South Africa, Life, etc

Henke vs. the ANC: On the spin-doctoring of a fake controversy

By Richard Poplak 5 March 2013

Want an idea on how dumb South African society has become? When Henke Pistorius and the ANC hit the mat, the only winner is Stupidity. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Anyway, so here’s what’s happened so far. (Please keep in mind that this is a précis.) A child is born. Shortly thereafter, he has part of his legs amputated. He grows up wanting to be a runner. (Kids!) Simultaneously, carbon fibre technology is developed to the point where aircraft and many of the expensive cars the boy will one day own are crafted from this miracle material. One day, someone straps carbon fibre blades to the boy, and it turns out he can run quite fast – not faster than some other runners with carbon fibre blades (See: Olympics, London), but quite fast nonetheless.

It’s a tale of uplift and self-affirmation. If he can do it, we can do it, they can do it –everyone can do it! It’s a metaphor for South Africa’s regenerative capabilities. Our nation was born without legs, and we made our own and ran like hell. Take that, Oprah.

Then, he shoots up his own bathroom when a white model happens to be hiding in it.


Where I come into the story – where I make my debut in the ever shifting stream of this narrative – is with the press releases. See, your average journalist is inundated, completely slammed, veritably drowned, by press releases released by ex-journalism students making more money than actual journalists because at some point, they wisely ticked the PR box on an employment form. Here’s a sample – a sample! – of the press releases I received today.

The Rammolutsi Crisis Committee wants me to cover a community march against poor service delivery, lack of sanitation, corruption and poor housing in Moqhaka Municipality. The Nu Metro movie chain sent me its upcoming release schedule. Something about Marikana I didn’t understand. Something from SAA that might have been an advert – I can’t tell the difference anymore.

And this:

Holding statement

Pistorius family distances itself from Henke Pistorius’s comments in UK newspaper

South Africa, Pretoria, March 4 2013

Oscar Pistorius’s family is deeply concerned about the comments made by Oscar’s father, Henke Pistorius, to UK newspaper the Telegraph about the family using its weapons to defend themselves against crime in South Africa, and especially about his comments that the ANC government is not willing to protect white South Africans. “The Pistorius family own weapons purely for sport and hunting purposes,” said Arnold Pistorius, family spokesperson.

Oscar and the rest of the Pistorius family distances itself from the comments. “Henke’s interview with the newspaper was unapproved by our media liaison team” Pistorius said. “The comments doesn’t represent the views of Oscar or the rest of the Pistorius family.”

“We are acutely aware of the fact that we are only at the beginning of a long road to prove that what happened to Reeva Steenkamp was a terrible accident and that Oscar never intended to harm her, let alone cause her death.

“As a family, and Oscar in particular, we will never be the same after the tragic events on 14 February this year. We are still in deep mourning, trying to come to terms with what happened. For this reason and out of respect for the Steenkamp family, the Pistorius family will not grant any media interviews at this time” Arnold Pistorius said.

Issued by Vuma Reputation Management

This is what it’s like to see the sausage of your daily news being made. Not pretty, is it?

Now, the interesting thing about Vuma Reputation Management – and by “interesting”, I mean “disquieting” – is that it seems to specialise in pre-emptive “reputation management.” On paper, this sounds like a good thing. Before you do something stupid, there is an expensive company in your employ sending out thousands of emails explaining why you’re about to do it, and why it isn’t as stupid as it seems. Often, over the course of the Pistorius saga, Vuma has done its best to get ahead of the news cycle. Which, of course, is what it’s paid to do.

My favourite of its press releases, a genuine work of artistic genius, was entitled “Statement: Leak to the media regarding Oscar Pistorius’s private memorial service for Reeva Steenkamp”, dated 26 February 2013. Thing is, there was no leak. Maybe this was the real point of the release:

“Oscar specifically requested the memorial service as he continues to grieve and remains in deep mourning for the loss of his partner Reeva. Since it is such a sensitive issue, Oscar has asked for a private service with people who share his loss, including his family members who knew and loved Reeva as one of their own.”

And then, archly:

“The Pistorius family would like to make a personal request to the media, to please respect their privacy at their home in Pretoria tonight.”

Does that sound like a killer to you? Nothing like a bit of embedded pathos to give your boy a touch of humanity. Not guilty, by decision of press release.

