IN 1981 I emigrated, at the tender age of 28, from England to SA as a sort of economic mercenary. I had been offered a job heading up the money and capital market section of a successful financial company and the lure of more money, good weather and the possibility of finding a wife made it an attractive proposition.
Some of my more politically aware friends in England were openly disgusted at my decision to support the hated apartheid system, but I argued that SA was changing and there would soon be universal suffrage.
I really believed that to be the case because that’s what my new employers thought and leading business figures I spoke to opined that PW Botha was in a corner with talk of sanctions rife. Things would have to change.
It took another eight to nine years to see any real indication of change and in that time I lived the life of a privileged white immigrant who knew that things were pretty bad for black South Africans but consoled himself with the thought that things were changing and they should just be patient.
Whatever was coming would surely be worth waiting for, I reckoned, as I uncorked another bottle of South African cabernet sauvignon. I bought a small townhouse in Sandton and rarely, if ever, wondered what it might be like to live in a corrugated iron hut with no running water in a violent township. It simply wasn’t my problem.
A midlife career change to journalism gave birth to the Out to Lunch column in 1994, six weeks before the first democratic election. It started as a fortnightly column, tucked away in the Business Times section, and initially had to feel its way with regards to topics and writing style.
The column became a weekly one and the first major run-in was as a result of a scathing article on what was then Sandton Square (now Nelson Mandela Square).
The fallout was huge and the letters page the following week was dominated by response to my column. It gave me a heady feeling of power and it was probably at that point that the column took the iconoclastic rather than the safe route.
Over the years, the column has offended and amused and probably been regarded as a thorn in the side of authority, but one of the necessary evils of a democratic system and a free press.
I can’t claim to believe everything I have written because some columns were written purely for sensation. Readership of the column grew and I became heady with its success and pushed the boundaries. Last week I pushed that boundary too far.
The piece entitled, Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing, was intended to make the point that some black South Africans blame white colonialism for all the country’s problems.
It asked readers to envisage an imaginary SA, which hadn’t been colonised at all, in 2008. Then the Chinese arrive and lay claim to mineral rights, water, land and cheap labour and at last there is someone to blame. The article was never intended to offend, but it has, and that offence has caused the column’s permanent disappearance from The Sunday Times.
For that I offer sincere and heartfelt apologies to those who were offended, including Mondli Makhanya, my friend and former editor, whom I respect enormously. Particularly offensive to so many was the suggestion that a family who had lost a child would mourn for a week or so and then have another child.
Despite my claim that this is a fantasy SA, I realise that this was an insensitive remark to make and I humbly apologise.
The use of the term “simple tribesmen” was never intended to imply stupidity but to suggest an uncomplicated lifestyle. Nonetheless it offended my readers and therefore requires an apology.
Other critics referred to my cavalier disregard for ancestor worship and one even felt that my suggestion that huts were built to catch most of the day’s sun insinuated that black people are lazy. Once again, I am sorry to have caused so much offence to so many of my regular readers.
Just over a year ago, after I was shot while at home, many of my readers were generous enough to send messages of support. I have a bulging lever-arch file of those messages and at a rough guess I would say that 60% of them were from black readers.
I keep that file close by at all times and read it when I am feeling a little sorry for myself. The generosity of spirit and compassion of many of those messages bring home to me what really happened with that fateful column. I betrayed the friendship of so many unseen good friends and that is unforgivable. Even for an iconoclastic columnist.