A reply to Alex Matthews

RW Johnson says his critic seems to have had a rush of blood to the head

Reply to Alex Matthews

I do not know who Alex Matthews is but he seems considerably overheated, so much so that grammar and sense sometime elude him (see here). He claims that my articles on the current state of the liberal tradition in South Africa are "a personal agenda masquerading as public analysis".

I wonder what on earth he can mean. I have never occupied or attempted to run for any public position and other than a general support of the liberal tradition I have no personal agenda to push. I have had many e-mails from DA members who have read my articles and are somewhat frustrated because I do not side with either Trollip or Mazibuko. Who then, they want to know, would I pick ? Neither and both, I reply.

The whole point of what I wrote was not to make such a choice but rather to situate what the current contest means in the longer context of the liberal tradition and its history. As far as I am concerned, I have no vote in this contest and am quite happy that that is the case. I am a political scientist and historian and my interest is in analysis and understanding.

Mr Matthews, however, has had a rush of blood to the head and he certainly does have a very personal and partisan agenda - as is, of course, his perfect right. But it is ludicrous to say that I "trumpet the alleged merits of maturity" (presumably, in favour of Trollip). Nowhere in either of my articles did I mention the word maturity and nor did I urge Mr Trollip's case. This is simply invention.

Similarly, he says I "trumpet" the dominant role played by Anglophones in the Progs and after. Not really. I merely observe the historical fact of it. Given my analytic purposes, I have to do that. The only real trumpets that I wanted to blow in that article were about the courage of Harry Lawrence and Jan Steytler and the achievements of Tony Leon and Helen Zille. Or again, he suggests that I portray Mazibuko as "a token warlord" and that I equate her with "tribalism, bossism, warlordism, racial patronage". Again this is sheer invention.

All I actually said was that she was extremely able and articulate but I did question whether, were she white, she would be getting punted for such senior office at the age of 31. There is nothing unfair about such a question. Or, yet again, Matthews says it is "demeaning and unfair" to ascribe her ascent in the DA to her race and gender. I would agree - as I say, Ms Mazibuko is clearly a most talented and personable young woman of great merit - for once again, Matthews is simply knocking down his own straw man.

Finally, Matthews suggests that I somehow believe that blacks can't be liberals (a deliberate misunderstanding of what I wrote) and that liberalism can only flourish in places like "Magdalene College, Oxford". I'm afraid your spelling is adrift there, Mr Matthews, and of course, once again, I have suggested no such thing.

Ironically, towards the end Matthews rather gives the game away when he angrily (and ungrammatically) writes that "he(Johnson) does not bother interrogating who is truly the better candidate". Well, exactly. That is what I was quite precisely avoiding. Which in turn makes Mr Matthews' entire effusion rather peculiar.

What I would point out is this. It is part of the liberal democratic tradition that there should be free and open contests for positions such as the parliamentary leadership. They should be an occasion for the open and straightforward discussion not only of the candidates' respective merits but also the wider political and even philosophical meanings of the contest.

It is a way of looking at the present conjuncture and turning it to account by asking what does it mean. It is a way of trying to analyze the present as history. My contribution was meant in precisely that sense.  What is truly wrong and illiberal about Mr Matthews's intervention is that he is so strongly partisan that he does not wish to allow this sort of open-minded discussion.

That is why he continually invents things I am supposed to have said so that he can then denounce me. It is also why he verges on accusing me of racism (ie. by suggesting backs can't be liberals) and also why he makes the absurd ad hominem suggestion that I think liberalism can only exist in places like my old Oxford college.

All of these tactics and methods are not only out of place but they smell of hegemonic intent, of an attempt to allow only one sort of thinking. This is something which, now and in the future, should have no place at all in the liberal tradition.

RW Johnson

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