From the archives: Meet RW Johnson – SA’s outspoken political conscience, the Oxford Don few really know

First published on 5th July 2022

Prolific author, columnist and revered academic RW Johnson is known among fans and foes as a Rhodes scholar who became an Oxford Don and, since returning to SA in 1995, outspoken critic of the ANC. This interview digs deeper into what makes him tick, exposing much more about BNC#4’s opening speaker including Johnson’s extremely humble roots, fiercely anti-apartheid past (and present) and the real reason he continues to challenge taboos, attack convention and speak uncomfortable truths to power. He spoke to BizNews founder Alec Hogg, who will host him for that keynote in the Drakensberg at the 30 August to 2 September gathering.

RW Johnson on how he got pulled into politics

I was pulled in two directions. I assume a progressive party was founded in ‘59. I was an immediate supporter, although I was still in school then. I remember canvassing for them in the Musgrave by-election of 1962, and that was when I first met Helen Suzman. But having gone to university, I got tapped on the shoulder by a friend and told about the communist lawyer, Rowley Arenstein, whose house had been attacked by the Ku Klux Klan in the previous year or so. The Klan was again threatening to petrol bomb him. He had two little girls and they were all under house arrest. They were totally vulnerable because they were always going to be there. A group of people I knew stood guard to try and prevent anything really terrible happening. But they were short and asked me to join in, which I did, although with great reservations. Having anything to do with Rowley Arenstein was to put yourself in the firing line with the security. As a result of that and getting to know Rowley, I drifted into the Congress of Democrats. It was not only a sort of ANC, but really quite a strong Marxist group. I had this strange mixture because I was still trying to be helpful to the Progressive Party. Yet, at night there I was standing on Essenwood Road in Durban, on guard against the Klan. They did finally come shooting and we saw them off. Of course, as soon as we went inside to tell Rowley and his wife, the security police raided. It was about four in the morning. They must have either been the clan, as it were, themselves, or else they were watching very closely. So, they caught us. We were breaking the house arrest order and having a meeting. That led to a whole lot of early morning interrogations, great difficulties and a very unpleasant and difficult period. Happily, it all ended when I went off to university in Britain on a Rhodes scholarship.

On coming back to South Africa around the turn of democracy

After I left in ‘64, I didn’t come back for 14 years. It just wasn’t safe. I was invited to give some lectures in ‘78, which I did and enjoyed that experience a great deal. Of course, things had moved on in the country. It was post-Soweto. Right. The police had a lot more important things on their hands than worrying about student radicals.  They were less interested in me. After that, I used to come out about every two years during the Oxford long vacation, usually to teach at the University of Natal. I had a good friend, who was the professor, and he kept on inviting me. Through the ‘80s, I was able to keep in touch with what was going on because I was coming out on this two-yearly basis for about six or eight weeks at a time. It was great because I could link up with old friends and see what was going on. And it was a very stimulating period; a lot of things were changing quite fast. By the ‘90s, I had decided I would probably move back here. I was offered the job of directorship of the Helen Suzman Foundation in ‘95, which I happily accepted. But by then, I had been out here a great deal. I had come out to do a big book on the first democratic election with Larry Schlemmer. I was here for 18 months, two years. I spent a lot of time in South Africa in the ‘80s and early ‘90s before I came back. I mean, I was simply enchanted by it. You know, in a sense, having been an anti-apartheid activist, I have known lots of people in the ANC and all that sort of thing. To see it all through to ‘94 was to see the end of something that had been a major theme in my life, which I was delighted to see. I suppose to some extent, I shared the euphoria about the changes, but I was always extremely concerned about the ANC. Having spent time in London with exiles and so on, I had no illusions at all that there were a lot of very authoritarian and often racist people in the ANC. I knew that they would be very, very … well … completely ignorant. An inexperienced set of hands at the wheel would be the nicest way to put it. Many of them I wouldn’t personally trust. And the idea, which was then current, was that they have the moral high ground. If you knew them up close, you knew that was no more true of them than of any other large political movement. There were all sorts of people there. Some of them are absolute rogues and many of them are very authoritarian, very ideological. They were the last people you could imagine doing a good, pragmatic job of running their country. In a sense, I don’t think they were really interested in it either. I mean, they were very ignorant about contemporary South Africa. Many of them had left a long time ago and as it were, they knew their way around the London Underground better than they did any city in Joburg, in South Africa, rather. Obviously, they got over that but I was never very optimistic about the likely outcome. My training as a political scientist meant I knew quite a lot about similar sorts of experiences in other countries.

