“Navigating your way in a world filled with untruths”: Frederik van Zyl Slabbert lecture 2019

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The award-winning writer, editor, satirist and columnist, Marianne Thamm, has called on the next generation to help uncover untruths. She delivered the eighth annual Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert (FVZS) Honorary Lecture at Stellenbosch University (SU) on Monday 19 August 2019.

The theme of her lecture, subsidised by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung,  was “Navigating your way in a world filled with untruths”. 

Let me begin by recounting a recent experience in Johannesburg, when a group of investigative journalists were invited to team up with young theatre-makers and artists to explore the cost of state capture to South Africa, and how, perhaps, to render this creatively.

There is a great tradition in South Africa of protest theatre, literature and fine art, established fully in the 1980s, when those who resisted the apartheid regime used creativity as one method of hacking away at the edifice of a violent and authoritarian state.

So threatened was the state by “art”, that playwrights and authors were banned or listed, journalists were banished, songs deemed subversive were not played on the radio, and anything the regime believed might shatter the lie was censored. As a result, we lost a great many talents to exile, many of whom never returned.

Early on in the initial introductions to this workshop with the artists in Johannesburg, I sensed a hesitancy about the presence of journalists.

Were we to be trusted?

Whose agenda did we represent?

Whose truth had we come to tell?

An academic, who was part of the group, threw out a challenge.

Her words were that the artists should be aware of and take cognisance of those who come bearing what she termed “subjective truths”.

The notion that truth or facts are somehow subjective and based on opinion, or are merely a point of view, is one that has increasingly gained traction in the 21st century.

However, the contestation of truth has been with us since we have been bipedal. It is nothing new; just the methods of this contestation have changed, and the extent of its reach and effect.

My response to the challenge by the academic was this:

In 2015, 143 vulnerable psychiatric patients, formerly cared for at Life Esidimeni healthcare centres in Gauteng, suffered cruel and preventable deaths after the Gauteng department of health terminated their contract with Life Esidimeni and transferred some 1 300 patients, many in need of 24-hour care, to their families or ill-equipped NGOs.

Some of these patients starved to death; one was found with a plastic bag in her stomach. The post-mortems conducted on 26 others showed that they had died of hypothermia and dehydration. The others died of neglect.

On 16 August 2012, South African police opened fire and shot and killed 34 striking miners at the Lonmin mine in Marikana.

Earlier, two police officers and the security guards who were killed by miners.  All of the dead found themselves victims of a much bigger political drama that was taking place.

If we are not deeply enraged or angered by these truths, if these objective facts do not move us to action, then we are not worthy of the costly and extremely fragile freedoms in South Africa many have fought and died for.

These are facts – cold, hard, stubborn facts.

Let’s deal with a few more global facts and truths, the effects of which are still visible and palpable today, although the actual events themselves might have been lost in the twists and turns of history. 

There is nothing subjective about the truth, as writer, translator, novelist and journalist, Sol Plaatje, described: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

It is not a subjective fact that 58 million people (about as many who are alive in South Africa today) died in the wake of WWII in Europe. It is a continent that has suffered through several genocides.

It is not a subjective fact that about 15 million Africans died when the Belgian King Leopold II turned the Congo into a private domain for sheer profit and personal glory. 

It is not a subjective fact that the fountains and buildings of Belgium were built on the back of an economic genocide in the Congo. It is not a subjective truth that the CIA was involved in assassinating the first democratically elected leader of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba.

It is not a subjective fact that the world currently faces a climate crisis due to unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels, and unfettered growth, consumerism and greed, threatening the very existence of planet Earth as we know it.

It is a fact that around 300 000 South Africans died when our former president, Thabo Mbeki, refused to accept the scientific basis for AIDS and that treatment was available and could prevent further infection. Our president based his views on fake science and bogus theories he had trawled on the internet.

Finally, it is not a subjective fact that South Africa has lost, in the past 10 years, about R4,1 billion of our GDP to what we have come to understand as state capture.

This happened when a corrupt political elite – aided and abetted by the financial sector, lawyers, auditors and many other global political players who joined the feast – perverted government institutions and stole, from under the noses of taxpayers, billions that was not theirs to take.

This grand theft and sale of a country has set our democracy back years, and has deprived millions of the security and comfort offered in the constitution.

It has also ripped the heart out of the ANC, the continent’s oldest and once most respected liberation movement, which is now a tawdry shadow of its former self and fighting to restore its former glory as a diverse and non-racial home for all.

