Defend Truth


Alt-facts, fake news and flakey leaders


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law. She writes in her personal capacity.

The Trump playbook may well suit leaders around the world who would prefer to govern in the haze of the “post-truth” or “post-fact” world. Our president included.


It’s been an upside down week in global and local politics.

It started with the inauguration of the unlikely Donald Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s divisive inaugural address painted a dystopian picture of America that is far from accurate. Like the man himself, it was all rage. The world will have to grow used to the thin-skinned “leader of the free world” who seems to make policy one tweet at a time. We will also have to get used to a world of “alternative facts” and fakery thanks to Trump and his communications sidekicks KellyAnne Conway and Sean Spicer.

Strangely, the Trump playbook may well suit leaders around the world who would prefer to govern in the haze of the “post-truth” or
“post-fact” world. Our president included.

This week we had our own local smoke and mirror show taking centre-stage. President Zuma was wasting no time in trying to insert his own candidate into the ANC succession debate, or non-debate. Who better than Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, someone who surely has his back and is likely to protect him should he face some legal travails after his presidency?

Zuma has been craftily doing the rounds in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo making the case while curiously telling all and sundry that succession was not something to be discussed ahead of time. This was after support was voiced for deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to take over the reins from Zuma. So it seems as if the rule of silence over succession applies to everyone but Zuma.

But we are quite used to Zuma being a walking contradiction and speaking with a forked tongue. Like Trump, he casually and cunningly invoked God in making the compelling case for his and the ANC’s leadership. Spiritual hokey seems to have legs these days. And so the succession battle will rage on and will doubtless be a mixture of spin and truth. It’s a long road to the December ANC elective conference and we had best grow used to information and disinformation.

Speaking of which, some further sinister news made headlines this week when Sihle Bolani sued the ANC for unpaid fees arising out of a contract to run its so-called “black ops” media campaign during the 2016 local government elections. This involved spreading the ANC message via social and other conventional sources of media. But it was said also to include creating fake news sites and employing fake callers to radio stations to boost the ANC’s message.

The ANC has been caught on the back foot. It first denied the contract existed and then had to backtrack. How desperate has the ANC become that it needs to boost its support via fake news? It tells us a great deal too about its media strategy; one based on what is unreal? The story had even greater relevance in a week in which it has been alleged that some major news outlets were the victims of fake news sites and Twitter accounts after the Absa/ Bankorp matter re-surfaced again.

How could these be connected, one may ask? It is helpful to sketch the background again. From 1985 to 1992 the South African Reserve Bank provided financial assistance to Bankorp and, for the period 1992 to 1995, to its new owner, Absa. This so-called “lifeboat” has been the subject of investigation and controversy regarding apartheid-era looting and corruption. The Davis Panel was appointed by then Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni to investigate the matter. It found that the SARB exceeded its mandate and acted illegally but that a claim of restitution would be both complex and costly.

The public protector’s draft report on the same matter was leaked last week. It however recommends that Absa pay compensation to the tune of R2.25-billion. Of course, we do not know whether these recommendations will remain unchanged in Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s final report. Mkhwebane has laid a charge of fraud regarding the leak.

The timing of it all is uncanny. While the Guptas were fighting their proxy battle with Finance minister Pravin Gordhan, the Absa/Bankorp matter surfaced. That story is grist to the mill of the Guptas and others within the Zuma circle who have repeatedly railed against the privilege of “white monopoly capital” and how it represents all that was wrong with South Africa’s economy. Why go after the Guptas and the president’s friends when in fact “white monopoly capital” is the true enemy? What better way to muddy the waters and make us all forget about the public protector’s 2016 State of Capture report than the distraction of a debate on white monopoly capital. It has created equivalence between current state capture and apartheid-era corruption that has been singularly unhelpful.

To add to the confusion, allegations were rife this past weekend that the Guptas or those associated with them have set up fake news sites and employed Twitter trolls to cast doubt on the integrity of certain journalists and to flood social media with tweets and posts decrying “white monopoly capital”. The journalists were attacked for being in cahoots with white monopoly capital, such as the Ruperts. The trolls attack Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan for “having shares in Standard Bank”, for instance. A weak argument riddled with contradiction if one only has a cursory look at the GEPF website to see how all government pension fund money is invested.

But why let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy? Add to this Zuma’s own ramblings in KwaZulu-Natal before the party faithful where he lamented that he was compelled to replace Des Van Rooyen – “the best finance minister we never had” – with Pravin Gordhan, and a pattern starts emerging. Further, the Guptas’ and Oakbay’s litigation against National Treasury regarding the closing of their bank accounts and Zuma’s own strategic delay in signing the new FICA Amendment Bill into law connects many dots.

The FICA Amendment Bill would create more stringent requirements for scrutinising the bank accounts of prominent individuals and would trace the source of funds more aggressively. Many see it as a key anti money-laundering tool. The president has raised concerns about the “constitutionality” of the Bill that is somewhat unusual given his own casual regard for constitutional matters over the years. Zuma and his cronies appear to be undermining Gordhan and National Treasury because they are feeling the squeeze as the law and media start to become a tightening noose around their necks. Pressure is also building around the inquiry into the State of Capture report released last year.

Who are the individuals who seek to capture the state and where does this web of deceit lead us? We have some idea.

So, we are being sidetracked by noise and our own set of “alternative facts”. Of course, the issue of apartheid-era corruption is valid and a discussion should be held about accountability and how such corruption has shaped our precarious present. Quite how we open the Pandora’s Box is a different matter. Would that mean also re-opening the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Economic crimes under apartheid cannot be delinked from the atrocities committed during the apartheid years and the unanswered questions that still remain, surely? That requires a degree of thoughtfulness that is wholly missing from our current political debate.

Who would be able to lead us in such a conversation without it being mired in the opportunistic politics of the day? Certainly not the president or indeed the ANC, so caught up in its own dysfunction and division. There are those therefore who seek to use the past to distract us from our present travails and the corruption that is so prevalent. It behooves us to be vigilant therefore and to hear carefully when Zuma talks to the faithful about us all “being ready” for when the president acts next. Presumably he is talking about a Cabinet reshuffle as a means to prevent further scrutiny of him or his associates’ dealings?

There are many actors in this tragi-farce, from Mzwanele Manyi to possibly even the new public protector. Yesterday Julius Malema launched a scathing attack on Mkhwebane. Malema often sounds like the mad prophet of Biblical times but there is method in his madness. We have all watched as Mkhwebane seems to have taken some curious stances in her short tenure. She was ambivalent during the state capture court application, has fired an advisor without due process being followed, and there was the leaking of the Absa report which substantially muddied the political waters. She has also tried to undermine her predecessor, if not directly, then indirectly. Not a good start and while civil society gave her the benefit of the doubt, that much is over now. We seem to be dealing with a public protector who at the very least is hapless and at the very worst could be inserting herself into political battles. The latter will be dangerous for Mkhwebane.

As confusing as much of this sometimes is, we must not lose sight of who the actors are and what the endgame is. We see Zuma in all his weakness. He is the departing emperor with no clothes, desperate to pave the way for an annointed successor, thus avoiding the 783 charges of fraud and corruption that may come his way. Let us therefore not pretend that these diversions are anything other than the last kicks of a dying horse and Zuma and his cronies’ desperate attempt to take over National Treasury and secure stakes in our economy. DM


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