A reply to Paul Trewhela on RW Johnson

Mandisi Majavu says author's writings reinforce white supremacist perspectives

An imaginary trip to the land of the Anthropoid Apes: RW Johnson's racist outburst, apartheid nostalgia and other hysterics  

"The basic question in attacking is not how to kill the enemy group---that is usually impossible---but what direction to attack from."-- Go proverb.

In 2010, RW Johnson wrote:

"We are being besieged by baboons again. This happens quite often here on the Constantiaberg mountains (an extension of the Table Mountain  range). Baboons are common in the Cape and they are a great deal larger than the vervet monkeys I was used to dealing with in KwaZulu-Natal. They jump onto roofs, overturn dustbins and generally make a nuisance of themselves; since their teeth are very dirty, their bite can be poisonous. They seem to have lots of baby baboons - it's been a very mild winter and so spring is coming early - and they're looking for food. The local dogs don't like them but appear to have learned their lesson from the last baboon visit: then, a large rottweiler attacked the apes, who calmly tore it limb from limb.

"Meanwhile in the squatter camps, there is rising tension as the threat mounts murderous violence against foreign migrants once the World Cup finishes on 11 July. These migrants - Zimbabweans, Malawians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis and others - are often refugees and they too are here essentially searching for food. The Somalis are the most enterprising and have set up successful little shops in the townships and squatter camps, but several dozen Somali shopkeepers have already been murdered, clearly at the instigation of local black shopkeepers who don't appreciate the competition. The ANC is embarrassed by it all and has roundly declared that there will be no such violence. The truth is that no one knows. The place worst hit by violence in the last xenophobic riots here was De Doorns and the army moved into that settlement last week, clearly anticipating trouble. The tension is ominous and makes for a rather schizoid atmosphere as the Cup itself mounts towards its climax."

The comparison and the contrast between baboons that are looking for food and the African migrants who "flood" Cape Town in search of food too is the straw that broke camel's back. [RW Johnson had actually wrote in a different article: "more and more of Africa floods towards Cape Town..."[i]]

Seventy three 73 academics and writers from across the globe wrote to the London Review of Books (LRB) stating that RW Johnson is "peddling highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes". They further pointed out that "we find it baffling therefore that you continue to publish work by RW Johnson that, in our opinion, is often stacked with the superficial and the racist." 

The LRB was forced to apologise for publishing RW Johnson's racist rant. The LRB claimed that it was "an error of judgment on our part to publish it. We're sorry. We have since taken the post down."  The editor of the LRB, Mary Kay-Wilmers, admitted in an article that appeared in the Guardian that "we didn't read it [RW Johnson's racist rant] carefully enough, we didn't see it, we didn't imagine it." 

What is it that Mary Kay-Wilmers and her cohorts didn't see and imagine? What they didn't see is the historical context and the racist colonial canon from which RW Johnson draws from in his article. For a very long time, white colonisers viewed blacks as the "missing link" between the anthropoid apes and civilized (white) mankind (Brantlinger 1985). Hence, French anthropologists like Julian-Joseph Virey could write in 1837: "The skull of a negro is thick, and sutures very closely united. ... their propensity to sensations and nervous excitements, is excessive. All these signs indicate a greater animal disposition than in the white" (Virey: 167).

A logical historical reading of RW Johnson's article would take this into account. However, a self-serving ahistorical and irrational reading would read like Paul Trewhela's response to my article. Perhaps thinking that he is the only person who can read English and critically analyse arguments, Paul Trewhela writes that the LRB censored RW Johnson.

"The citation below contains my response on the blog of the London Review of Books to an act of censorship carried out by the LRB against Johnson in July 2010, following a smear circulated by his political and academic opponents. That smear, reproduced by Majavu in his article on ZNet, was as shamefully unproven as Majavu's, and set a bad precedent." 

Seventy three writers and academics from across the globe did not find it hard to locate RW Johnson's racist outburst within a racist colonial canon that has always likened blacks to apes, monkeys and baboons. Arrogant and irrational, Paul Trewhela writes that the 73 writers and academics who signed the letter gave "no citation from Johnson's offending text, bar three words." It does not astonish me that this kind of denial and self-serving illusion comes from one of the liberal dinosaurs from the old days. In fact I expect it.

Apartheid nostalgia and other hysterics 

Although RW Johnson manages to tone down his rants and ravings in his other writings, however he does make it clear that he writes from the point of view that reinforces white supremacist perspectives.  For instance, writing about transformation in South African universities, RW Johnson argues that transformation in reality means that "university entrance criteria would be ratcheted down so as to make it easier for black students from lousy schools to gain entry but the pretence was that standards has been maintained."

RW Johnson continues:

"...black academics who were often clearly rather weak would be appointed in preference to whites who were often stronger on the pretence that these blacks were at least equally good or better; and finally, as the research output of these new appointees was often derisory, all manner of strategems would be adopted to disguise the resultant deterioration in the university's research profile - retired, honorary or supernumerary faculty would have their research counted as part of the university's output, and so on."

 RW Johnson is of the view that black Vice Chancellors are intellectually inferior to Vice Chancellors who oversaw universities during the apartheid heydays.

"You just had to look at the modern breed of vice-chancellor and compare them to the old breed - Duminy, Malherbe, Bozzoli - who had fought for academic freedom against apartheid, to understand how much had been lost. Not just in courage and intellectual gravitas, but in intellectual depth and, indeed, in truthfulness."

Extolling the virtues of apartheid, RW Johnson points out that:

"African nationalism entirely lacks the institution-building skills of the earlier waves. English-speaking whites bequeathed the country its major liberal universities, a network of private schools, key public corporations and a series of Anglo-churches. Afrikaners left behind them Afrikaans financial institutions, the DRC, the Afrikaans universities and hoerskools. African nationalism has built no distinctive institutions of its own outside the party itself."

What's next? An eulogy of the Nationalsozialismus's military might, engineering and scientific breakthroughs?


[i] Writing about xenophobia in South African media, Danso and MacDonald (2000) point out that headlines are particularly bad in this respect, with bold titles like, ‘Illegals in SA add to decay of cities', ‘6 million migrants headed our way', ‘Africa floods into Cape Town', and ‘francophone invasion' being common examples. "In total, 25% of the articles surveyed used sensational headlines and 9% used sensational metaphors in the text of the report." 


Brantlinger , P. (1985). Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent.  Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12 (1). 

Danso, R.  &  MacDonald, D. A.  (2000). Writing xenophobia: Immigration and the press in post-apartheid South Africa. The Southern African Migration Project:   http://www.idasa.org/media/uploads/outputs/files/SAMP%2017.pdf

Johnson, RW. (2011). The rise and decline of ANC hegemony. PoliticsWeb:/politicsweb/view/politicsweb/en/page71619?oid=272165&sn=Marketingweb+detail

 Virey, J.J. (1996). Natural history of the negro species particularly. In H.F. Augstein, Race" The origins of an idea, 1760 - 1850. Thoemmes Press: Bristol.

Younge, G. (2010). Writers and academics protest over ‘racist' LRB blogpost.  The Guardian:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/21/protest-lrb-blogpost

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