap has some serious form on this. I recall an article in Prospect magazine or some other publication years ago on the ‘Swart Gevaar’ theme in RSA that drew complaints. Did he not once work for Helen Suzman? He is quite astute with his wilder, nastier racial claims and always smuggles them almost unobstrusively into otherwise unimpeachable pieces. But his particular racial concerns underpin everything he writes.

    I think there is an additional discussion to be had about the general tone of commentary and reportage on Africa that allows racism to pass unchallenged.

  2. I hope in no way to offend you, maybe I need to read the guy’s piece myself, is there a link? I can’t see the racism. I know that in the past black people were referred to as monekys, and that that is highly unnaceptable. But according to what you have posted he in no way referrs to black people as monkeys. He says that the monkeys are scavenging for food, and the migrants are searching for food. They have a commonality in that they are searching for food, but he is not using the connection in any pejorative way that I can see.

    I hope you can explain to me why it is racist, because I want to be on your side. Maybe I am just misreading it?

  3. The LRB refused to publish the following comment:

    R. W. Johnson’s racist screed should prompt further discussion among all anti-racist communities and, particularly, those interested in the racist coverage of Africa. Some comments:

    1. This is not the first racist rant by RW Johnson in the LRB. It was certainly a little more egregious and harder to deny, but his racism has always been apparent.

    2. Even in thoughtful, often critical periodicals, I have always found it interesting that writing about Africa is handed over to unreconstructed racists (that is, when Africa is written about, which is often never). How is it the case that writers who in any sensible world would be churning out pieces for the BNP are often called on to write about Africa? A longer study awaits a critique of:

    a) The ignorance and racialist-tinged contempt of Africa from the editors of the LRB or the NYRB. Such ignorance often borders on contempt, as in the Economist’s Mugabe-as-Africa-Personified coverage. I find it telling that when the editor of the LRB was critiqued, she invoked RW Johnson’s opposition to Mugabe as a knock-down argument that he isn’t racist! Wow.

    b) The inflated “street cred” bestowed by the West on RW Johnson and other nominally “liberal” whites for having (so it is claimed) opposed apartheid. Again, this is the notion that to oppose apartheid means that one is not a racist. The nature of the opposition is not discussed. But it is of a piece with the Kristoff and Hollywood mentality which erases blacks in their search for white heroes (see, for example, “Cry Freedom,” where Biko is erased in favor of inflating the heroism of Donald Woods, etc –

    c) The narrative (promoted by Johnson, the execrable Slavoj Zizek and some whites in South Africa) of a once wonderful “civilization” slowly being “Africanized” (read: being destroyed by blacks).

    d) Why oh why don’t we have a good literary review on, by, and for Africa? What happened to the African Review of Books?

  4. Dear Lara,

    I’m a deep, deep admirer of your work.

    And this sublime piece will always stay with me:

    “Having spent time living and working In ahhh Africa oohhh (actually a handful of countries but allow irony, friends) I have – for the last 15 years or so – become increasingly aware of the way in which European, mainly British, people (friends, usually) refer to that (my) experience. People tell me of their observations about how I have changed since I ‘came back from Africa’ or how I have never quite been the same since I ‘went to Africa’, as though I visited the underworld and lived down a dark cave full of water and bad, dark things that sent me a bit crazy. On the increasingly rare occasion I get invited to dinner parties in certain parts of Islington, if a political discussion occurs, certain guests will use Africa as their trump card to show that they are people who care. So a Hedge Fund manager around a dinner table in N1 recently told me that what he really cares about is clean water for Africans – a statement, one assumes, that no one in their right mind would ever try to take issue with. He cares that African people have clean water ergo he’s actually a nice guy even though he’s making (and occasionally losing) hundreds of thousands or millions or billions on hedge funds. Dropping the word Africa into a conversation is like dropping your faith into a conversation: Actually, I believe in Jesus and that’s why I want my children baptised. You can’t really argue with that. Likewise, stating that you care about Africans (all of them) and whether they have clean water is a religious statement, a statement of belief in goodness and pureness and honesty. (Of course, you rarely hear them say that’s all that they think Africans should have. Clean water! That’s enough! That is, joking apart, the nub of it, surely). Sometimes people say to me, people I may not know very well but have met through a friend of a friend, I hear that you have lived in Africa. Goodness. I have also lived as a cleaner in the South of France but no one has ever been in the slightest bit interested in that. I lived with two old dames and their cat and their tortoise. I cleaned bathrooms for German tourists, extracting pubic hair from showers, and cut up cabbage for the soup. I read poetry with the nude poet upstairs and had a brief relationship with an Algerian which the two old dames put a stop to. (They threatened him and told him never to set foot near their auberge again, but for weeks I thought he’d just lost interest . . . dear oh dear).”

  5. “the small, mainly white conservative opposition party”
    At 16% of the vote, the DA is not small. Nor is it conservative and it is becoming increasingly less white, percentage wise, since it is becoming more and more popular amongst black voters who are tired of the ANC corruption and tenderpreneur attitude. When you link an article to the name of a political party, you may point out to readers that it is a satirical piece that is not based on actual interviews or facts. Not to do so is the kind of dishonest journalism we all can do without.
    The article that you linked to also does not point out that the newly elected leader of the DA youth league is black, as was his predecessor. Is this not a significant leadership position? Sure appears to be one in the context of the ANC.

  6. A general point, not really relevant to the topic.

    “Sean Jacobs is a native of Cape Town and lives in Brooklyn, New York”

    Says a lot, doesn’t it……this makes you an expert on South Africa ?

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