It is not an untruth that a British PR and reputation management firm, Bell Pottinger, was paid by the Gupta family to construct and promote – using modern technology – a narrative that Jacob Zuma’s agenda for South Africa was one of “radical economic transformation”, and that all opposition to this was treasonous, a plot by white monopoly capital.

It is a fact that Bell Pottinger overrode the policies of a ruling party, elected to govern by the country’s majority, to tailor and create a fiction – woven around real challenges – that would ultimately cause chaos and create a smokescreen to facilitate the looting and plunder.

In order to understand this rise of a kleptocratic and oligarchical political class in South Africa and the lies and untruths that were created to justify it, we must take a broader view and look at shifting global interests which dovetail with this project.

A world at peace with itself does not serve monopoly capital, the arms dealers and the warmongers, the politicians and the money men and women who profit from what has become, in some parts of the world, an international criminal nexus disguised as democracy.

A world at peace is not in a perpetual state of near chaos, with threats to the safety and security of humanity. A world at peace is, in short, not good for business.

There is not enough time here to unpack, in full, the international economic and political climate which has led us to this point.

Each generation is burdened with, and caught up in, global currents that have a direct bearing on notions of freedom and liberation in their lifetime.

Across the world, authoritarian and populist regimes are on the rise – the business of “organised lying” has become part of the global news cycle.

This news cycle in the 21st century has a far wider reach than ever before, and, when manipulated, is capable of creating a wholly alternative reality, one of amplified consensus often based on fake news, in order to direct the hopes and wishes of a citizenry.

This has led, in the words of political scientist, Timothy Snyder, to what he terms the “politics of eternity”.

“If citizens doubt everything, they cannot see an alternative model. ... They cannot carry out sensible discussions about reform, and cannot trust one another enough to organise for political change.”

As Snyder writes in his book, The road to unfreedom: “A plausible future requires a factual present.”

In South Africa, the attempt to capture the public broadcaster, the SABC, and turn it into a state broadcaster, as well as the establishment of the Gupta media empire by diverting advertising funds from other media to promote a specific corrupt agenda, is a case in point.

This, combined with co-ordinated campaigns on social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, has served to create an alternative public arena where truth and fact can be attacked and discredited. 

***

I was going to start this lecture by quoting someone I have found myself returning to often in these times of global untruth and lies.

Marx.

Not Karl, but Groucho Marx, who once said: “Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”

It seems simple enough, until you think of leaders like Donald Trump, who is able to say to his supporters, do not believe your eyes, I will cherry-pick what I like and tell you what it is you are seeing. And you will believe only me. Only I hold the truth.

***

I have structured my thoughts tonight around the work and thinking of Arendt, who, as a German Jew born in what was then East Prussia, witnessed the horror of the rise of totalitarianism and the mass killings of WWII.

Arendt’s work and tradition of thought, which includes the origins of totalitarianism, the origins of revolution, and the human condition, as well as her various essays and thoughts on truth and politics, can be categorised, if at all, as those of “civic republicanism” or “civic humanism”, centred on civil society and civic virtue.

In such a society – one that, incidentally, is embodied in the constitution of the Republic of South Africa – our awareness of reality is determined by our sharing of the world with others.

Those who seek power over others, who seek to subvert civic humanism, who deliberately lie and hope to deceive with that lie, need to shatter the bonds of human solidarity in order to accomplish their goals.

Scapegoating, “othering”, blaming and lying are the hallmarks of creeping authoritarianism and a predatory state.

“Consistent lying pulls the very ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand,” writes Arendt.

Our sense of orientating ourselves within the real world cannot be realised without the distinction between truth and falsehood, she adds.

Globally, our sense of locating ourselves in the real world is being disrupted by those who seek to alter the nature of reality and truth itself.

From Putin’s “political technologists”, who are dispatched to African countries to seek out predatory political opportunities, to Western advertising agencies, who run election campaigns, to reputation management firms like Bell Pottinger, truth and reality have never been more fragile.

***

We have at our disposal, as 21st century people, access to technology which provides evidence of the horror of authoritarian, totalitarian, populist and fascist thinking through the ages. There are countless clips on YouTube of footage of several devastating wars and their effects.

Unlike my forebears who survived WWI in Europe and WWII, we can witness the devastation of othering fellow human beings in order to create chaos and mayhem which will benefit the powerful and the rich.

Konrad Adenauer was the first German chancellor after the war. It was a country and a people totally destroyed by the great lie the Nazis had sold to the sophisticated and educated German nation. There remain crucial lessons in what happened in Germany – and how economic stagnation was used to scapegoat others – and how this ultimately came to wipe out millions.

In South Africa, too, we have records of the devastation caused to black lives through hundreds of years of imperialism, colonialism and apartheid.

