A Twice-Told Tale

R.W. Johnson: not a writer to be trusted.


Here’s a story that appeared in the Business Review Weekly in 1994:


After overthrowing the Batista regime in 1958, Castro had to set up a new administration in haste. The story goes that at a meeting of the revolutionary leaders, Castro asked: “Is anyone here an economist?” Che Guevara, the Argentinian firebrand, put up his hand and instantly became president of the national bank and Minister for Industry. This surprised all present. Che had been a medical student. Moreover, as Clive James was later to write, it was accepted that he couldn’t organise anything more complicated than a small ambush. Che later confessed: “I thought Fidel said: is anyone here a communist?”


Here’s a very similar story that ran in the Wall Street Journal on November 19, 2010:


Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister from 1996 to 2009, got his job when the aging Nelson Mandela asked, at a cabinet meeting, who was a good economist. Mr. Manuel raised his hand thinking Mr. Mandela had asked who was “a good communist.” Mr. Manuel served his country ably. But the appointment of the sole competent minister in the first government of African National Congress was a matter of blind luck.


The first story is almost certainly apocryphal, the second is even more dubious. It’s clearly modelled on the first story, with such fidelity that one can most charitably describe it as unconscious plagiarism.  


The Wall Street Journal’s rendition comes at the start of a review of R.W. Johnson’s South Africa’s Brave New World. The reviewer, Graeme Wood, says that Johnson’s book is “is a catalog of sins and rumors (footnoted, though often attributed to private sources or, for example, ‘old girlfriends’ of ANC members). It is big and disorganized but filled with credible gossip—like the Trevor Manuel story—and therefore a delight.”


As we’ve just seen, the Manuel story is not credible gossip, it’s a rehash of an older tall tale. It’s not dissimilar to the many apocryphal witticisms attributed to Winston Churchill or Dorothy Parker: it’s almost certainly untrue but it has a strong appeal to credulous reporters in search of good copy.


I’ve been reading R.W. Johnson’s writings on South Africa for years now, largely in the London Review of Books (an excellent journal tarnished slightly in my eyes by their connection to Johnson). I’ve never found Johnson to be a very credible reporter on South African or other affairs. One small fact will explain why: Johnson once compared black Africans to “baboons” and “rottweilers.” Like all too many other journalists who write for the British press, Johnson loves a good story more than he loves factual accuracy.


The current South African regime has all sorts of flaws, so I strongly admire the work of muckraking journalistic critics who, often at great personal risk, bring to light pressing problems. But R.W. Johnson has shown himself time and again not be a trustworthy writer.


As for the Wall Street Journal, they have their own bad record in this realm as well. The news section is of course superb even in its current Murdochized state. But the editorial section has a terrible history on the apartheid issue. South Africa deserves better from the Wall Street Journal! 

(Thanks to WSJ reader Simon May who noticed the resemblance between the two stories.)

5 thoughts on “A Twice-Told Tale

  1. Jeet (and Simon May),

    I’m grateful to you for bringing this suspiciously similar anecdote to my attention. I would not have described the gossip as “credible” if I had known. The gossip is too scandalous to be true, but then again much fact in South Africa is too scandalous to be true.

    In the book, RWJ footnotes the Manuel anecdote to a 12 November 2006 Sunday Times story (presumably his own). And he quotes Manuel: “I thought Madiba wanted to know who among us was a good communist.”

    One possibility is that the anecdote is legitimate. Another is that Manuel was just having some fun, and appropriating the Che story to pass off as a joke. Another possibility, not mutually exclusive of the others, is that RWJ just isn’t much of a journalist.



  2. Dear Graeme,
    Thanks for this note. I think you’re right that there are are bunch of possible explanations for this twice-told tale. I rather like the idea that Manuel was pulling Johnson’s leg (and possibly also recalling the Che Guevara story). One of the sad laws of journalism is that if a story is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.
    Best, Jeet

  3. Skepticism is an unalloyed virtue, but I won’t quite endorse your sad law of journalism, at least not as a guide to this situation. There are plenty of stories in RWJ’s book and elsewhere that are too good/appalling to be true. And yet they are. My mistake was to call this one “credible.” If, as I say later in the review, even half these anecdotes are true, then South Africa’s government indeed has a lot to answer for. Of course, if _only_ half of them are true, so does RWJ….

  4. Graeme: I think you and I are basically in agreement. As I tried to indicate in my original post, the South African government is rife with corruption and other problems (as many reporters better than RWJ have pointed out). And yes I’m willing to allow that at least half (and maybe more) of RWJ’s stories are true. The only trouble is you never know which half to trust, which half to disregard. And I think it’s important to know what’s true and what’s not, all the more so because it’s hard for readers in North America to easily check the facts in RWJ’s reporting.

  5. Is this the R. W. Johnson who wrote a rather tendentious book on KAL 007? He did not back down from most of his claims even when the Russians gave up the flight recorder, which proved him wrong.

    In the book he notes that it was reported a House staffer (for the US Congressman who died) was told details before an Assistant Secretary of Defense (or some such high-level official). Johnson said “How is that consistent with need to know”? I had a security clearance at the time, and need to know was carefully explained, including you might have a need to know and your boss might not. As far as I could tell, John was imagining (rather than finding out) what need to know meant.

    I am going with not much of a journalist.

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