Ah, the controversy over at Avusa over its (former) … again! You probably know by now that Bullard has been fired due to an apparently racist column which basically said that were it not for the brutal and racist (white) colonialists, the indigenous population would only just be discovering fire and other wonderful things. While there is a clear implication that were it not for the somewhat dubious influence of the white folk, black South Africans would not only be undisturbed by their less savoury influences but would have just barely made it out of their caves.

(Image: Zulu! by PJMiller published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 license)

If anything, Bullard’s underlying assumption that the locals of a couple centuries ago would have simply stagnated and not developed in any meaningful way, whether that be technologically, culturally or socially is the most objectionable aspect of the column. It suggests that black South Africans were (and perhaps still are) fundamentally inferior. Bullard may as well have been writing 20 to 30 years ago when bizarre evolutionary theories were being used to support Apartheid. That being said, his column raises a couple interesting questions and issues for me.

(As a complete thought experiment I find myself what would have happened if the Dutch East India Company and the British had skipped the Cape altogether. How would the local population have developed in the last few centuries? What would an organically African society look like in the 21st century. At some point the local population would have interfaced with the more developed world so I have to wonder if our teens still wouldn’t be trying to pass themselves off as US basketball players and ghetto hoodlums. At the same time how would a truly African society look? Would Ubuntu be the basis of everything that society does? What would its systems of government look like? Would they be tyrannical like we see in our northern neighbour or more communal and participatory?)

Back to Bullard … what did Avusa expect? They appointed him to be controversial. What did they expect when he is required to generate enough controversy to sell papers every week? The last major controversy was about his perception of bloggers and that really generated a firestorm. I remember Colin Daniels celebrating the tremendous amount of traffic the first Bullardgate brought to the then fledgling Times (I believe it was in a presentation at a 27 Dinner). Then it was great to be controversial despite the people he offended then (namely local bloggers) and his association of bloggers with college students in the US who kill their fellow students in their classrooms. Man, I was incensed when I read his columns and watched his videos. I almost backed out of writing for The Times as one of the first blogumists. But he was celebrated as a kind of hero and everyone had a good laugh. Not so much this time around. In fact, The Times hasn’t said a lot about Bullard except a short article, a link to the column and some inane musings about whether The Times will lose money because Bullard isn’t writing for them anymore.

I dislike the man (and have since his blogger stunt last year) and I disagree with his post. I don’t see him as a victim in this or a free speech hero. I think Avusa had this coming after years of playing with fire, pushing the edge through his columns to sell more papers and generate more buzz. It was a matter of time before they got burnt themselves.

Some bloggers have been asking about Bullard’s freedom to express himself (it is a Constitutional right, after all) and I guess it is going to come down to whether his comments constitute hate speech or fall foul of some more pressing right in the Bill of Rights. Either way, his post is offensive even though it isn’t overtly racist. What is a bigger issue for me is how this column highlights what a touchy subject race is in the not-so-new South Africa. I think Saul hits the nail on the head when he posted this:

Here’s a thought: If the editor of the Sunday Times felt that this was racist then why did he have the article published? I’m so sick of South Africans being so uptight about “racism”. We’re so scared as a nation to discuss racism and actually deal with it so we react to anything that might be misconstrued as racism. As a nation until we deal with the past and the present issue we will never get any further.

Given our history it is perfectly understandable that race is a sensitive issue but almost a decade and a half after the first truly democratic elections in this country and race is being used to bludgeon political opposition, social commentary and any kind of meaningful discourse about a range of topics from empowerment to who gets to be in a press conference. We are at a point where all you need to do to cut off an opposing view is to raise the racism card and the white people avert their eyes in shared guilt and the non-whites get to say and do what they want. Maybe us whiteys need to wear some kind of badge and arm-band and be restricted to only trading with each other … Maybe, just maybe, it is time to build that multi-racial society Nelson Mandela promised us a decade ago and which Mbeki and his party quickly forgot when Mandela walked out the door at the end of his presidency. When was the last time you heard the phrase “rainbow nation”?

I do find myself wondering if there isn’t a grain of truth in his conclusion somewhere:

Then something happens that will change this undisturbed South Africa forever. Huge metal ships land on the coast and big metal flying birds are sent to explore the sparsely populated hinterland. They are full of men from a place called China and they are looking for coal, metal, oil, platinum, farmland, fresh water and cheap labour and lots of it. Suddenly the indigenous population realise what they have been missing all along: someone to blame. At last their prayers have been answered.

When are our politicians going to stop the blame game and get on with some real nation-building?

Update: As usual, Ivo and Candice say it better than I did.

Update 2: Bullard has apologised for causing offence and in his apology, posted to Business Day, he talks about his history and his approach to his columns. It is also worth reading Ivo’s continued coverage of this story. Turns out Ivo is a pretty insightful writer himself … 🙂

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