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Solly Moeng: SA in a post-truth era

Jan 12 2020 14:07
Solly Moeng

It was good to see the number of people in and around Kimberly – where the governing ANC was recently celebrating its January birthday and holding its National Executive Committee meeting – stating with clear, unafraid voices, their disappointment at the level of rot in their villages, towns and townships while powerful politicians arrive into town in private jets and flashy, expensive cars, seemingly expecting to be feted.

It is not clear, of course, how many ordinary South Africans are beginning to open their eyes to hypocrisy.

But we can be sure that many will continue to believe even Ace Magashule, when he states with a straight face, in front of media cameras and microphones, that exposure to the poor conditions in and around Kimberley will strengthen the ANC's resolve to come up with more pro-poor policies in the future.

That is risible, of course, but we should place that alongside the shock that another leading politician would have expressed at the discovery. I’m not sure which of the two, between shock and excitement, is better. 

The post-truth era

The phenomenon of ‘alternative truths’ is not limited to America, where the Republican Party and the Trump Administration use it to great effect by creating their own version of facts even while the truth, as we have known it, looks them in the eyes.

They use sympathetic media platforms like Fox News, owned media platforms like Twitter, and other paid and unpaid media professionals to confuse gullible citizens and to confirm the prejudices of those who will only swallow information that emanates from politically aligned sources.

Here in Africa, Rwandan strongman and president, Paul Kagame, has long mastered the art of positioning himself as non-disposable and the only man to lead his country post-genocide. The narrative that he is the hero of the genocide and that no one else can hold Rwanda together seems to have been bought, even financially supported, by much of the West.

Alternative truths pay

So, at the expense of human rights, especially media freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of association in Rwanda, Kagame is able to maim media critics and political opponents with gay abandon.

Having become the darling of the West and a preferred recipient of massive Western Aid, he has invested in a combination of smart, global ‘alternative truths’ programs and campaigns on one hand, and a network of missionaries who get sent around the world, including - we have seen in recent years - South Africa, to quieten any voice that doesn’t say what he wants the world to see and hear.

Amid all of this, mainstream media seems to have been emotionally bludgeoned into focusing only on the great work done by Kagame’s government in modernising and keeping Kigali clean, creating more space for women in his government – but only if they toe the line – and introducing a business and investment friendly regime that ensures that visas are issued with very little red tape upon visitors’ arrival in Kigali.

It is a beautiful African story to sell and tell, no doubt.

And anyone who adds a “but”, in any discussion about Kagame’s Rwanda, and goes on to point out the plethora of human rights abuses under the strong man, can be sure to receive funny looks and disapproval.

Local 'alternative truths'

South Africa's prospects are grim at present. The country has just had its growth forecast slashed by the World Bank – again – and it is facing the reality that finally, Moody's may just change that apparently unsinkable rating.

With everything that has happened in South Africa over, at least, the past decade, especially given that many who were prominently named in allegations of state capture and other forms of corruption are still standing, or even offering commentary via the media on the state of our SOEs and country, opportunities to create local ‘alternative truths’ are plenty.

Given all of this, the environment leading to the 2021 Local Government Elections will be rich in narratives. More than ever before, one man’s facts will be another man’s fake news and the truth as we have known it will be truth only in the eyes of the beholder. It will come in a variety of shades, depending where it falls on the continuum of agendas.

Fertile ground

Despite the noises we’re wont to make at any provocation, we, the South African electorate, have repeatedly proven to be unsophisticated - no better than our American counterparts.

We were as happy to coalesce around the divisive WMC narrative that positioned President Cyril Ramaphosa’s predecessor and his army of enablers as victims, as American voters seem happy to believe the multi-media ‘alternative truths’ that are being churned out on a daily basis by the US Republican Party and the Trump Administration.

In the eyes of his unconditional supporters, the current US president is as innocent from the charges he is facing as president Ramaphosa’s predecessor remains against all the state capture and corruption charges currently looking him in the eyes. Instead of running to dig up old tricks in Cuba, he should hire an army of ‘alternative truth’ creators to be in with the times.   

Counting the cost

All of this is intricately linked to South Africa’s political and economic fortunes in the period leading to the 2021 Local Government Elections and beyond.

By the time South Africans go to the next elections, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture would have gone on for long enough for many of us to become blasé; fertile ground to be developed for confusing ‘alternative truths’ to gain traction in unsuspecting minds.

Were this to happen, fewer voters would be in a position to connect the causal dots between everything that has gone wrong in recent years, and economic meltdown: a massively diminished tax base, government’s inability to fund its programs, high unemployment, and rising levels of social discomfort and unrest.

Mere formal education is not enough to help people navigate complex societies in the post-truth and ‘alternative truths’ era. It can help the lucky ones get and secure employment, but it cannot - without more civic education, enquiring minds and unshakable determination to place country interests ahead of narrow political interests - help them make informed choices for the sake of the broader national collective. We should be afraid.  

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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