Opinionista Ferial Haffajee 9 October 2018

Nene and the dangerous ignorance of Twitter’s trolls

Nhlanhla Nene is probably going to be the first minister to take a fall for visiting the Guptas. That is probably right if we want to live in a time of good governance. But the incident does reveal the power of social media as well as its profound ignorance.

I’ve always thought myself a free-speech fundamentalist. This means that in a world where the forces of various fundamentalisms want to reduce free speech to that which does not give them offense, some of us must stand up for a more unfettered free speech. Twitter has made me rethink my approach.

Twitter is a most wonderful medium for breaking news, for pithy observations and for a daily expansion of or challenge to one’s worldview. It has been a democratising medium where the power of mass media has been tempered – in South Africa, and elsewhere, Twitter is now the most influential form of media.

But this week, the story of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and the trolls reminds us again of how Twitter can often be a haven for the uninformed opinion, a paradise for the populist politician and a viper’s nest of the aliterate who do not read but think it fine to insult ad hominem.

I spent too much precious weekend time blocking the fools before shutting Twitter, opening Instagram and heading to a fashion show. A much better of use of my time, it turned out.

Yes, Nene will probably resign because he has clearly had a scathing weekend looking hard at the man in the mirror. The minister lied to a journalist when asked if he had ever consorted with the Gupta family: in fact, he met them repeatedly from 2009 to 2014, through two portfolios.

Back then, it was quite the thing to do: if you do a roll-call of the Cabinet ministers who met the chubby brothers from Saharanpur, you would be left with a minority who did not. South African Cabinet ministers generally play follow-the-leader. When former President Nelson Mandela was leader, they were all rainbow nation and forgiveness. When former President Thabo Mbeki was president, they were “We are an African” with politics that became more Pan-African than Kwame Nkrumah. Under president Jacob Zuma, it became de rigueur to pay a visit to the Gupta estate at Saxonwold in larney Joburg.

But then, when the truth came out of how that mansion was State Capture Central, it was no longer the thing to do and then President Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in; and following on his heels, deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo started his State Capture inquiry. Now everybody’s putting a long distance between themselves and the Gupta’s, but Nene ‘fessed up.

What he also traced for the commission was a story of personal resistance to Zuma that did not come without cost to him. Nene put the kibosh on Zuma’s ardent desire for a nuclear deal, likely because there was a long commission in store for a late-term president with many dependents, some of them still toddlers.

We certainly didn’t need nuclear power as Zuma had ground the economy down into recession and there was, in fact, surplus power at the time. Nene said no many times and in many different forums as his 50-page testimony showed. He saved South Africa over R1-trillion by his act of resistance. For a country that has made a fetish of truth, I wondered if there is no redemptive power in truth any longer? He is the only Cabinet minister who has laid out his Gupta visits and then apologised for them.

Of course, he should not have lied or kowtowed to the Guptas, but the long read of his 50-page testimony demands a more balanced and nuanced understanding of what he did and what he saved us. Nene was axed in December 2015 and replaced by Des van Rooyen, a little-known West Rand politician. That plunged the economy into a downward spiral from which it’s never fully recovered.

Surely, that counts in the judgement of whether or not he gave favours to the Guptas?

And so does this. The aliterate have clearly not read the Gupta emails run here at length in Daily Maverick (and I’d recommend a good read). Those emails lay out an anatomy of Cabinet capture thanks to the hapless Gupta bag-man Ashu Chawla. His inbox was a festival of evidence of trips to Dubai, accounts being opened, ministers jetting on the Gupta’s ZS-OAK plane and other forms of favours and bribes. Not once did Nene’s name come up. This is surely important.

A friend of mine, who is cross with me for giving Nene the benefit of the doubt, says he probably had more nous than those Cabinet ministers who dallied more carelessly with the captors. Perhaps. But we don’t know that; on Twitter he has already been drawn and quartered.

There’s one more way it’s clear that twits don’t read. “But he gave his son a deal at the PIC. Did you read Mail & Guardian,” more than one palooka tweeted as the haloed weekly came out on Friday.

Actually, the Mail & Guardian article said nothing of the sort. It intimated that he suggested his son, Siyabonga, get out of the Mozambican oil deal and if fingers are pointed, it is at PIC CEO Dan Matjila who, it seemed, let another big deal through without being a proper arbiter of pension funds.

It looks like Nene is going to be the first minister to take a fall for visiting the Guptas. That is probably right if we want to live in a time of good governance. But the incident does reveal the power of social media and also its profound ignorance. DM

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In other news...

South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

If you believe in supporting the cause and the work of Daily Maverick then take your position on the battleground and sign up to Maverick Insider today.

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