We cannot say: We do not know, we did not know.

***

Fake news, untruth and disinformation are not new phenomena.

The idea and systematic implementation of apartheid was a lie; it was fake news. In order to render compliant those whites the Nationalist Party wished to use and to benefit by it used the technology of the time to justify the unjustifiable.

Newspapers in general and, later, radio and television – many of these supporting business and the politics of the time – were all used to amplify and justify the lie and cover up the truth.

“Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”

It is unfathomable that white South Africans who grew up in apartheid South Africa could genuinely think it is justifiable to say, “We didn’t know.”

Yet, this is what we did.

It is in this denial and this history that we see the power of propaganda and lies to subvert human decency and solidarity – the power of propaganda and disinformation to “other” fellow human beings, creating chaos.

In this vacuum, the powerful and the greedy are left to unaccountable rule and plunder by whim.

There is a crucial difference between propaganda and disinformation. While propaganda seeks to convince us to believe something, disinformation is an organised attempt to deceive us into believing it.

The word “disinformation” is what is known as a “loan translation” of the Russian word dezinforatsiya, taken from the title of the KGB’s black propaganda department during the Cold War.

It is designed specifically to cause public harm, to fracture societies, to reduce trust in the media and to undermine democratic processes.

But, as Arendt says: “Facts are stubborn, and, despite their vulnerability, they have an odd toughness.”

It is only through good investigative journalism and fact-checking that we can counteract disinformation in all its forms. And that includes advertising – one of the more benign forms of mass persuasion.

Donald Trump, at present, embodies Arendt’s notion of “organised lying”, creating “a world in which facts are changed at will” and where “the simplest discovery of fact is already a threat to the ruling powers”.

Trump’s consistent attacks on the media are mirrored at present in South Africa by nationalist populists who are threatened by a free and independent press.

Technology has always been used by despotic and anti-democratic regimes. It was Goebbels who perfected this, using radio and the then relatively new medium of film, to spread the anti-Semitism in Germany that would result in the systematic murder of millions of German Jews.

In Rwanda, radio was used to incite and direct the Rwandan genocide, in which almost one million people were slaughtered in 100 days. That was in 1994.

Since then, the world has found itself living in a new, liminal technological space that has been dangerously weaponised.

While the internet is, no doubt, our equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, and offers, because of its accessibility and lack of regulation, an opportunity to access information which may free and enlighten us, it has also been deployed as a powerful weapon of disinformation and amplified consensus with a global reach.

Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has understood the power of the internet to subvert, specifically, what he views as a unified West, with its degenerate values of human, women’s and gay rights, as well as its religious freedoms and shared economic markets.

Russia, compared with a unified West, has little power, and the ability to disrupt this has already catapulted Russia, a relatively small country, into playing a larger global role, including in Africa. 

Where China has the actual economic clout to expand its markets in Africa and elsewhere, Russia does not.

And, so, it deploys its stealthiest weapon.

Putin is well ahead of the Americans in the 21st century when it comes to disinformation. The USA, of course, is no stranger to disinformation and propaganda, and has, for centuries, interfered in the political life of sovereign states across the world, furthering, for the most part, its own interests.

With the collapse of communism, the KGB became the FSB, and Putin, who was later to become president, established the Internet Research Agency, specifically to engage in online “influence operations”.

Putin first tested the power of disinformation in Russia itself, committing what Snyder terms an act of “self terrorism”, blowing up four apartment blocks in various Russian cities in 1999, killing over 300 people.

Putin used the bombings as one of the reasons for the Second Chechen War, which ultimately boosted his popularity and led to his election as president a few months later.

Enough evidence has since been uncovered to prove that the 1999 bombings were staged by the FSB.

The Russian involvement in the election of a mendacious, tax-dodging populist, white supremacist and misogynist, Donald Trump, as US president, must rank as one of the world’s greatest silent coups.

Trump’s divisive, theatric and dumbed-down politics of exclusion, isolationism and brute force are chipping away at the institutions which protect American democracy.

***

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War, in order to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and dignity and worth of the human person”.

It is these very fundamental human rights which are currently under threat again globally.

From Sudan to Tunisia, from Zimbabwe to Hong Kong, from Russia to the USA to South Africa, citizens are no longer prepared to live under authoritarian governments who do not serve the greater good.

But, instead of opening up a democratic space, leaders remain propped up by international allies and fear losing power.

The theft of personal data, the increasing surveillance of citizens, the tailoring of messages to influence the outcome of democratic elections illegally, and the capture of election systems are all grave threats to a democracy and an open society based on fundamental human rights of all citizens.

Across Africa, we see this happening, where international economic interests subvert the democratic process and help to bring into government parties who do not serve citizens.

The weakening of state institutions is part of the deal. The capturing and corruption of law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are part of the plan.

In all of this mess, a free press is the canary in the coal mine. It is essential for the survival of human rights and democracy.

Where press freedom is constrained, demagogues, propagandists and despots peddle their lies and oppress citizens.

Without regulation and with no accountability, however, platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are being used to reshape reality.

Facebook was used to incite violence in Myanmar, and was also used by Cambridge Analytica to flout election laws in the UK to target voters with information, much of it disinformation, aimed at promoting a vote for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum.

Internationally, it has fallen to investigative journalists, working in conjunction with whistle-blowers, to hold the political and economic class to account.

The internet has enabled the spread of untruth and lies, just as much as it has spread truth and fact.

The annual Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2019 has found an increased hostility towards journalists across the world, with violent attacks in India leading to at least six Indian journalists being killed in the line of their work in 2018.

In India, co-ordinated hate campaigns on social media – particularly in light of the #MeToo international campaign – have resulted in increased attacks on women.

***

So, how do you navigate your way through these untruths, lies and disinformation to find the facts or the truth, and to make these manifest in public life?

We can do so by strengthening our institutions of democracy, and by ensuring a free and accountable media which subscribes to a code of ethics.

SANEF, the South African National Editors’ Forum, as well as the Press Code in South Africa, are self-regulating mechanisms which seek to maintain the integrity of the media.

There is only one newspaper group which has withdrawn from the Press Council of South Africa, and that is Iqbal Survé’s Independent Media Subjects of Survé’s newspapers have no recourse, apart from the costly route of turning to the courts.

We have seen from our most recent past the devastation that can be caused by a media which finds itself complicit in undermining democracy and the rule of law.

The role of some members of the Sunday Times investigative unit in furthering the spurious SARS “rogue unit” narrative, as well as the series of fabricated stories about the “Cato Manor death squads”, serve as a grim reminder of how media can be used to further a specific political agenda.

The effect of these stories still ripple through South Africa’s body politic today, and have been the subject of several commissions of inquiry, where facts are all that matter.

It was the investigative journalists of Bellingcat who identified, through using data and fieldwork, the Russian-directed militants in East Ukraine who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. 

It was Bellingcat journalists, also, who proved that the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, was done by Russian agents.

Meticulous data collection and fact-checking placed all four of the agents at the scene, while Putin denied knowledge.

Julian Assange, with WikiLeaks in 2010, was the first to challenge the supremacy of governments and their secrets, but, in so doing, he also undermined the very foundations of democracy. An information “anarchist”, Assange believes that while journalists are required to fact-check, leaks afford those named a right to reply; any and every government secret is fair game.

It was Assange who leaked Hilary Clinton’s emails to the Russians, who then weaponised these in order to secure the election of Donald Trump.

Assange, according to Arendt, would have compromised his credibility, because, as reporter of fact, he put the information to the service of group interests and particular power formations.

“Whoever speaks in the name of interests can no longer be credible; as a person, he can no longer vouch for what either sounds implausible or is contrary to the interests of many,” said Arendt – long before the Assange phenomenon.

It was the Daily Maverick’s Scorpio investigative unit, alongside our partners, the extraordinary independent investigative unit, amaBhungane, as well as our colleagues in News24, who helped crack the #GuptaLeaks, exposing the industrial scale of capture of almost all aspects of the South African state.

We, as South Africans, owe a huge debt of gratitude to the two whistle-blowers who were responsible for ensuring that the Gupta emails found their way legitimately to investigative journalists and, in so doing, finally blew the lid on years of plunder under Jacob Zuma’s watch.

Journalism, which has been drawn globally to the front line of this push back against lies and untruth, is itself in danger, as internet monopolies like Google and Facebook hoover up gazillions in advertising that would have previously sustained publications.

The attrition of good and experienced journalists in newsrooms, replaced with juniors trawling Twitter for clickbait, threatens democracy, too.

It is because of this attrition that there are few financial journalists left with the experience and contacts to expose private-sector corruption, like the Steinhoff shakedown.

So, as journalists, whose interests do we serve?

For me, it is simple: I serve the interests of the constitution and my fellow citizens. It is my job to survey the entire political landscape, and where we find anti-democratic behaviour or corruption, to expose this.

To navigate your way through a world of untruths, seek out those who themselves seek the truth; go to reliable media outlets who have done the footwork, the investigations and the painstaking work to peel back the layers of deceit.

***

For Arendt, the beginnings of something are historically determining.

And it is here that we find our greatest strength.

Our beginning, our foundation as a democratic, free South Africa, is the constitution of the Republic of South Africa. It is this constitution which places the power in the hands of the people of this country.

It is a beginning and a foundation that we should guard with our lives, for embodied in it are the dreams and the values of the Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC and its many allies in Kliptown in 1955.

The work of creating the Freedom Charter was in response to the repressive apartheid government and the Defiance Campaign of 1952.

In 1955, the ANC sent out 50 000 volunteers across the country, from townships to rural areas, to collect “the freedom demands” from the dispossessed and oppressed people of South Africa.

Its opening demand is: “The people shall govern.”

Not: A political and economic elite shall govern.

South Africa’s constitution provides a powerful mechanism to realise various rights, and, in many instances since 1994, the Constitutional Court has ordered the government to implement these, but there has been little political will to do so, while too much plunder has occurred.

It has also proved to be a powerful block to unfettered and unaccountable power and the misuse of public trust.

So, how do we navigate our way through a world filled with untruth?

By seeking truth.

Any politician who, in a constitutional democracy, scapegoats citizens or calls for violence or the taking up of arms when the ballot box is readily available, is up to no good.

In South Africa, a strong culture of civic activism has been as vital in ridding the body politic of corrupt politicians.

Political insight, says Arendt, derives from human plurality, and politics must take into account human diversity.

It is exactly this that authoritarian, nationalist and populist regimes across the world seek to destroy and limit.

Just as the internet has been subverted to create “unfreedom”, so, too, has it been used by investigative journalists to uncover facts, to follow and find the money and to expose the charade.

 

Photo credit (featured image): Henk Oets

 

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Kommentaar

  • Avatar
    Jana Ma-Sangu Van Heerden

    Marianne is smoorkwaad. Sy moet 'n bietjie ontspan. Iemand wat so gespanne is gaan niks uitgerig kry nie. Haar idees en argumente is korrek maar haar vyandige houding teenoor die hele wêreld gaan mense skrik maak. En sy het ander mense se hulp nodig as sy haar planne wil bevorder.

  • Avatar
    Hein Mielmann

    Goeie artikel, in terme van die idee dat mense inligting moet begin verifieer. Daarteenstrydig is die feit dat sy haar visiere op Trump stel, hom ’n leuenaar noem, maar geen bewyse bied dat hy lieg nie. In die wêreld van regte doen prokureurs dit gereeld, begin sterk met feite, dit gee die idee aan die leser dat die dokument slegs op feite gebaseer is, en 'sneak' die retoriek in op die einde. As mens kyk na die nuusagentskap wat ’n Pulitzer-prys gewen het oor hul stories dat Trump met Rusland kop in een mus was, net om later verkeerd bewys te word deur die Meuller report, kan mens duidelik sien dat Amerika se joernalistiek belange dien buiten die objektiewe waarheid, of Trump cherry pick of nie. Om Assenge se waardigheid aan te val gaan nie die waardigheid van die informasie wat hy gepubliseer het van nuller waarde verklaar nie. Dis nie asof hy ’n opiniestuk geskryf het, asof dit die waarheid is nie (iets wat populêr is onder joernaliste in die VSA), hy het dokumente vrygestel.

  • Ek het nou al geleer om niks te glo van 'n liberalis nie. Om Pres. Trump uit te maak as leunaar wys jou mos dit is 'n liberaal. Ek glo my oog hoor!

  • Avatar
    Rusty van Druten

    Those who choose to admire Trump have bought into the ultimate untruth and are clearly suffering from cognitive dissonance which reflects a malady involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.
    If there is a mysterious entity out in the great somewhere now sent to bedevil and defeat sense and sensibility, its is clearly manifested in Donald Trump and everything he represents. That he was elected to power in the US is the single most atrocious event in the history of its electoral processes. He is thoroughly demented, a truth that will hopefully yet be fully accepted as much as it is patently obvious to even an armchair psychiatrist. Throw your lot in with his absurdities, and so demonstrate own suffering from similar mindset and dysfunction. Thamm's unpacking here is so on the mark in every respect that denialists should attempt testing their own stability iro mental discomfort, then try restoring balance. Alas, that could be well nigh impossible.

  • Avatar
    Hein Mielmann

    That is a very eloquent insult you have prepared for us there Rusty. Of course, to deter a person from taking a certain position on a matter you need to do more than insult them, you would also have to present them with facts which would render their position insecure. You did not succeed in doing that, which is unfortunate even for those who support Trump, because they are generally conservatives, and conservatives generally appreciate debate.

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