PC cowardice

2010-12-16 00:00

I SEEMED to have caused something of a mini uproar when I posted on a social media page that I was ready to sign up for a campaign to return the best novelist award to Annelie Botes which had been taken away from her on account that she did not like blacks.

Some of my cyber friends thought I had gone nuts. The apparent consensus is that the judges for the South African Literary Awards (Sala) were entitled to change their minds and withdraw the K. Sello Duiker Memorial Award they had conferred on her for her book Thula Thula because Botes is an incorrigible racist.

Sala’s advisory board and its partners had said in a statement that they were concerned that Botes’ racist remarks might disgrace the awards and it was best that they withdraw the gong.

“Sala abhors any form of discrimination, whether based on race, skin colour or gender. On the basis of the above, the Sala board therefore withdraws the award which had been conferred upon Ms Botes,” the organisation said.

It is heart-warming to know Sala’s views on bigotry but it is politically correct cowardice. Botes did not win a Miss Congeniality contest. She did not have to be nice to black people or anyone else. She was required to show that her book was better than others in her category. Those who have read the book, Thula Thula, have given it rave reviews.

But the excitement and applause over her award being taken away would have some think Botes had wrongly won the Nobel Peace Prize before the committee found she was not the humanitarian it thought she was. Or that some benevolent university awarded her an honorary degree before she proved herself an embarrassment to the institution that had thought highly of her.

Let us not fool ourselves. Botes, racist as she is, fully earned her award through her hard work and creativity. She did not get the award because of who she is or what she believes.

Her right to the award is the ultimate personification of giving the devil her due.

Some have argued that there were better books than hers that should have won. It may very well be, but that again is not the issue.

The competition she entered did not require that she not be a racist or any other kind of bigot. It did not require that she have an impeccable human rights record. The criteria before the judges were related to whether her book was better than the others. They found it was.

The only reason that an award for what judges regard as excellence should be withdrawn is if they found that they misdirected themselves or were misled in coming to their conclusion. For example, the judges must find that there was cheating by some of their number or that Botes plagiarised someone else’s work.

From what we have heard so far, the judges have not changed their minds about the merits of her novel. The only thing that has changed is that they now know her politics and do not like them.

We cannot have that. Her publishers can punish her by not taking her future manuscripts if they wish. You can stop reading her work if you were a fan but we cannot change the fact that according to a process no one has yet challenged, she wrote the best South African novel of her category.

To take away her award because you have discovered something you do not like about her is worse than to change arbitrarily the rules of the game midway through a match. To take away her award because you don’t like her politics is to change the rules long after the final whistle has been blown.

This has nothing to do with defending racists. It is about transcending racial thinking. It is about not making racists like Botes set our standards.

I am not interested in the debate on whether we should praise or condemn Botes for her supposed honesty. It is neither here nor there that a racist is honest about her bigotry. This piece is also not about whether racism is to be tolerated, because it is not to be tolerated.

It is about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, which is, as was the point when this statement was first made, that we don’t have to like Caesar or what he stands for to give him what is due to him.

Botes has already had more free publicity than she ever dreamt of. To take away her award is to make her something of a hero among her fellow bigots who now believe that she is a messiah who has suffered for her art and now her people.

Most importantly, it is to insult black people by saying that they need to be liked or acknowledged as fully human by some obscure writer before she can get her award.

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