Update 5: Bullard burns at the stake

Bullard gets burntDavid Bullard has been fired by the Sunday Times. Ostensibly, it was over last Sunday’s column, in which he envisioned what South Africa would look like had it not been colonised by the Dutch and the English. His vision isn’t exactly complimentary.

The column is condescending at best, and probably racist. But so what? It stokes debate, and that debate should not be about freedom of speech.

Before I talk about that debate, the obvious question is why fire Bullard for being offensive now? Hadn’t the Sunday Times‘s editor, Mondli Makhanya, read him before? Doesn’t an editor who once bravely put “Manto: a drunk and a thief” on the front page agree with Salman Rushdie that without the freedom to offend, freedom of speech ceases to exist? Maybe he does. But Bullard made the fatal mistake of offending his paymasters. For that, of course, they have every right to tell him to sod off and exercise his freedom of speech elsewhere.

Except that his paymasters deny that’s why they’re firing him. Makhanya says his 19th century views are unacceptable in the newspaper. Yet Bullard has been cultivating that persona in the very same newspaper for years. He unapologetically trades on his arrogance, his Victorian superciliousness, and his ability to provoke outrage. If he steps over lines, it’s because with his dandy sartorial style, his whisky-drinking tastes and his cigar-smoking condescension, he consciously — and self-consciously — stations himself above arbitrary lines drawn by the hoi polloi.

It is certainly not the first time Bullard has been racist or offensive. Why didn’t he get fired before? The only other possibility that springs to mind is that the political class strongarmed the newspaper by threatening to pull advertising. That is, of course, their right, but it would genuinely surprise me if Makhanya, who stood firm in the face of far heavier political pressure caved over something as inconsequential as a column by a known stirrer. My bet is Makhanya was just waiting for an excuse to fire Bullard after the latter’s scathing attack on his bosses in the recently-launched media magazine Empire — an attack he has exploited on several public occasions to arouse shock and mirth. Sarah Britten speculates along the same lines, and reckons his axing can only be good for Empire. Bullard himself agrees. (I share Britten’s wish that Empire would get around to discovering these newfangled intarweb tube things. On the other hand, we all know what Bullard thinks of the internet. And in the interest of full disclosure: I too write for Empire.)

For my part, I agree with Rushdie. If Bullard’s column is racist, or offensive, or contains 19th century views, so what? You’re free to disagree. In fact, it’s far better for racism to be declared openly and discussed freely than to be suppressed. Just because it’s taboo in public discourse doesn’t mean it’s not flourishing in pub discourse. Or should that read “festering”?

What will get lost in the noise is the debate Bullard appeared to be trying to stir. Not very well, in my view. He expressed the argument in an offensive, condescending way, but there is a valid debate to be had about the modern tendency to dismiss colonialism as mere racist oppression and exploitation. It definitely was, in many cases, mercenary and ruthless. The degree of depravity differed from one colonialist to the next, and the English were far from the worst.

Many writers take the line that colonialism in India, for example, had substantial benefits, in addition to the well-known drawbacks and injustices. Those writers are not only Western apologists for racist oppression, but also Indian economists, historians, and prominent politicians, writing about their own country. For all the harm colonialism did, they argue, it also brought with it civil institutions and infrastructure. India can thank Britain, they say, for its liberal education, modern jurisprudence, and functioning civil service bureaucracy. Once liberated, it was on these institutions that economic progress could be built.

Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides of this issue. As Bullard shows, the same goes for unreasonable arguments. But that his column was grating and offensive does not mean it’s not a debate worth stirring. Yes, it means suspending conventions about what is politically correct. It means challenging well-established orthodox thinking on issues of history. It means treading sensitively around, and not being over-sensitive to, issues of race and oppression. It means rejecting the victim complex to which Bullard refers in his final paragraph, as well as the instinctive slam-dunk defense offered by perceptions of racism. But is it a debate worth suppressing?

I don’t think so. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, once expressed the 19th-century view that “[t]hose who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

It appears that view is also too 19th-century for Mondli Makhanya’s Sunday Times.

Update at 21:00 on 11 April 2008: If you’re interested in David Bullard’s columns, I hope you have bookmarks. Because you aren’t going to find them — not even previously published ones — at The Times website. They appear to have been orphaned. They still exist. For now. The link to his column in the copy above still works, and so do the links from that page, but without an article ID number, David Bullard is just a bad memory for the Sunday Times.

Update at 22:00 on 11 April 2008: Bullard responds, inserted in the copy above.

Update at 13:00 on 12 April 2008: The Saturday Star was quick to exploit this competitive opportunity, and published a page three article on Bullard in today’s first edition. It isn’t yet available online, but an image of the page is here. In it, he is quoted as saying that the column was merely an excuse for Makhanya to get rid of him, after he refused to apologise for claiming, in his Empire column that standards at the Sunday Times and other Avusa publications were in decline. After all, he says, his brief was to be “controversial” and “outrageous” and “to upset people” on a Sunday. “I was found guilty in the kangaroo court of Mondli Makhanya,” the piece quotes. Marvellously in character, he is pictured in a flashy pin-stripe suit and tie at the opulent Rand Club. “Wait until you see the next article in Empire,” he promises, “because now I don’t have to hold back at all.”

