Opinionista Judith February 17 December 2019

The point of modern propaganda is to annihilate truth

2019 has exhausted our capacity for critical thinking, not only globally but also locally. It’s up to President Cyril Ramaphosa to sift truth from lies and take control of the narrative being spun.

We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts, sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, see-sawing between gut-response likes or vicious confrontations. For some, this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others, it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.”

Could Annie Proulx’s acceptance speech at the National Book Foundation Awards in 2017 have been any more on point?

As 2019 draws to a close, the world seems in a more precarious position than ever. Polarised politics and the undermining of truth are the order of the day. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson threw down the gauntlet when he called the recent general election. However, unlike David Cameron and his ill-fated Brexit referendum, Johnson did not have to be smart about the result. Despite his vague election manifesto, his refusal to be interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Neil and his blustering and often offensive rhetoric, Johnson returns to Downing Street with a greater majority. For many finding the electoral result difficult to fathom or stomach, it will indeed be “a savagely difficult book without a happy ending”.

More dangerous, however, is what is happening across the pond where US President Donald Trump is painting a picture of a completely alternative universe to what the House impeachment inquiry actually found. It seems clear from testimony given that there was a “quid pro quo” sought in Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has smartly narrowed the inquiry though that will not be enough to mollify Republicans in the brutally partisan political environment which is Washington DC.

Trump’s minions will have read the electoral tea-leaves and are prepared to jettison democratic values and truth in favour of their own personal interests as the impeachment inquiry reaches the Senate. Senator Lindsay Graham underlined this when he said, somewhat unbelievably: “I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here. What I see coming, happening today is just a partisan nonsense.”

Why let the facts get in the way of a 2020 election victory? Trump understands base politics and in the milieu in which we are in, that is all that seems to matter.

This is a world where facts are constantly undermined and where truth appears almost alien.

At any moment in the world these days, there seem to be two alternative narratives. The one is the truth; that which is immutable and fact-based. The other is what has become known in the parlance as “fake news”, but it’s probably best to call it what it is – either what Garry Kasparov calls “modern propaganda” or in plain language: lies. Kasparov goes on to say, “the point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

Trump rants against the “fake news media” and Johnson continues his fight with the BBC. Attacks on the media for truth-telling has become an easy way out of debating on the basis of reason. Affect wins the day and allows the scrutiny intrinsic in critical thinking to take second place. Because in a world where the president of the United States fires off 123 tweets a day, lies become truth if we don’t pay sufficient attention.

2019 has exhausted our capacity for critical thinking not only globally, but also locally. In South Africa, we have our own form of post-truth politics and as Proulx says: “Everything is situational, see-sawing between gut-response likes or vicious confrontations.”

This past weekend saw the EFF banning certain news outlets from its elective conference. Some like ENCA news did not cover the event as a matter of principle. The banning of journalists obviously has no place in a democracy and a line must surely be drawn in the sand.

Given the amount of attention the EFF conference has received, one would be mistaken for believing that the EFF was either the governing party or the official opposition. In the tsunami that is social media, all that counts is how many tweets, likes and trolls one can get out there. Facts, however, should still matter. The EFF is the same 10.79%, which will in all likelihood, be hoist on its own petard as it seeks to bulldoze its way through increasing rumours of factionalism and corruption within its ranks. It is no surprise that those who have broken stories of corruption within the EFF and regarding its relationship with VBS Bank were banned from the conference.

We see the alternative narrative being spun with equal brazenness as Independent Media owner, Iqbal Surve uses his own newspapers to spout propaganda in a bid to fend off the Public Investment Corporation’s bid to liquidate Sekunjalo Independent Media. We are asked in every instance to suspend critical thinking as key actors try to create a narrative so fuzzy that truth-seekers are marginalised or confused.

Similarly, the ANC and those linked to former president Jacob Zuma have sought to undermine the truth even as the state capture narrative takes careful shape at the Zondo Commission. Every truth is twisted and myriad Twitter trolls are activated in the name of “radical economic transformation”. The Twitter brigade is led by the likes of Carl Niehaus and Tony Yengeni.

