South African press on LRB letter

Race row over baboon essay at the Sunday Times by Rowan Philp is an interesting piece for anyone who wants to know more about the view from South Africa and some (limited) background on RW Johnson. (It does not talk about his support for Buthelezi, for example, nor for the homelands as was explained to me today by a South African friend who was active in the ANC and the struggle.) I can’t help but feel irritation that the piece states that “73 prominent academics demanded the removal of both an online article by writer RW Johnson, and of Johnson himself…” We (and we are not all prominent academics but anyway) expressed amazement that the piece had remained online for 13 days and that even after someone on the esteemed team of LRB editors had edited it, it still contained an explicit racist linking of baboon and African migrant etc. We expressed our relief when the piece (in that form) was taken down. But at no point did we ask for it to be removed. That was a separate organisation in the UK that had threatened the LRB with legal action if it did not take the piece down: it was not us. Our letter actually went to some lengths to ensure that we did not demand censorship of RW Johnson per se but expressed our concern that the LRB published his racist writing. Which is different. Certainly, I am not interested in RW Johnson as an individual. I do not sit at my computer waiting to read his next blog. I dislike his work and rarely find it enlightening, so – like many writers and journalists whose work I don’t admire – I simply have stopped bothering to read it. His baboons and bananas blog post was brought to my attention several days after it had been up. I then decided to act. I wouldn’t mind if RW Johnson carried on writing for the LRB, so long as the LRB didn’t print him when he was being explicitly racist. His reactionary work is appropriate for say the right-wing Spectator, for whom he also writes, but sits oddly in a publication that many believe to occupy a centre-left position. It sits even more oddly when they so rarely given any other writer any space to write about South Africa. If the LRB invited other South Africans & Africans (among others) to write about South Africa, the publication would be succeeding in provoking broader debate on that country, and stimulating deeper thought. Those who accuse us of insisting on censorship have not read our letter carefully enough, just as Mary-Kay Wilmers admitted she and her team did not read RW Johnson’s racist blog post carefully enough.

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