Another doozy was succinctly titled “Carl Pistorius”. It endeavoured to get ahead of the rather unfortunate fact that Carl, Oscar’s brother, had appeared in court the day before his brother’s bail hearing on – wait for it! – culpable homicide charges. Seems Carl killed a lady motorcyclist back in 2008, and the case is still dragging through the courts. (Accidentally killing women would appear to be a family pastime.) Don’t fear: “there is no doubt that Carl is innocent and the charge will be challenged in court.”

The good news is, that according to its website, Vuma Reputation Management is a “certified AAA Level B-BBEE Contributor”. The bad news is that it holds an “academy” to teach other PR folks how to deal with the likes of me. “A good reputation,” preaches Janine Hills, CEO, “is built on reliability, trust and transparency, delivering what you promise, saying what you mean and doing what is asked of you, it’s good corporate governance.”

One does pause, however, and wonder why the Pistorius clan, facing two murder charges and a host of other suits and misdemeanors, would require a reputation management company, when their reputation management company insists that both Oscar and Carl will be found innocent of everything in a court of law. In other words, in the case of the Pistorius boys, due process needs to be backed up with some reputational spit shining. So it goes in a country, in a world, obsessed with the mechanics of celebrity. Fame is the only thing worth protecting.

And it ain’t like the “serious” press doesn’t eat this shit up. The regenerative South Africa allegory now on hold, Oscar Pistorius has been used as a lazy intro into a discussion on violence against women in South Africa (is the social phenomenon of rape in poverty-stricken areas of this country really explained by the shooting of a woman in a high-end compound in Pretoria? Is it really?) and every other social ill that plagues us. The armchair reporting has been exceptional – all thanks to the press releases circulating the ether like flu germs.

I ask you to cast your eyes back to the release I quoted in full, relating the shocking news of Henke Pistorius, from Pretoria, uttering the usual “the ANC don’t protect us whites from blacks so we gotta protect ourselves” banalities to a foreign publication. Who cares, right? Storm in a tea cup, yes? I mean, as a nation, if we got worked up over every mildly racist statement made by the father of a celebrity, where would we be? This is a country with bigger problems, no?


ANC statement on Henke Pistorius racist statement

For immediate release on Sapa wires

The African National Congress rejects with contempt the accusation made by Henke Pistorius (the father to Oscar Pistorius) to a UK newspaper that “the ANC government is not willing to protect white South Africans”. Not only is this statement devoid of truth, it is also racist. It is sad that he has chosen to politicise a tragic incident that is still fresh in the minds of those affected and the public. This tragic incident has affected two families that are still trying to come to terms with what happened and this latest racist slur is not assisting these families. We think it is ill-advisable for anyone to start apportioning undue blame.

The ANC believes that the Pistorius and Steenkamp matter is in the capable hands of our competent courts who are expected to handle the matter objectively and in accordance with our laws. Any speculation can only prejudice the case. We welcome the statement of the Pistorius family that distances Oscar and his family from the statement made by Henke Pistorius. The ANC believes that this is a difficult period that both families are going through. We call on South Africans to desist from wild and prejudiced speculation. Let us give our courts a chance to deal with this matter.

Issue [sic] by:
Jackson Mthembu
National Spokesperson

African National Congress
Chief Albert Luthuli House
54 Sauer Street

Keith Khoza

05 March 2013

So finally. We have been sucked into an endless vortex of idiocy, a latrine of competing PR bullshit that makes Kurt Vonnegut’s acidic satires of America’s spin-doctored postmodern quagmire look like a nursery school rhyme by comparison.

Did the ANC hack out a Jackson Mthembu masterpiece when news of Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma’s R200 million Gaddafi palace, was breaking? It took days to get a statement, and it was nowhere near as succinct as Exhibit B above. This is a country dealing with a succession of crises that fundamentally inhibits our ability to function and grow as a nation, but the ANC chooses to go to bat on this?

Of course it did. Predictably, Twitter has lit up over the Henke Pistorius “comments”, and the ANC PR folks understand the power of a minor race row. It’s the perfect distraction. Play it up, and watch the masses go off in a tizzy. This nonsense should, and will, buy our governing party a few days to do what they do best: screwing us all, irrespective of colour, out of our hard-earned bread.

Vuma Reputation Management and the Government of South Africa are two sides of the same coin. They’re a snake eating its tail. They’re spinning us into a void of truthiness, where nothing – not the senseless murder of a woman, not the real issues facing over 50 million souls – means a damn thing.

Soon, reality will be one big press release. Welcome to Bullshitstan. Have an AMAZING day. DM

Photo: Henke Pistorius (Reuters)


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