Speaking of bias, Mr Johnson: Hermann Pretorius - Biznews

Jun 06, 2024
If one were to identify five analysts and commentators worth listening to about the real state of South Africa, RW Johnson would be a solid contender for the top spot. Reading Johnson’s best work is like gaining access to fundamentally valuable and often hidden truth about our country.
Speaking of bias, Mr Johnson: Hermann Pretorius - Biznews

In the realm of South African analysis, RW Johnson stands as a beacon of insight and clarity. Known for his unwavering commitment to truth and his incisive commentary, Johnson’s work offers a rare glimpse into the complexities of the nation. However, a recent departure from his usual brilliance in a BizNews piece raises eyebrows. While initially addressing media bias and political missteps with his signature depth, the article takes an unexpected turn, devolving into unsubstantiated attacks on figures like John Steenhuisen, leaving readers questioning Johnson’s analytical integrity.

Hermann Pretorius

If one were to identify five analysts and commentators worth listening to about the real state of South Africa, RW Johnson would be a solid contender for the top spot. Reading Johnson’s best work is like gaining access to fundamentally valuable and often hidden truth about our country.

A richness of writing, an analytical depth of evidence and extrapolation, a shrewdness of argumentation – these things combine in Johnson at his best. And, let’s be honest, his best is pretty consistently delivered.

When this pattern of excellence is interrupted, it is all the more jarring for falling short. Johnson’s recent piece for BizNews, ‘DA’s current leader is an accident waiting for a place to happen’, is one such rare deviation from the norm. What starts out as analysis ends up as little more than ad hominem.

The first 900 or so words of the piece are vintage Johnson – clear, objective, and evidence-based. Citing prominent examples of media reaction to DA leaders, Johnson reminds the reader how biased the South African media had been towards Helen Zille when she made the controversial point that Singapore had successfully built on its colonial history to become economically potent, where South Africa has not. Zille’s critics in the media went berserk – irrationally and hypocritically so, being themselves part of the news media legacy started by the Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser at the start of the 19th century – a colonial remnant if ever there was one.

The notion of not building on colonial remnants, as Johnson makes clear in his piece, is patently absurd. Citing examples ranging from Canada to India, Johnson tackles this dull wittedness head on. One can go even further than this, though, to show that even on South African shores we hardly buy into the notion of banishing every and all bit of colonial legacies that might be utilised now for economic and national good. Mining, after all, the founding industry of modern South Africa, was almost purely a colonial enterprise – one turbocharged by the British imperial conquering of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republic and its ally, the Orange Free State.

A wholesale rejection of all colonial remnants in South Africa would today necessitate the shutting down of the mining sector and the destruction of close to 500 thousand jobs. Hardly something anyone on this side of sober argues for. South Africa’s mining sector today is one that has undergone many changes – it is no longer the baron-based, colonial, exploitative enterprise of the last century. Mining in South Africa has been, to borrow from the governmental jargon, transformed. This means, taken to the barest logic, that the colonial legacy of mining in South Africa has been built on, clearly, if tacitly, by all engaged in it. And this was after all the point made by Zille for which a biased media defenestrated her.

After similarly addressing the Zille-based controversy over the factual claim that people from the Eastern Cape move to the Western Cape in search of better socio-economic prospects, Johnson spends two paragraphs recalling the mental gymnastics of the DA under Mmusi Maimane to openly be disaffected Mbeki-ites rather than political liberals with a values basis of non-racialism, free markets, and civil liberty. This despite Mbeki’s failures on HIV/AIDS, diplomacy in Zimbabwe, and the stirring of racial divides when politically expedient. (On this latter point, it is worth reading Gavin Davis’s excellent 2004 article ‘The electoral temptation of race in South Africa: implications for the 2004 election’.)

However, having thus far built a credible case against both anti-DA media bias and the DA’s own fumbles when rather stupidly seeking to convince the commentariat of its race-based progressivism, Johnson pivots to an out-of-the-blue (no pun intended) attack on John Steenhuisen.

As a first slap, Johnson takes issue with Steenhuisen’s past reputation as an “attack dog”. Having spent 900 words expressing the unfairness with which DA leaders are treated, Johnson criticises Steenhuisen for seemingly sharing his critical view of a biased media. Baked into Johnson’s “attack dog” criticism, there lurks this idea that Steenhuisen is good for nothing else than rumbling with journalists – but mercifully not in the Shivambu sense. Steenhuisen, the reader can infer, is a destructive, negative politician of limited substance.

This charge, snuck into analysis on anti-DA media bias, has little to back it up but reports of heated telephone calls. For whatever faults Steenhuisen has as leader and politician, his party has seen a rise in its stock since his becoming leader. The party has been pulled out of a support dive, becoming one of only two parliamentary parties to gain at the ballot box this election. This recovery is something that took the IFP almost twenty years – and something other parties are yet to manage. And, however rocky it might have seemed at times over the past year, Steenhuisen’s own definitional project of his current leadership term, the ‘moonshot pact’ that became the MPC, held as firm as could be expected right up to the election results.

Johnson then proceeds to summarily excommunicate Steenhuisen from liberalism for the sin of a single snide joke in, admittedly, questionable taste. From a single remark about his personal life, Johnson extrapolates that Steenhuisen has no “liberal instinct”. How utterly bizarre of Johnson to demand the saint-like avoidance of bad personal judgements under pain of being disqualified as a liberal.

