The relationship between a columnist and an editor is a special one, writes Mondli Makhanya in the Sunday Times after his decision to stop the columns of David Bullard.  A piece of space is handed over to be used without interference.  But there are lines that can't be crossed, and Bullard's piece did cross a line.  It was clear he believes blacks to be indolent savages. "The Sunday Times respects its readers and — while it is our mission to
provoke, challenge and entertain — will not insult or abuse them," writes Makhanya.

Mondli Makhanya writes in the Sunday Times:

A month ago US presidential candidate Barack Obama took the podium and delivered a speech that many say will go down as one of the most eloquent in American history.

It was a ringing speech in which he spoke of America’s battle to overcome its racial divisions and defeat the racism that is still pervasive in US society.

He spoke of the anger in black America and the anxiety and resentment in white America.

“ These resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation,” he said.

“Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.”

The America that Obama spoke of could well have been the South Africa of today, a country seething with anger and resentment.

We came face to face with it this week, after the axing of David Bullard as a columnist.

It was a sad day, as some of the anger directed at the Sunday Times revealed a dark, ugly side of South Africa.

The voices were there on the blogs, mourning the demise of an apostle .

They were there on the talk shows, supporting the views that Bullard expressed on Sunday.

And they were there on our switchboard, shouting invective and hurling abuse at whoever answered.

It was depressing.

The outrage was directed not just at the Sunday Times; it was directed at post-apartheid South Africa and all it represents.

The Sunday Times became a symbol of all that has gone wrong in the land.

At the outset, I must state that the column should never have been published in the first place.

Our systems failed us badly.

I will make no excuses for the mess and I will not blame anyone else for that system failure.

I am the editor of this newspaper and take full responsibility for having allowed the poison to pollute the pages of the Sunday Times.

We have now begun a process of assessing our internal systems and how to tighten them without compromising the right of columnists to speak their minds.

The right to free speech is something everyone on this newspaper holds dear.

We hold diverse views on different issues and would lay down our lives in defence of everyone’s right to express themselves.

Our pages are testament to that.

But we are NOT in the business of promoting prejudice.

The relationship of an editor to a columnist is a special one. You hand over a piece of real estate to the column, the site for a villa, a mansion or a castle.

The onus is then on the columnist to treat the space with responsibility and not abuse that freedom from inter-ference.

Over the years Bullard had fun with the space. He espoused views that were contrary to the views of the newspaper and did so without any hindrance from me or my predecessors. He made people angry and he made them laugh.

Last Sunday he crossed the line. For those who have not read the column, it would be useful to log on to thetimes.co.za and see if you can hold the food in your stomach.

In the subsequent conversation I had with Bullard, it was clear that he holds the views he expressed in the article— which was essentially that black people are indolent savages.

The Sunday Times respects its readers and — while it is our mission to provoke, challenge and entertain — will not insult or abuse them.

Bullard did that last Sunday; by publishing him we were complicit in disseminating his Stone Age philosophies.

For that we apologise to all our readers, INCLUDING those who saw nothing wrong with the racism spewed last week.

Continuing his column would have been an endorsement of those opinions .

No doubt he will find a home in another publication, one that is tolerant of prejudice.

The Sunday Times stands for higher values. Our readers know that. South Africa knows that.

What is disconcerting is that there are many people in our society who agree with what Bullard wrote last week. The Bullard matter allowed the opinions that are normally reserved for behind closed doors to come out into polite company.

This tells you that we still have a long road to travel in forging the united, nonracial nation that we set out to build in 1994.

When we crossed the great river on April 27 of that year, we signed a pact that we would banish to Hades the demon that is racism.

South Africans from all walks of life were going to respect each other and treat their fellow citizens with dignity.

We need to begin rebuilding that dream before it slips away from us.

How I wish our collective leadership — in politics, business, the religious and intellectual sectors — would help us rediscover that dream.

* Makhanya is editor of the Sunday Times.  His column first appeared on 13 April 2008.