I’ve studied elsewhere in Africa, especially in West Africa. That too caused me to be fairly dubious about the euphoria of that time. I remember there was a conference in Durban in the early ‘90s. I found myself sitting next to Thabo Mbeki at a discussion group, which was all about investment in South Africa. There were a whole lot of reverends at that period, lots of political priests around and they wanted to make a big thing out of anyone who was going to invest in South Africa. They would have to qualify through all sorts of moral and ethical tests before they would be allowed to invest. I lost patience with this and said, “Look, all over the world, people are trying to get people to invest in their countries and they do not make them do moral high jumping before they’re allowed to do so. In fact, they’re just delighted to get their money. And this is ridiculous. And I said, “Look, why don’t we talk about real things and the sort of real things that concern me is that, having studied independent Africa quite a lot, two things happened in most African states fairly soon after independence. One is that they have been self-sufficient in food because colonial administrations were not interested in importing food. They rapidly became big food importers and have remained so and failed agriculturally to feed their population. And the second thing was that even though they all started with working power systems, within a very short time, they were all blacked out and had power cuts. Now, if we’re talking realistically, the two things that concern me are these. We must be sure South Africa continues to feed itself and that we are going to have reliable electric power.” At which point, Mbeki got up and walked out. Everyone then turned on me and said, “You’ve insulted him and upset him because of talking like that. It’s suggesting that Africans aren’t capable of something. I said nothing about that at all. I just said, “This is the historic record. We don’t want that to happen here. Let’s talk about real things.” I’ll never forget it because I’m sure I was the first person to raise that. And it was not many years later when, you know what happened, Mbeki was in charge, when the key decisions were taken, which ended up with power.

On not being listened to and if he had any feelings of frustration

That period, to raise issues like that was to be reactionary, a conservative. All these things I found very strange because in Britain, while I was there, for decades, I had always voted Labour. I’ve never been a Conservative. I used to advise Neil Kinnock at one point when he was Labour leader and I also advised some Labour cabinet ministers. It wasn’t meant in terms of trying to suggest anything, other than that I would like it all to work. That’s all. I knew enough to know these were real issues. The South Africans, white and black, at that period, were absolutely full of nonsense and unrealistic. They were ignorant about what was happening elsewhere in the world and had no comparative sense about their own situation, if you know what I mean. That is still a great weakness. People don’t even know their own history here very well, let alone that of other countries. It means naivete is a huge sin in South Africa. Our people simply aren’t sufficiently educated to make the sort of judgments they need to. And it’s a real problem. But certainly no one was willing to listen to anything like that and I was repeatedly told that I was out of court for having such feelings or worries.  

On the issues of food security, electricity and power

Those are two issues I brought up. Then obviously, there are many, many other points to worry about. When Mike Sutcliffe was drawing up all the boundaries for the local government, that was a disaster in the making. You could see this wasn’t going to work and he was creating non-viable municipalities. And then, of course, we got the cadres taking over a, but that was highly predictable. And we made all sorts of predictable mistakes. Anyone who had any sense about how things had worked elsewhere in the world over time and who had any sort of political science historical background could not but be appalled by it. We were walking into traps, which we should have been able to avoid. But no one wanted to listen. Everyone was jolly naive and it was extraordinary, really. Then everyone turned around and said they were disillusioned. And they said, “You were right and they expected me to be full of disillusion, too. I wasn’t because, as I say, it’s what I’d expected. I assume all of these things were going that way for a long time. I couldn’t say I was full of illusions that had been shattered as it just wasn’t true. I wasn’t as upset and angry as they were because they were sort of surprised. I was less doom laden than many. I suppose the point is I am still here when lots of that rubbish including – if I may say – many people I know. Some of them are good friends, who were passionate ANC supporters until the penny dropped. Then very quickly, they were living in another country. There never seems to be a moment when they turned around and said, “Oh, dear. I made a big mistake.” They carried on believing a whole lot of nonsense until they got on the plane to leave. It was strange.