While it should be obvious that these two discredited individuals are hardly objective observers or honest brokers, their followers have effectively used the social media space to fight Zuma’s cause. Their target, of course, is President Cyril Ramaphosa and throwing a spanner in the works of the so-called “reform project”. They are very helpful foils to Secretary-general Ace Magashule’s attempts to undermine Ramaphosa at every turn. Aided and abetted by the equally discredited Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, these groupings invoke a nationalism, which is toxic and divisive.

But the narrative they are peddling is made easier by the fact that Ramaphosa seems reluctant to use the power of the presidency to drive home reforms. The recent iteration of the electricity crisis is a case in point as was the bumbling regarding SAA. According to news reports, Ramaphosa was asked to “explain” to the ANC why SAA was placed in business rescue. As if the answer was not writ large.

The ANC also has some warped views on the Eskom crisis. The most absurd suggestion came from Magashule himself who said that Eskom would not be privatised, though the ANC would welcome investment in the power utility from big investors and then stokvels. Stokvels? Someone should wake Magashule up and tell him it’s 2019. Eskom’s debt is such that no sane investor will see it as worthy of investment. Such rank economic ignorance and stubborn dogma will get us nowhere.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Ramaphosa. He has the power of the presidency and it appears perfectly pointless to pussyfoot around Magashule and his corrupt cronies.

The president’s recent missteps have made him look weak. His weekly newsletter, while a good start, appears out of touch in many ways. While a crisis was brewing, the president naively marvelled at the Medupi power station – and then promptly continued with a trip to Egypt. Who advises Ramaphosa?

Whoever it is ought to have understood that he faced an angry citizenry sitting in the dark at Stage 6 load shedding. When Ramaphosa eventually returned from Egypt early, it was too little, too late. In a similar vein, he misread the country’s temperature in September 2019 after the brutal murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana. He eventually wrenched himself from the World Economic Forum-Africa meeting in Cape Town only after protesters were literally on the doorstep of the convention centre. His address to the nation was out of step with the national mood and hardly provided succour to angry women, in particular.

The time has come for Ramaphosa to set out the facts regarding state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and their dire financial position clearly and succinctly. In doing so, the president needs to spell out exactly why virtually every government-run institution is in financial ruin – from Prasa to the Road Accident Fund, they are all crumbling as a result of state capture.

Ramaphosa should simply tell the nation how bad it is so we can make the necessary sacrifices (again and again). An honest rendering of our challenges is now urgent and Ramaphosa needs to spell out precisely how he plans to deal with this dysfunction.

If load shedding is necessary for the next eight months as board member Busisiwe Mavuso told Parliament in October, then tell us so directly. In addition, we need to have a clearer vision from Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe on purchasing energy from independent power producers and increased energy security via wind and solar power. Mantashe has been insipid, to say the least.

Sugarcoating the truth is no way to govern at this point in his presidency. Ramaphosa would have the backing of citizens and big business if he provided an honest and firm rendering of the challenges that face us. That may risk ANC unity because his corrupt colleagues at Luthuli House have much to lose if SOEs are cleaned up or sold off. But the risk is there for Ramaphosa to take.

We all understand the power dynamics post-Nasrec, but there are greater risks should he not throw down the gauntlet to those within the ANC still smarting from Zuma’s recall. The paralysis that is the ANC’s internal politics is untenable. Ramaphosa should use the levers he still has within business and civil society to shore up his support in multiple constituencies across the country.

He may fail, but it is a risk he should take if he wants to gain the respect of the people he leads.

As we see repeatedly, this is a country that has the spirit to rebuild. It can be an exhausting place to live, but the majority of South Africans are prepared to do what is necessary to ensure a better future. Trite as it sounds, we know we are “Stronger together”. That is Ramaphosa’s mandate from the people – he should expend this capital wisely and swiftly. To do so he needs to sift truth from lies and take control of the narrative being spun while he deliberates and dawdles in office.

Annie Proulx went on to speak of humankind’s enduring optimism:yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honour, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending.”

Bubbling underneath the surface of South African life is an enduring resilience and even optimism. We see glimpses of it every now and then despite being weighed down by our challenges.

Mr President, the resilience of a tired country is yours for the taking. Use it or lose it in 2020. DM

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