NEWS & ANALYSIS

No, I will not sack David Bullard as a columnist

James Myburgh responds to a donor's demands that he do so, or else...

Politicsweb has had a partnership with Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) dating from 2011. For several years, the Foundation was the core funder of our work. Up until fairly recently the conduct of the Foundation as a donor was exemplary, and its representatives never tried to intrude in any way into editorial matters, despite holding (at times) the power of life and death over the publication.

On Wednesday we received the following email:

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Re: the relationship between Politicsweb and the FNF 

Dear James 

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom notes Politicsweb’s decision to publish Bullard after the latter’s racist tweet. This stands in sharp contrast to the IRR’s swift decision to terminate Bullard’s agreement with the Institute with immediate effect. 

As you know, the FNF partners with organisations that espouse and promote liberal values. The FNF thus cannot partner with an organisation that chooses to associate with, pay for and publish content from a racist. This is not a matter of freedom of speech, but rather of principle, choice and association.

In light of this, the FNF has no choice but to suspend all funding to Politicsweb forthwith. 

It might be useful for you to read the following piece by Gareth van Onselen on the subject of Bullard:

Please let us know whether you intend further to publish Bullard’s material. If that is your decision, which of course you are free to take, it will follow that our decision will be to terminate our partnership with Politicsweb. 

Sincerely,

Cecelia 

Cecelia Kok
Head of Research and Advocacy Projects, South Africa 
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom 

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This is our response:

Dear Cecelia,

Thank you for your email, and for the time to give a considered reply.

I am very grateful for the funding that the FNF provides. I should note however that not a cent of it goes to David Bullard. You have long expressed your aversion to him based, I believe, on a misreading of who he really is.

You are thus using the leverage provided by the Foundation’s funding of other aspects of our work – which goes overwhelmingly towards giving liberal organisations and individuals a voice in the public debate - to trying to pressure me into removing him as a columnist. If I do not comply you will withdraw your funding in the expectation, I presume, that it will kill off the publication.

I have now fully considered your letter, and the short answer to your demand is “no”.

I am not going to terminate his column, as a matter of basic principle. I would far prefer to fight for survival financially than condemn Politicsweb to the lingering reputational and institutional death that comes to any publication where an editor caves in to such behind-the-scenes demands from donors, funders or owners.

The long answer to your email, and the various questionable claims contained therein, is the following.

David Bullard is a brilliant columnist, still one of the best in South Africa. He is a consummate professional. He delivers his column like clockwork every Monday morning. It is always well written, often amusing, and will make a telling point or points. It is well read and appreciated by the readers and subscribers to the publication. I note that neither you nor Van Onselen quote anything he has written under my editorship against him.

Despite the impertinent or provocative public persona he cultivates on social media, his politics are clearly what can be described as very middle of the road. He is a liberal-minded person who gives expression, better than any other, and albeit satirically, to the sentiments and angst of many middle class English-speaking South Africans. He also writes fearlessly and honestly and, in the view of many, humorously.

This is important in a divided society such as ours. The problem with many other leading white South African columnists, whatever their other merits, is that they misrepresent the ANC to the white minority and, in a somewhat different way, misrepresent the white minority to the ANC. If I were a leading ANC politician and genuinely wanted to know how the “others” thought and felt – and did not want to be perpetually surprised by their responses to my actions – I would read Bullard’s Politicsweb column.

This brings us to the issue of the Tweet. Bullard has in the past mocked South African sensitivities over the k-word through the following prank. He baits his readers into thinking he is referring to one particular word beginning with the letter “k”, only to reveal that he is referring to another. In a 2016 article titled “The A-Z of survival in a time of racial lunacy” he wrote of the letter “K”:

“K is for k*****s

Amazing the power of a word isn’t it? And even more amazing the power of an asterisk. This is the fish that dare not breathe its name. But if kippers secretly happen to be your breakfast favourite then so be it. The great thing about kippers is that it’s like having two breakfasts because they come back at you after an hour or so. I like mine with a squeeze of lemon and a cup of strongly brewed coffee. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

For whatever reason Bullard thought it a good idea to repeat his joke on Twitter, writing:

“I realise this is risky (but when have I ever cared?) but maybe we need a new word to replace the K word to describe the people (not all) that we described as K's. Help me out here.....This ain't racial; it's K specific."