Update at 12:00 on 13 April 2008: Prompted by my response to Dawn in the comments section, I posted a short follow-up piece on the debate I believe Bullard was trying to stir: In defence of colonialism.

Update at 15:00 on 13 April 2008: Bullard’s Empire column, along with a full complimentary issue, has been published online. I noted it here. The direct link to his column is here.

Updated: How not to mop up criminals quickly

Susan Shabangu: I am the lawIn a previous post I used a throwaway line about shooting a fleeing suspect in the back, as proxy for lazy, unprocedural, untrained, unconstitutional and in the end unacceptable behaviour by the police. I thought it would be obvious, but now it seems I was wrong about such behaviour being unacceptable, if I am to believe a foaming-at-the-mouth deputy minister of safety and security, Susan Shabangu.

The Pretoria News reports that she spent a good while whipping up a crowd in Pretoria West, with phrases like these:

You [police] must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility. Your responsibility is to serve and protect…

I won’t tolerate any pathetic excuses for you not being able to deal with crime. You have been given guns, now use them.

I want no warning shots. You have one shot and it must be a kill shot. If you miss, the criminals will go for the kill. They don’t miss. We can’t take this chance.

Criminals are hell-bent on undermining the law and they must now be dealt with. If criminals dare to threaten the police or the livelihood or lives of innocent men, women and children, they must be killed. End of story. There are to be no negotiations with criminals.

The constitution says criminals must be kept safe, but I say No!

Well, okay then. Right. That was exciting. It reminds a friend of mine of Sylvester Stallone: “I am the law”. It reminds me of the more expressive Al Pacino: “Hoo hah!”

First, we have corruption. Then, we have incompetence. Shabangu is right in pointing out that police are often slow to respond, reluctant to investigate and generally lackadaisical in the face of high rates of violent crime.

But is it really a good idea for a senior member of the government to stand before an angry crowd and blatantly undermine our law and constitution? Wasn’t it a serious scandal, and a major claim of human rights abuses, when apartheid-era police forces were suspected of shooting to kill first, and firing warning shots only afterwards? Doesn’t this sort of fiery rhetoric make vigilantes, kangaroo courts and lynchmobs look like the reasonable actions of concerned citizens?

She appears to labour under the misconception that the executive — the ministry in which she is the deputy — is the ultimate source of law. It would serve police officers well to grasp that this is not the case, before they take her advice and find, inexplicably, that “her responsibility” is of little use when a court decides to “worry about the regulations”.

I’ve written before about suggestions for improving policing in South Africa, noting in particular a piece by Jim Harris of the Free Market Foundation that argues despite high crime numbers, actual numbers of criminals are comparatively low, so well-motivated, well-trained forces, private if necessary, should be able to find and squash them.

Given the hamfisted and abusive record of the police, however, I’m not entirely convinced that Shabangu’s incitement is a good idea. The crowd she addressed, however, gave her a standing ovation. So now we have Keystone Kops with a licence to kill and orders to shoot on sight, with a baying, bloodthirsty crowd at their backs.

Would someone please fire the dangerously irresponsible deputy minister, before she gets someone innocent killed? With that speech alone, I suspect she’s broken so many laws, surely even the Keystone Kops can make charges of incitement or conspiracy stick.

Hoo hah, indeed.

Updated at 12:50 on 12 April 2008: It is deeply disturbing that Jacob Zuma, the president of the ruling ANC and presumptive next president of South Africa, agrees with Shabangu: “If you have a deputy minister saying the kind of things that the deputy minister was saying, this is what we need to happen.”

No wonder he’s all put out about corruption investigations, when that’s his view of the authority of the executive and the origin of law. It is true that politics is among the few careers for which no formal qualification is required (journalism being another). It is true that, “owing to his deprived childhood, Jacob Zuma did not receive any formal schooling.” I’d suggest, however, that an introductory basic course in Political Science might be in order for senior politicians. Nothing fancy, you understand. Just to get an idea of who does what in a constitutional democracy. Perhaps a special extra session on basic budgeting might be added in Zuma’s case. It may come as a surprise to our unschooled lord and master, for example, that neither his nor the deputy minister’s word is law. If she wants to change the law, she’s welcome to table a bill in the legislature, where it can be debated, examined by the Law Commission, and voted upon. In supporting her advice to the police to simply disregard laws and regulations, Zuma is gravely undermining the rule of law in this country. Not that he’s shown much regard for such quaint concepts in the first place, I guess. Now at least we know how literally he takes his campaign song: “Bring me my machine gun”.

Someone broke the internet

I’d blog, but someone somewhere broke the internet. A story I wrote yesterday morning is stale by now, as is the support ticket I lodged with my ISP. I’ve been able to see only half the internet for 36 hours now. I’m getting tremors.