The great unwokening

David Bullard writes on his return to the Franschhoek Literary Festival


Back in 2008 I was invited to be a participant at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Towards the end of 2007 Pan Macmillan had published my third collection of columns under the title of “Screw it, Let’s do Lunch”. The cover was produced by my long standing buddy Dov Fedler who had me sitting at a restaurant table nursing a tumbler of whisky and holding a smouldering cigar in my right hand.

Behind me at separate tables sat Richard Branson (my publishers had unashamedly hijacked the title of his 2006 book ‘Screw it, Let’s do it’) and Jacob Zuma who was attempting to sue me at the time for writing an article that he claimed brought him into disrepute.

Dov had drawn the hand holding the cigar to form a famous V sign at JZ. And it wasn’t the Churchillian victory sign either. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Rather like the first two Out to Lunch books, ‘Screw it’ did rather well when it came to sales and although it never made the number one spot as the original 2002 ‘Out to Lunch’ had, it did hang around the Exclusive Books best seller list for a few months and sold, I am told, over 12 000 copies.

In a country where sales of 4500 apparently qualify as a best seller this was pretty good going. To avoid any messy arguments about royalties I had decided upfront that all author’s proceeds from my books would be split between my choice of charity and the editor’s choice of charity. Obviously if I’d known that the books were going to sell as well as they did I might have revised that idea but I think we managed to give away a decent six figure sum over the course of six years.

So I was booked as a ‘celebrity’ speaker for the 2008 Franschhoek Lit Fest and everything was on track, luxury accommodation booked, publisher’s minder there to look after my every whim, groupies carefully selected and my dressing room stocked with Johnnie Blue. But then something happened…. I got ‘cancelled’ by The Sunday Times for an article they quite happily published which, after a few days of thinking about it, they decided was racist. The column of 14 years was dropped, I was described in rival media outlets as the ‘disgraced former Sunday Times columnist’ and posters were put up all over Johannesburg letting everybody know I was ‘racist’ just in case they had missed the point.

I was genuinely surprised at the reaction but decided to do the decent thing and offer my resignation to Mondli Makhanya who was my editor at the time. This I did on April 8th and my resignation was declined with the words “that isn’t necessary”. Fortunately, I had the foresight to tell this to two colleagues at Business Times as I emerged from the editor’s office. Two days later I was sacked over the phone which had clearly been part of the original plan.

At the time the Rottweiler in the Presidency, Essop Pahad, had threatened to withdraw lucrative government advertising from the Sunday Times unless they were much nicer to the ruling party. Since most of the third section of the Business Times (where my column appeared on the front page) was given over to government sponsored advertising this was a very real threat so management did what any good management would do; they found a sacrificial victim to throw under the bus and since this one had a white skin and could therefore be called a ‘racist’ everything was hunky dory.

I was the most discussed topic in South Africa for at least three weeks pushing Mad Bob Mugabe off the front page of The Star on April 11th. Even struggle stalwart Pallo Jordan weighed in with the comment that what I had done was rather like having someone come into your home and defecate on the carpets; something most of us are unfamiliar with but obviously a subject close to the heart of Pallo, or ‘Dr’ Jordan as he liked to title himself at the time.

I received a long letter from the SAHRC giving me the name of three complainants and outlining my manifold sins and wickedness and demanding a reply to the accusations. This I sent off in some detail and never heard another word from the SAHRC, presumably because they knew they would look like complete asses if they took the matter further. Interestingly, an annotated version of the offending article was featured, unexpurgated, in a fourth book and there wasn’t a peep of protest.

At the time The Sunday Times was the main sponsor of the Franschhoek Lit Fest but it was now obvious that I couldn’t feature in a one hour promotion of my book, much of which would now be judged to be disgustingly ‘racist’ in hindsight by those in an expert position to reach these weighty decisions.