This was taken literally by many people, including Ivo Vegter, who promptly denounced Bullard to the IRR and secured his instant sacking as a columnist. It was clearly meant satirically though, with the particular “k-word” in this case a reference to “kleptomaniac” rather than a smelly fish.

Van Onselen’s article would have been more compelling had it not been built on the false premise that the Tweet was meant literally rather than satirically. I understand why people mistook it as the former initially, but after a week it starts becoming somewhat obtuse to persist in that claim.

The Tweet was quite obviously not well-judged, and Bullard has already paid a heavy price for it. I expressed my unhappiness over it both to you and to him personally.

But, here’s the thing. I find “cancel culture” an anathema. People can certainly be criticised over ill-considered and/or misunderstood remarks on social media, and hopefully they will learn from it. But they should not be destroyed for them.

It is poison to the free flow of ideas in a democratic society for people to worry that a single off-colour remark – captured for forever electronically – will lead to their ruination and disgrace at the hands of an unfeeling mob. I wrote in favour of this principle when the Democratic Alliance took massively disproportional action against Dianne Kohler Barnard and Helen Zille for social media missteps. I am not going to back away from it now.

A basic test of human decency and loyalty is whether you stand by a person when they are at their most vulnerable. And people are at their most vulnerable when they have made a mistake, especially an egregious one. I don’t know if it is a liberal position or not, but I don’t think one should kick someone when they are down. Or deprive a person who has just lost half their earned income, due to a moment of social media madness, of the rest of it. A person who may be completely wrong on one matter on one day, may be right on the next, so I do not understand the logic behind depriving any person of their voice (let alone in perpetuity).

Your position appears to be that such considerations should not be allowed to apply in this case as David is a “racist”. I don’t know why you think I would be swayed by this assertion. The prevailing conception of “racism” in South Africa (and the West) often resembles a cargo-cultist one – it is wholly concerned with superficial similarities rather than the actual underlying substance of the thing.

Take the particular k-word which originally meant “heathen”. It was notoriously used under white supremacy as a form of verbal abuse by members of the dominant group to put those they believed to be their “social inferiors” back in “their place”. Its public use was officially discouraged from the 1960s onwards. In a 1976 judgment it was found to be an injuria by the Natal Provincial Division, a legal status that it retains to this day.

In that case Mr Cilizaa black African driver of a delivery van in Durban, had brought an action against the Minister of Police for damages after a white policeman, Constable Laas, had casually called him a “kaffir”. This failed in the Magistrate’s Court before being appealed to the Natal Supreme Court where it was heard by James JP and Kriek J. In his evidence-in-chief Ciliza explained that "The word Kaffir is an insulting word which further means l am nothing and I am not a believer in God".

In his judgment James JP upheld the appeal and awarded damages to Ciliza. He noted that “Members of the public of all races are entitled to be treated with courtesy by the police, and if their dignity is impaired by the improper use of insulting or denigratory words they are entitled to receive monetary compensation.” In the 1980s the newspapers in South Africa regularly named and shamed petty officials who used the term to denigrate black South Africans. The employment of the term even then had come to be seen as uncouth, low class, and reflecting more on the character of the wielder of the insult, than his/her target.

In the second article I ever had published in a newspaper, in the Cape Times of 23 April 1997, I noted that “’racist’ had become the k-word of the new South Africa and the weapon of choice for the silencing of dissent. For, with this country’s horrific past, being called a racist resultin a form of social death. People are just too scared to be critical of the new order.”

The term “racist” has subsequently continued to be abused in the most odious fashion for the most evil of purposes. It has been habitually used to try and put parmantig members of the morally inferior group back in their place, something of which I have personal experience. It is a toxic word that should have been retired from public debate years ago.

Unfortunately, this has not happened and a “racist” in the current South African context - in which black chauvinism has been allowed to run rampant - is a “nothing”, a “non-person”, a being entitled to no dignified or humane treatment.

I personally do not believe that it is right to attach a demeaning label, physical or otherwise, to any person. Or to think that having done so you are somehow entitled to then try and destroy that person, and anyone who somehow “associates” with them.

I was surprised to find out through your email that the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, of all institutions, appears to hold the contrary view.

Regards,

James Myburgh

Editor & Publisher
Politicsweb.co.za