Since my role in reporting the tweet that got David Bullard axed from the Daily Friend is now public, I’d like to take a moment to clarify my views on the matter.
I’ve been a life-long admirer of Bullard’s writing. When I was still at school, delivering the Sunday Times to subscribers, I would always read his column before embarking on my bicycle, heavily loaded with newspapers that in those days were as thick as telephone books.
I thought of him as South Africa’s answer to P.J. O’Rourke: a flamboyant satirist, unafraid to offend, and able to convey important ideas in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner.
I defended him in 2008 when he was fired by Mondli Makhanya, the editor of the Sunday Times, over a column in which he extolled the benefits that colonialism brought to Africa. I described his column as condescending, grating, offensive, and probably racist, but did not believe that this merited suppressing the debate Bullard, ineptly in my view, was trying to stir.
I acknowledged that Makhanya had every right to fire him, and that this was not a question of free speech. The right to freedom of expression protects citizens from the state. It does not oblige private organisations to tolerate any and all speech.
I questioned Makhanya’s motives for firing Bullard, however, since it surely wasn’t news that Bullard was wont to offend, and he had recently written a scathing critique of the Sunday Times and its publishers.
Puerile and dangerously counterproductive
One might have hoped that Bullard would learn from this incident, but since then, he has said a lot of things that are off-colour and could be interpreted as racist. Even if he does not mean them to be racist, and means only to provoke those who shout ‘racist’ too lightly, they’re not half as clever as he appears to think they are. Provocative race-baiting strikes me as puerile and dangerously counterproductive in the South African socio-political milieu. It hardly makes for good satire, in my opinion.
The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is an advocacy organisation. It acts as a public policy think tank that promotes classical liberalism as a means to defeat poverty and tyranny through a system of limited government, a market economy, private enterprise, freedom of speech, individual liberty, property rights, and the rule of law. Its main object, as described in its Memorandum of Incorporation, is to promote democracy, human rights, development, and reconciliation between the various peoples of South Africa.
In the old South Africa, for over 60 years, it strongly opposed Apartheid, and was derisively painted as ‘pinko-liberal’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘k*****-boeties’ by the illiberal nationalist regime. The struggle against Apartheid was won by a left-wing alliance of African nationalists, unionists, socialists and communists, all of which also adhered to illiberal ideas. Although the IRR had not changed its liberal principles one iota, it now risked being painted, equally falsely, as a right-wing organisation and defender of the old order.
To be effective in its mission, the IRR must be taken seriously by policymakers and the general public. It cannot expose itself to the risk of being dismissed as an organisation that tolerates racism.
It was with this risk in mind, as a member of the IRR Council, that I brought Bullard’s recent controversial tweet to the attention of the IRR’s CEO, Frans Cronjé.
Apparently, we were to read into the ‘k-word’ the word ‘kleptocrat’. Presumably, only the perpetually offended woke brigade would assume that it referred to the racist epithet, and this would expose them as being small-minded, over-sensitive, race-obsessed, and politically correct to the point of censorship.
I don’t buy this explanation, however. Why would we need a new word for ‘kleptocrat’? The existing term is perfectly serviceable.
This sort of petty race-baiting shouldn’t be prohibited by the state. I’m a free speech absolutist. However, it does splash back onto organisations with which he is associated. In the case of the IRR, it undermines not only its political goal of promoting classical liberal principles in the governance of South Africa, but also the race relations it upholds in its very name.
The IRR’s decision to dismiss Bullard as a columnist from its publication, the Daily Friend, stands in stark contrast not only to my own blog post of 2008, but also to the brave defence of Bullard raised by Politicsweb editor James Myburgh, against pressure from a major funder.
Myburgh’s decision to reject an ultimatum from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) to fire Bullard or lose its financial support was eminently correct. A news publication ought to tolerate a wide range of views, even if they are offensive, and should never sacrifice its editorial independence to the dictats of donors, advertisers or owners.
Unlike the IRR, Politicsweb is not an organisation committed to promoting a particular ideology or set of political principles. The question of whether its contributors support or undermine those principles therefore never arises.
It is important to note that the IRR acted without any pressure from its donors, even though the FNF is also an important supporter of the IRR. If the FNF had presented the IRR with an ultimatum similar to the demand it made of Politicsweb, the situation would be become more complicated, but the result would have been the same.
Principles and public reputation
The IRR would have first had to cut its ties with the FNF, in order to protect the organisation’s integrity, before cutting ties with Bullard, to protect its principles and public reputation.
There is no doubt in my mind that the CEO would have done so, had this circumstance arisen. It would not have been the first time he sacrificed donor funding to secure the integrity and principles of the IRR.
I fully support the decision of James Myburgh not to bow to donor pressure and fire Bullard. It was the right thing to do, for an independent news and opinion publisher. Without any inconsistency, however, I also support Cronjé’s decision to dismiss Bullard as a columnist for the Daily Friend, in order to protect the principles and public image of the IRR, and I don’t regret the small part I might have played in what led up to that decision.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR