I’ve been ruminating, like an old bull, on the recent events regarding columnist David Bullard, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), its local Head of Research and Advocacy Projects Cecelia Kok, and Politicsweb and its owner and publisher/editor James Myburgh.
Of course (if I might swop my animal avatars for a moment) I do know that a dog (like me) can bark all he likes, but the caravan must move on. I.e., it’s possible that readers might have read enough about this matter. Still, there’s a yap or two I’d like to contribute.
I know too that I can’t claim impartiality. I have 20-year-long (perhaps longer) relationships with Bullard (personal) and Myburgh (professional and personal) and I’m very fond of both of them. Also, I am paid for the pieces I write for Politicsweb, some of which payments, I’m told, came from FNF financial grants to Politicsweb. Still, I’ll try my best not to be more biased than I usually am.
On May 27 Bullard tweeted that “... 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”.
As Bullard doubtless knew would happen, this resulted in a massive response on social media, mostly of outrage. Even those who realised that Bullard was being more provocative than serious (the "k-word” he was referencing was “kleptomaniac”) and that he’d played a similar game previously – said the tweet was stupid and unfunny.
The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) sacked Bullard as a columnist from its Daily Friend. Another columnist, Ivo Vegter, said the tweet was “beyond the pale”. On June 3, Gareth van Onselen, one of the country’s better journalists, wrote a piece disparaging Bullard.
As a result of the tweet (ostensibly), Kok, the person in charge of FNF’s funding to Politicsweb, wrote to Myburgh instructing him to sack Bullard from Politicsweb. The tweet, she said, was proof that Bullard had to go. He was a racist and the FNF couldn’t be connected in any way with a racist.
If Myburgh didn’t fire Bullard, the FNF would withdraw all funding from Politicsweb, Kok said.
Myburgh said no, he wouldn’t sack Bullard and explained why. He said though he himself was not happy with the tweet, Bullard was a fine journalist, had written without blemish and was a drawcard for Politicsweb; the “racism” reason was specious, and cruel to boot because it was itself a kind of k-word and would make of Bullard a non-person.
Let’s unpack these “events” a little more.
First, as noted, the tweet appeared on Bullard’s personal twitter thread; nothing to do with Politicsweb; and nothing to do with the FNF.
Second, the FNF's money not going to Bullard.
Third, Bullard might – in the opinion of some – be a donkey’s tuchis in terms of his provocativeness or the distastefulness of his provocations, especially “in the South African context”. And, due to his no-holds-barred approach (or, if you prefer, his obnoxiousness), he has offended many, including senior journalists. The depth of anger he has engendered in some takes away even my hoary breath; after all, Bullard’s trade is words, not sticks and stones; but then we journalists/writers, poor useful idiots that we are, like to believe we command more power and influence than we do.
Thing is, though, Bullard is not a “racist”. To label him as one is nonsense. It’s fake. It’s posturing. It’s facile. I shouldn’t have to try to explain this, but a racist is a person who is prejudiced against people of other races; who drones on about how a black person could never be, say, a decent doctor because she is black; or argues that black people are incompetent or inherently inferior because they are black, etc., etc.
I could note that Bullard is in reality kind (to all), hospitable, deeply humorous and a world-class mimic. But there’s probably no point in doing so because someone would doubtless mention that I would also claim that some of my best friends are Jews, Muslims, black people, Afrikaners, and even gentiles. (Note: that last sentence is a quip.)
So, call Bullard a donkey’s tuchis then – and don’t invite him to your house for dinner. But don’t label him a “racist” – which, in South Africa, has become the equivalent of being branded on your forehead with a scarlet letter. Besides which – and we’ll get back to this – it grows clearer and clearer that Bullard and his tweet were largely incidental to the actions taken by Kok. A useful final straw man.
Fourth, one can assume, surely, that someone in Kok’s position would know that any editor who allows himself to be bullied or blackmailed by his funder into adopting a particular view, carrying a particular story or “killing” a columnist – is washed up. It’s over; his or her credibility and self-respect are shot forever.
Of course, those who’ve been around the block a time or seven, especially in the newspaper world, know that this sort of thing does happen, though it’s usually handled more subtly than Kok did it. The CEO or the GM comes downstairs to see the Editor and says to him, “Listen, Joe, the anti-tobacco stuff Gordin is writing in his columns is annoying our major advertisers. Not good. Speak to him.”
The Editor, if he’s smart, doesn’t shout and scream but takes Gordin out for a beer, puts his arm around Gordin’s broad but sensitive shoulders, and says, “Listen, Gordin, this is causing us problems, please tone it down ...” Both the Editor and Gordin understand their respective jobs are on the line, Gordin’s above all. Smelly and unpleasant as the whole business is, Gordin must make a choice.
Must make a choice, however, about whether highlighting the evils of smoking is worth giving up his job and the other worthwhile work he believes he is doing. In other words, as mostly happens in life, each case must be dealt with on its so-called merits.
But there are no merits to the accusations levelled against Bullard. The racism guff is precisely that – guff. And what Bullard does to wile away his time under lockdown is his business – and how others choose to react to Bullard’s tweets is their business.
Fifth. Kok, with whom Myburgh had been working for many years, was – ostensibly because Bullard was a “racist” – willing to shut down Politicsweb. To the best of her knowledge, Politicsweb could not operate properly, if at all, without FNF funding.
Now, if I could compose a good tear-jerker, I’d be writing for Mills & Boon. But I do want to say – and I hope this is not removed by Myburgh – that Politicsweb is a heroic enterprise. Myburgh has (for years) thrown his heart, soul and energy into creating, implementing and keeping alive a website devoted to an alternative, sometimes contrarian, critical approach to South African politics and related issues – a site that tries to give space to people, whatever their views, to those who might be denied it in the mainstream media, and one which has not considered shutting down reader commentary, as “difficult” as leaving it open can be in a racially-charged society.
Politicsweb runs on a shoestring and Myburgh works like a dog. Where possible, he also pays people for their work – which, coming from a cash-strapped enterprise, is not only about money, but about respect.
Yet Kok was prepared to have Politicsweb shut down. Over someone’s personal tweet? C’mon, there’s something that doesn’t feel right here. I’ve read Kok’s second letter and there’s a strange disconnect there. It reads like a judge’s summing up in court – it summarizes the issues abstractly, covers a few legal bases, delivers a short lecture on liberalism, nitpicks about Freedom of Expression and what sort of site Politicsweb is – but it’s somehow not the response of a person engaged with what is really happening and what he or she is actually doing.
What is really going on here? If it’s not about Bullard, and clearly it’s not just about him, then what? Is there an objection to some of the “voices” that appear on Politicsweb? AfriForum’s perhaps? An objection to the preponderance of old white men in the comment section, like RW Johnson? At least have the respect to be direct and honest.
And from whom do these objections – or whatever the real objections are – emanate? Was this action – the curtailment of funds on a clearly spurious basis – the wish of the FNF in Germany? Of Kok herself? Of Kok’s family or friends? Has someone from the ANC, or someone allied to it, objected to Politicsweb? Did someone tell the FNF it needs to be “clearer” about its stance vis-à-vis the ruling party?
I don’t know Kok and I don’t want to cast aspersions on her or the FNF. But, given the above scenario, there are some questions that one just can’t help asking.