On his interest in South Africa

I love the country physically. I have many good friends here. It has always been a place where I laughed a lot and I value that. Lookk, I love teaching in Oxford and I loved Oxford. I still do but I taught there for 26 years. At the end of the day, teaching is a repetitive business. You inevitably cover much of the ground, but you have the floor. Luckily, if you’re a political scientist, politics is developing and changing. So at least that’s true. Nonetheless, I was ready for a change and it was great coming back out here and rekindling old friendships, that sort of thing. I do find it extremely interesting. I still do. When I gave up my job at Morton and Oxford, there were certainly more than 100 applications for my job. I’m sure that the top 20 would all have been wonderful. So,, people like me were not uncommon in that situation. I was very well aware that my particular combination of experience and skills meant I was much more unusual in South Africa, though, and in that sense I could be more useful. I did have the sort of comparative knowledge and so forth that I would be able to understand, write about and analyse what was going on better than a lot of people. And that was a useful thing to do. I wanted to do it both to advance my own understanding but also because writing them is the sound thing I do. That has been a strong motive and I’ve enjoyed living here. Like everyone, I get very, very fed up with the power cuts and with the other aggravations of life here but overall, I still enjoy living here.

On the message he’s trying to leave with his books and articles

I’m not trying to spread any particular message to anybody. It’s often quite distressing to me when I write for, say, Politicsweb or whatever. I get a whole lot of people writing and agreeing with me, or largely so and then coming out with what I would call primary racism and saying all sorts of appalling things about black people. I think it is shocking and I do not share these. It does seem that although the period of the early and middle ‘90s was full of very misplaced euphoria, the great gains of that period were that we all began to know one another as fellow South Africans; and we began to mix with people of all races in a way that we hadn’t really been able to before, to try to get rid of racial prejudices and so forth. That was a huge gain and something we should preserve. That was the good part of that period that we all want to keep. I’m certainly not pleased when I find people are taking anything I write as confirmation of their prejudices. Heavens, my son is married to a black woman. One of my brothers was married to a black woman. One of my sisters was married to a black man. So, there have been plenty of black and mixed race people in my own family, and there still are. The last thing I want to do is to spread that sort of prejudice and I’m not trying to do that. When I write, I am trying to understand the situation, to analyse it, and therefore to know what’s right and wrong about it; to put out what I find to other people. And if they find that instructive, jolly good, they can draw their own conclusions. I’m not trying to propagandise them for any political viewpoint.

On the views his wife Professor Irina Filatova has on the Ukraine and Russia war and whether he shares her sentiments

Yes, I do. Although she knows vastly more about it than me because she reads the Russian and Ukrainian press and follows everything online. Of course, she is in touch with people in Moscow all the time and she has Ukrainian friends out here. She’s by far the best informed person in this country about it. She is appalled at what’s going on. Of course, the fact that she has written what she has – which is, trying to be analytic and understand rather than make the denunciations – is completely unacceptable to the Russian side. She is probably unable to return to Russia now.

RW Johnson with fellow author and historian, Irina Filatova

On whether South Africa’s heading towards a more enlightened future

Not really, no. The distressing thing is that the universities are not places of open-minded discussion. They are highly ideological. They don’t invite people who do not share their ideological preconceptions to venture on the campus. That has to change before we can really progress. There are a lot of subjects often talked about but being an academic, I am very conscious that they’ve ceased to be places, which seem to value that sort of expertise. You know, that has to completely change. It used to be true that they were open-minded; certainly English-speaking universities were but that’s no longer true. I would never be an acceptable speaker on a university campus in this country now. I mean, there would’ve been a time when I was invited; if you’re an Oxford academic, you were invited all the time. Now that’s not the case but that’s all right. I’m not upset about that. It’s okay with me but it’s typical of the situation we’re in. Good expertise is not what’s wanted, really, and just a very big mistake.

On whether he’s making a dent in the academic wasteland   

Occasionally, academics get in touch with me, for once a year or more. But they are all basically scared. They know that on their campuses – and I’m talking about places like UCT or UKZN – they know they would be in trouble if they were known to associate with people like me. They are scared. I mean, that is a terrible situation. Max Price was head of UCT, and Max had been one of my students. The thing that seemed to be so dreadful was he didn’t protect his own academics. When completely ignorant mobs made demands, of all kinds, there was nobody to protect academic freedom because he was always trying to placate the mob. That meant academics were really in the firing line. The first job of the administration is to make sure academic freedom and academics are allowed to do their thing. And that didn’t happen. But I’m afraid that’s true of most universities. Not probably the Afrikaans-speaking universities are the best from that point of view of allowing real pluralism. It’s a sad situation and something that really has to change but it will take quite a lot to change it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the young people who just dished out what they were given. The people in charge at universities now are much weaker academically than they used to be a generation ago. I mean, if you look at the vice chancellors, they aren’t a patch on what they used to be; the professors are also much weaker than they used to be and standards have fallen quite a lot but it is covered over with all sorts of political nonsense. That’s a very sad situation.

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