So the programme was changed and a panel of hostile inquisitors was formed to determine whether I was racist and should be put to death. Being something of a good sport and always up for a laugh I agreed to all this and turned up to a packed NG Kerk to put the case for freedom of expression and to correct any misconceptions about the intention of the column.

Fortunately, the audience were predominantly white and I guess the average age might have been about 55 if I’m being generous. Many of them had also been loyal readers of the Out to Lunch column (or so they told me before we went in) so I didn’t feel too much like St Sebastian having arrows thudding into me. But there was also some detectable hostility which, as far as I was concerned, added to the credibility of the session.

I honestly can’t remember who all my inquisitors were by name but they all did a wonderful, pearl clutching impression of being deeply shocked at what I had written; quite understandable in the circumstances because self-preservation is paramount when you’re putting the boot into the competition.

Jonathan Shapiro (who trades under the name Zapiro) was one of the inquisitors and when it became apparent that the mood of the room might be swinging in my favour he came out with the fatuous comment “I think it’s a great pity there aren’t more black people here today” to which I riposted with a wit that surprised even me “I didn’t realise that they were still banned in Franschhoek” upon which the audience collapsed in laughter and the banality of his comment may even have eventually dawned on Shapiro.

I went to the Franschhoek Literary Festival last weekend and it was better than I can remember for many years. In the early and mid 2010’s it became a gathering place for self-congratulatory lefty poseurs and race-baiting clowns who like to pretend that they have written a best seller.

There was also a thriving trade in recreational drugs I’m reliably informed which didn’t go down well with the locals. This was the shameful era in which Helen Zille was rudely ‘disinvited’ at the last minute by the spineless festival director following a comment Zille had made about how we might learn a lesson or two from Singapore when it came to building on the legacy of colonialism.

Despite writing the sort of books guaranteed to draw a huge audience I don’t believe our own R W Johnson has ever been invited to the festival; too right wing would have been the excuse from the organisers.

In those days the audience members joked that they paid R70 to attend a session where the previously disadvantaged ‘author’ would rant at the audience about the evils of whiteness and then wonder why they didn’t sell too many books.

Thankfully COVID came to the rescue and the lit fest is now under new and much less woke management. Hopefully this also means that the festival will be a large contributor to Franschhoek’s coffers.

I went to three sessions on Friday, and they were all superbly handled by the facilitators. In two of the sold-out sessions the audience was entirely white and in the third the audience was 90% white. In all sessions the average age of the audience was almost certainly closer to 60 than to 30. Since 80% of 10-year-olds can’t read for meaning in this country the future of literature festivals hangs in the balance.

One could argue that the R100 entrance fee for each session puts black attendees off but when I made this suggestion to someone connected to the festival she made the point that the annual sparkling wine festival in Franschhoek is predominantly attended by black South Africans and that it costs rather more than the Lit Fest.

Of course, in a normal society none of this would matter and nobody in their right mind would care what colour skin attendees at a Literary Festival had. But we are not a normal society and our mainstream media constantly draws divisive racial comparisons because it’s good for click bait.

Even our most elite schools with annual fees of well over R300 0000 now invite very dubiously qualified ‘diversity consultants’ at R70 000 a pop for a session to tell white school kids that they are the descendants of land thieves, that they are the beneficiaries of unearned privilege and that they should only speak when spoken to. Oddly, all of this is possible thanks to the cowardly white principals of those elite schools who must surely be getting a kickback for every session they arrange?

It’s become abundantly clear that the ANC education policy is to produce the most uneducated kids in the world (which they have already done) in the hopes that future ANC voters will still fall for the free KFC and t-shirt bribe without having a clue what they are voting for. The fact that none of these semi-literates will have a hope of ever finding a decent paying job is beside the point.

Now, all the ANC and their allies need to do is to get rid of the pesky whites, coloureds and Indians and, thanks to new employment legislation, that should be sorted out in the next ten to fifteen years. What was that comment about slow boiled frogs Cyril?