Johnson also fails to appreciate the context of this particular Steenhuisen slip up. Podcasts, like the on Steenhuisen was appearing on, are part of what could broadly be considered the alternative media. Conversations are less structured and more informal. This casual setup is a key ingredient in the success of podcasts over the last decade: viewers and listeners feel they get to look behind the polished façade of formal media with its lighting and makeup and polish. This particular podcast, with a foremost set of South African influencers in the podcast sphere, actually portrayed Steenhuisen and his party in a better light than most other efforts over the years – and to an audience typically well outside of the DA’s usual audience. At time of writing, the episode of the podcast with Steenhuisen has over 520 000 views and a comment section broadly weighted in favour of those expressing surprise at the likeability of the DA leader.

In the next sentence of his piece, Johnson parrots unqualified, race-baiting ANC messaging. Here it is critical to be absolutely clear about the facts – something Johnson has set a high standard for.

On 27 January, whilst on the campaign trail, Steenhuisen said the following:

“What did Panyaza Lesufi do? He took your tax money to buy ill-fitting PEP Stores uniforms for untrained cadres and pretended that they were “crime wardens.” What kind of person pulls a drunkard out of a shebeen, gives him a uniform and a weapon, and then unleashes them onto a community?”

This, Johnson contends, is racist and its utterance a blight on Steenhuisen’s character.

However, a moment’s fair consideration of this incident shows that this was little more than a storm in a teacup brought about by the winds of anti-DA media bias that Johnson started his piece decrying.

Firstly, it’s obvious that Steenhuisen said nothing about race. Johnson must get that vicious inference from the reference to “drunkard out of a shebeen”. Now, we don’t have to play word games here. Admittedly, the odds of someone of Johnson’s skin colour being drunk in a shebeen are slim. However, Johnson’s logical error in taking “drunkard” in “a shebeen” to mean “African” is hardly an insight into Steenhuisen’s view of black people. Being against giving policing powers to a drunkard in a shebeen is hardly a racist position by any stretch. In fact, I dare Johnson to speak to some inhabitants of Gauteng, especially those in townships. What Steenhuisen described is exactly the stereotype of Lesufi’s questionable militia members.

Secondly, however, there is the awkward fact of the substantive and important point Steenhuisen was making. Without proper process or a clear legislative mandate, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi created a ‘crime wardens’ initiative. Only an anti-Steenhuisen bias can lead to reading Steenhuisen’s remarks on the campaign trail as anything other than a rhetorically colourful but fair attack on the fundamentally irregular and likely illegal creation of de facto new policing units by Lesufi.

Johnson then utilises the ellipse and an assumption of his reader’s views to stand in as proxy for another slap at Steenhuisen:

“And then there was the dubious decision of the burning flag…”

Coming from someone famously adept at carefully and credibly carving out a position or argument, the lacking effort of this sentence falls clunking on the ear and comprehension.

I can, to some extent, understand the unhappiness with the DA’s advertisement showing the burning of a printout of a South African flag. It is a symbolic assault, after all. Yet, I fail to see how use of “dubious” and “…” meets the threshold of reasonable argument – never mind how that is supposed to support Johnson’s anti-Steenhuisen case.

Without taking too long, we can unpack the advertisement and take it’s content as seriously as its critics wish the rest of us to. As much as the DA’s advertisement showed the flag printout burning to a crisp, the advertisement also showed the flag’s full recovery. As much as the DA could be accused of flag burning, it must surely be similarly accused of flag unburning. But that is inconvenient to those with an anti-DA or, possibly, an anti-Steenhuisen bias.

Furthermore, critics of the advertisement seem to think metaphor and allegory too complex or sophisticated for political advertising. Especially from a liberal perspective, I find this odd. The meaning of the advertisement isn’t at all difficult to see: the country, symbolised by its flag, is being destroyed – voting for the DA is the route to end and reverse the destruction. Now, whilst one agrees with the DA’s argument or not, it’s hardly the stuff of literary or interpretative brilliance to understand the crisp (no pun intended) message.

As questionable as these criticisms of Steenhuisen thus far might be, the conclusion paragraphs of Johson’s piece seem to scrape the barrel. The result is unbecoming.

Steenhuisen, having committed the sins listed so far by Johnson, is, based on Johnson’s boyhood memories, someone that reminds him of a racist. No substantiation is offered. No particular racially disparaging remark. Having decried the absurdity of guilt by association, Johnson associates Steenhuisen with men whom he knew decades ago – and promptly pronounces guilt.

Replacing his usual brilliance of data and historical extrapolations, Johnson mines further his youthful recollections of clearly unpleasant characters to accuse Steenhuisen of being “over-confident, over-bearing and rather over-weight”. Whilst the initial two listed faults might be worth discussing in the course of political analysis, I was left agog by Johnson’s sudden go at Steenhuisen over his weight. In fact, in writing this, I have had to reread the relevant paragraph at least three times to make sure I wasn’t somehow misinterpreting one of the most preeminent South African liberal analysts of the last half a century calling the leader of South Africa’s largest liberal party… fat. The mind truly boggles.


Reading RW Johnson 99 times out of a hundred is an enlightening, invigorating experience – a credible challenge to accepted norms and held ‘truths’. And this piece started off with the same promise of delivering a rebuke of anti-DA media bias, saying things many liberals have thought and felt, but failed to fully articulate and express as analytical argument. That has always been, at least to my mind, Johnsons’ greatest strength: to express, substantiate, and make straightforward, grounded sense of the often counterintuitive nature of South African politics.

It is this reputation of excellence that exacerbates the letdown of reading something by him that promises analysis but blusters unexpectedly to something hardly above, if at all, the level of personal animosity and ad hominem. And the irony of taking aim at bias only to end up in the same gutter – a dubious analytical decision.

Hermann Pretorius is head of strategic communication at the IRR


Speaking of bias, Mr Johnson: Hermann Pretorius - Biznews

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