Opinionista Gustav Swart 14 April 2016

True Lies

We live in the Age of Misinformation. More information does not mean more knowledge, nor does more scrutiny yield more clarity.

The African National Congress’ Youth League (ANCYL) has made the comical claim that the United States and Britain are fomenting a coup in South Africa. The League mentioned a legendary US base in Botswana, something saltily dismissed as “bullshit” by our neighbour back in 2011, and the Young Lions suggest that we beef up our infantry corps to a million in order to blunt the threat.

First we take Bangui, then we take New York.

Paintings at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been taken down temporarily in order to assess their suitability in the context of the New Sensibility (and to prevent their being torched, of course). Dr Peter Anderson, Chairman of the Works of Art Committee, drew the short straw and had to defend the decision, stating that it “makes for another mode of seeing the work, less flat and obvious, more thoughtful and imaginative”. I believe teenage boys have a similar approach to Angelina Jolie.

We live in the Age of Misinformation. More information does not mean more knowledge, nor does more scrutiny yield more clarity. We tread a kafkaesque mediascape surrounded by conspiracy theories no longer wrapped in tinfoil and mythologies with more rhyme than reason.

It’s not just local. Donald Trump, who has lied 76% of the time since June, will somehow mystically force Mexico to fund a giant wall along the Rio Grande… a claim equally saltily dismissed by former president Vicente Fox who is “not going to pay for that fucking wall”. Vladimir Putin got away with annexing large swathes of the Ukraine by simply staring into the camera and denying it.

Mark Twain mused, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.”

We’ve become used to casual lies thrown out by rote: expected falsehoods that don’t even offend any more. We face a barrage of clearly ridiculous assertions: Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula says that our airforce is running low on fighter jets because former pilots have flown off with them, Jacob Zuma swears blind that he always intended to “pay back the money” and the Economic Freedom Fighters call him a part-time cash mule (okay, that last one doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous).

It’s either amusing or enraging, depending on your sense of whimsy, provided you have the means and ability to separate fact from fiction. Hell, maybe I’m the naive one and we’re all being monitored by the Deep State (or the Illuminati or the Central Intelligency Agency or the Elders of Zion), but at least I have a range of sources on which to base my opinions – it’s very different with those cut off from information and education.

These falsehoods are formulated for different reasons, aimed at different constituencies and they receive very different coverage. UCT’s apologia was an effort to save face or maybe appease Rhodes Must Fall in a dignified manner while addressing the tiny segment of the population that cares, and yet it has faced sharp challenge. It’s a trivial affair but there are many articles about it while the ANCYL gambit, for all its outrageous drama, was barely covered. I suppose that’s because we’ve become so inured to blatant lies that we ignore them, but this one is more interesting than it first looks.

The governing party has accused the US of malice before. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma cited George Bush’s bellicosity to help justify the Arms Deal, Kebby Maphatsoe accused Thuli Madonsela of being a CIA spy and even Gwede Mantashe raised the spectre of American espionage on our soil. US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard treated the incident as funny in a series of comedic tweets but my enjoyment of his wit was undercut by shame that the Republic has become just so… ridiculous. A senior government official makes such scandalous claims and it’s not even worth having a diplomatic flap over it because everyone knows it’s just words. Just mouth sounds.

The simplest way to debunk the ANC’s assertion is to ask what possible motive the US might have in interfering in our governance. Consider the comparison repeatedly made between South Africa and Libya, between a strategic backwater in a stable region and an oil-rich hub occupied near the Middle East. Now spend a moment imagining Barack Obama and John Kerry sitting down to discuss troop movements off the V&A Waterfront. We simply don’t matter to the US, I doubt the CIA could find us on the map. So it’s all kinda funny but, as Brooks Spector argues, Dog-Whistle Politics are in play and there are serious aspects to the ANC’s paranoia.

The choice of the bogeypersons can be explained as a result of Cold War nostalgia and a desire to retain current allies in Russia and China (both hardly shining paragons of democracy), though some of the rhetoric resembles Robert Mugabe’s rants about Britain a little too much for my taste. The use of an Enemy, an Other, as a unifying device is a particularly unsavoury political tool but the beleagued ANC needs one right now.

Republicans won the 2014 mid-terms largely by hyping the twin fears of Ebola and ISIS, neither of which has managed to kill any Americans, to play on the fear and hatred that make an Enemy such an electoral boon. The ANC is not above using race in generating such emotions, perhaps most memorably demonstrated by Cyril Ramaphosa in 2013 when he warned, “If you don’t vote the Boers will come back to control us,”. I hope you’ll forgive me if I put this one under the “ridiculous” column. Along with the kind of race-baiting we’ve seen so much of in 2016, this kind of blatant lie is geared towards pulling the faithful back into the laager.

And sometimes it works: 52% of young black respondents polled in 2013 believe that there’s a possibility of such an insane event. So these incredible claims aren’t just mouth sounds: they affect our National Conversation, even if not given much voice in the press. I have no idea what people are saying at ANC Branch meetings, or the Cabinet Room… for all I know the perception of a looming US/DA threat is widespread and in no way funny. Staring down the barrel of an election with compromised leadership, a record of poor service delivery and factional cracks widening daily, a flailing ANC is probably going to keep this fake conflict going. At least the ambassador has a sense of humour.

George Orwell wrote, “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.”

In our case it’s only a war of words but one that achieves the same function: misdirection and false unity. And the results are the same: bad governance and oppression (well, oppression-lite in our case). So we need the Fourth Estate, civil society and the political class to fact-check and challenge absurd assertions more than they currently do. Instead of sighing and just letting obvious whoppers go by because they’re not worth the effort, we have to make deceivers work harder.

We deserve better lies. UCT’s attempt at sophistry is galling and could be “less flat and obvious, more thoughtful and imaginative” itself, but when serious politicans produce the same genre of fantasy there are sometimes real-world consequences. We’re less likely to solve the profound problems we face if government can win such easy votes and a misled public is less likely to ever leave the “brink of starvation”.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “an informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will”, so we need to call out the lies. All the lies.

Saltily, if need be. DM


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