Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
14 January 2009

On “deliberate falsehoods” and conspiracies

Why is it that South Africans so love conspiracies and are so quick to believe in them? Your paper not delivered this morning? Must be a conspiracy involving various journalists, the tooth fairy and maybe Father Christmas (or Santa Clause as they call the ugly fat guy with the cotton wool beard here in the USA). Arrested after robbing a bank and being caught on the security camera waving at your mother? Must be a conspiracy by Glen Agliotti, Jackie Selebi, your mother’s new lover and maybe also the Loch Ness Monster.

I am by nature a rather sceptical person (maybe it is the legal training or maybe it is because I do not believe in the tooth fairy anymore, who knows?), so pardon me for not jumping so easily on the conspiracy bandwagon. It might well be that there is a political conspiracy against Mr. Jacob Zuma. Maybe the National Prosecuting Authority has been infiltrated by colonialist, racist CIA agents in cahoots with Thabo Mbeki, Tony Leon, and all those leaders of Cope who had the bloody cheek to start their own party. And, who knows, maybe judge Chris Nicholson concocted his own conspiracy theories when he sat down to write his judgment in the Zuma case – as was rather unkindly suggested by the Acting Deputy President of the SCA.

But as the SCA judgment on Monday made clear, no conclusive evidence have been presented for any of these conspiracy theories. This does not mean that there might not be some questions worth asking, of course. Questions like why Jacob Zuma was investigated and prosecuted for rather minor issues of corruption (the poor guy only received R500 000 from the arms company!) while Chippie Shaik, the ANC and various other players reported to have benefited far more from the arms deal have so far not been charged.

It is worth asking such questions, but maybe we should be a little bit careful before making wild allegations of conspiracies because we might just come accross as mentally unstable and a bit coocoo. If we are not careful we might even be confused with Julius Malema or those wonderful people from the Young Communist League who entertain us with their almost daily badly written, and sometimes downright weird, press releases.

I therefore have some sympathy for Mr. Thabo Mbeki who was fired shortly after Nicholson in effect found that Mbeki and his Ministers had meddled in the prosecution of Zuma – thus seeming to confirm one of the most widely held conspiracy theories around. In the absence of hard evidence, it was rather surprising that a judge in motion proceedings would come to such a conclusion, despite the lingering questions about the whole Zuma affair.

Who knows what Mbeki had whispered into the ears of advisors about the Zuma prosecution and what they, in turn, might have whispered to the NPA?  Who knows why Mbeki had not intervened to stop the prosecution of Zuma? Why he had fired Zuma as Deputy President – even before he was charged – but went into an apoplectic fit when Vusi Pikoli wanted to arrest the Police Commissioner for corruption and then got his advisors to help quash the warrants for Jackie Selebi’s arrest. (This latter fact was proven beyond doubt during the Ginwala Commission of Enquiry, so those Mbeki fans out there, calm down.)

But I was nevertheless, shall we say, suprised and amused by some aspects of Thabo Mbeki’s response to the SCA judgment. First, Mbeki gives his own interpretation of the judgment that might – at best – be described as a rather innovative interpretation of its outcome and – at worst – as a twisting of the facts. Said Mbeki:

We intervened in the NPA appeal to the SCA because we wanted to correct the unfair and unwarranted inferences made by Judge Nicholson against us, and as the SCA said, we “had ample reason to be upset by the reasons in the judgement which cast aspersions on (us) without regard to (our) basic rights to be treated fairly.” The SCA ruling has vindicated us.

Problem is, only in the most broadest sense of the word has the SCA “vindicated” Mbeki and his cabinet. The judgment decidedly did not find that there was no political meddling in the Zuma prosecution. It merely said that there was not sufficient evidence before the court to have made such a finding – especially given the rules of evidence that apply in motion proceedings. The jury is still out about whether Mbeki and his cabinet did interfere or not, so to talk of a vindication is perhaps a little bit premature.

But this is perhaps a small point. One must not be too churlish. Given the fact that Mbeki was fired in the wake of the Nicholson judgment – even though he was not given an opportunity to give his side of the story – one can be generous and allow the ex-President to stretch the truth a little to score a political point against those upstarts who think they can run the country into the ground as well as he did.

So, let’s grant Mbeki the satisfaction of the claim that he was vindicated and move on to the last paragraph of his statement, which brings us right back into – you guessed it! – conspiracy theory country. In vintage Mbeki style and with all the dry, bitter, certainty of a person who once questioned the link between HIV and AIDS because of what he read on the Internet – to the detriment of 300 000 people who then died – Mbeki continues:

It seems to me that the unacceptable practice of propagation of deliberate falsehoods to attain various objectives is becoming entrenched in our country. I am pleased that the SCA has provided firm leadership in this regard by insisting that nobody’s integrity should be impugned on the basis of untested allegations.

Mbeki loves that phrase – “deliberate falsehoods”. It suggests that Mbeki thinks that there is only one possible’s interpretation of any set of facts, that what he claims to be true must be accepted by the rest of us as absolute and final proof of that Truth, and that any questioning of his version of events or his interpretation of the facts constitutes a conspiracy to “deliberately” spread false information.

He seems to think: “I told you what the Truth is – yet you do not believe me. How can that be? How dare you? The impertinence! Surely you know that I am so wise, so imbued with integirty, wisdom and an ability to interpret facts definitively (a bit like God, really) that what I say will ALWAYS be true, just because I said it. If you then question the Truth of what I said, it must be because you deliberately want to spread falsehoods about me, my government, black people in general, the arms deal, the existence of crime, the nobility of the masses of our people, the ANC and its traditions and, for that matter, HIV and AIDS.”

This seems to me like a very, very scary world view for a leader of a country to hold. It eschews doubt for a kind of messianic certainty. It fails to understand that in a democracy politicians must earn our trust through their words, yes, but also through their deeds, that we – “the masses of our people” – have a duty to be sceptical about the self-exculpating claims made by politicians and that we are not part of some conspiracy, deliberately spreading falsehoods about the politician or his government, just because we do not believe every word the politician – even our President – says.

Besides, sometimes the known facts are open to different interpretations and even reasonable people may differ about how the known facts can or should be viewed. We all interpret facts from the vantage point of our own world view. Mbeki has often made the excellent point that many sceptics of his government interpreted the facts about South Africa’s progress away from apartheid injustice towards a more egalitarian and sane country, based on their rather Afro-pessimistic, colonialist, world view.

But that does not mean Mbeki himself does not have a world view and that his interpretation of an event or of a set of facts will be devoid of self-interest, delusional paranoia or prejudice. Just think about his flirtation with AIDS denialism. Duhhh!

The fact that he never could apply his excellent insights about the inevitable situatedness of our version of events to himself says a lot about the tragedy of Mbeki’s reign as President of the ANC and the country. When one forgets that one’s world view might not be shared by others and that one’s interpretation of the facts might be clouded by the fact that one travels in a eleven car motorcade and are obsequisly bowed down to by others, one becomes arrogant and out of touch. And that is one of the real, very human, tragedies of Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency.

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