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The London Review of Books Pulls “Racist” RW Johnson Post, Apologises

Alert! Historian, author and blogger RW Johnson – known for his conservative bent when it comes to matters South Africa – has seen one of his blog posts for the London Review of Books removed from the web following a protest by scores of writers, who accused the author, in writing about rumours of xenophobic violence in SA, of “peddling highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes”.

RW JohnsonSouth Africa's Brave New WorldThe post in question was called “After the World Cup” – Johnson had filed a series of articles about the 2010 FIFA World Cup for the LRB – but, according to New Left Project, may originally have been called “The Coming of the Baboons”. The post is no longer available online, and also seems to have been purged from search engine caches, but the NLP’s blog has published the relevant details, with analysis:

Unfortunately, Johnson has embarrassed his employers with a rather peculiar racist outburst in an article entitled ‘After the World Cup’ (or rather that appears to have been the title finally chosen – the URL of the now vanished post suggests that it was originally called ‘The Coming of the Baboons’). Allow me to excerpt:

    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 of 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.

I trust you follow the juxtaposition. African migrants are “baboons”, while “local black shopkeepers” are “rottweilers”.

The same source has the letter, signed by seventy noted cultural figures – including BOOK SA’s Elleke Boehmer, UKZN‘s Patrick Bond and others whom BOOK SA readers will know well, like Nuruddin Farah, Kadija George and Sean Jacobs – castigating the LRB’s decision to publish Johnson’s post:

20th July 2010

To the Editor,

With its stress on its own ‘depth and scholarship and good writing’ and its ‘unmatched international reputation’, the LRB has a responsibility to maintain high standards if it is to retain its enviable position of having the ‘largest circulation of any literary magazine in Europe’.

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. In a particularly egregious recent post on the LRB blog, ‘After the World Cup’, 6 July 2010, Johnson, astonishingly, made a comparison between African migrants and invading baboons. He followed this with another between ‘local black shopkeepers’ and rottweilers. He concluded with what he presumably thinks is a joke about throwing bananas to the baboons.

In the particular arena of football, some fans do not need to be encouraged to produce racist abuse. Across Europe for many years, black players have been spat at, subjected to racist chants often including references to monkeys or apes, and have been the focus of monkey chanting noises during matches. Neo-Nazi groups have also been known to use football matches as target areas for recruiting new members and promoting their racist practice. (How ironic that when Johnson does decide to write about ‘Football and Fascism’, 11 July 2010, he produces a piece about Italy that reveals the dearth of his knowledge.)

At first, the LRB refused to take any action on Johnson’s post, but it eventually removed it from the web and issued an apology:

We have had a number of complaints about a post on the LRB blog on 6 July on the grounds that it was racist. The LRB does not condone racism, nor does the author of the post, R.W. Johnson. We recognise that the post was susceptible of that interpretation and that it was therefore an error of judgment on our part to publish it. We’re sorry. We have since taken the post down.

The Guardian, meanwhile, caught up with Johnson in South Africa, who professed to be astonished by the affair:

Johnson said he had not been told the piece had been taken down and rejected accusations of racism.

“I’ve only just arrived back from a trip in a game reserve and have no knowledge of this. I would be astonished at any allegations of racism,” he wrote in an email.

Johnson’s latest book is the controversial South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid, which, following a good first run in this country, has been reprinted.

Book details

Photo courtesy the Guardian


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