The Big Read: Zuma is undermining the fine art of the political lie
Do you know what's really gone to hell in the new South Africa? The quality of the lies we get told by our government. Yes sir, the lies were way better in the old days, writes Tom EatonI grew up listening to the fictions of the Nats and, by God, those hillbillies had the gift of the grift. South Africa's military could napalm a foreign country, have photos of said napalm splashed on international front pages, get condemned by the UN, and what would happen? Pik Botha would appear on the SABC to explain that we had misunderstood.He didn't tell us we'd taken it out of context. He didn't claim that news reports had been fabricated by enemies of the state. He'd simply nod knowingly, take his sexy hot-chocolate voice down an octave, and reassure us that the world was a confusing place and that it's easy to get confused and not understand complex adult issues. By the end of his earnest sermon, the volk had forgotten all about war crimes and had gone back to sleep with a vague sense that a Sunday school picnic had gone awry but that a kind oomie had arrived just in time to make sure the ants didn't crawl into the Redro.When democracy came to South Africa, and the world and its spin-doctors opened up to us, we assumed this tradition would continue and even flourish. As arms dealers and corporate predators swarmed towards Nelson Mandela's government, we believed that now, at last, we would finally get the lies we deserved: beautiful, gleaming things crafted by the greatest propagandists our taxes could buy. For a few years the new government delivered on that promise and we were treated to a couple of masterful smoke screens.Consider Sarafina 2, the new South Africa's inaugural corruption scandal. Do you remember who was to blame and who got punished? No? Job done. If you have to Google a scandal to recall its details, then excellent liars have delivered some primo perjury and awesome obfuscation.Sadly, however, the early promise soon faded. The Arms Deal presented Thabo Mbeki with a wonderful opportunity to cook up some presidency-defining perfidy (for example, faintly sabre-rattling stuff about South Africa needing to step up to its rightful place as the biggest, baddest nation in Africa; of walking quietly and carrying a big stick; of maybe needing to invade Lesotho again, but what did he do?Instead of being tastefully aggressive, he went defensive and told us we needed Swedish fighter jets to keep us safe, presumably from Botswana's air force of three crop-dusters and Zimbabwe's squadron of kamikaze weather balloons. Soon even the explanations dried up, replaced by terse denials and then accusations of racism, counter-revolution and disloyalty.Mbeki tells ANC to stop lyingFormer President Thabo Mbeki has urged the ANC to be honest with itself and admit it is in trouble. When Jacob Zuma was put into power by Julius Malema it seemed that we might enjoy something of a lying renaissance: any young demagogue who declares that he is willing to die for his paymaster is clearly getting ready to lead your country towards a new dawn of big, bold, juicy lies. But once again the ANC flattered to deceive, squandering a good start by appointing Mac Maharaj as Zuma's spokesmuppet. Suddenly everything and everyone was being "taken out of context". It wasn't even a proper lie.In retrospect, it was inevitable that the whole sorry thing would end in a fire pool.It was a ridiculously weak lie, and we heaped scorn on Zuma; but really the fire pool was an indictment of all of us: final proof of how low our standards have dropped when it comes to the lies we accept from our leaders.I never lied about Nkandla: ZumaPresident Jacob Zuma is adamant that he never lied to the nation when he told parliament that he and his family had paid for his homestead at Nkandla. If we weren't such rubes or so resigned to our fate we'd be calling for "accountability" (the process whereby politicians tell small, elegant and reassuring lies to the public), we would speak with a clear and united voice to the corrupt and self-serving people in government and business, and we would say: "Stop insulting us with these kindergarten fibs. Take us seriously as adult human beings who deserve adult lies. Hire consultants. Weave dazzling tapestries of legalese and opaque finance. Bore us into submission!"For God's sake, you know we're all financially illiterate. All you have to do is present us with a vast spreadsheet and tell us it reflects the expenditure on Nkandla as off-set against the value-added deal we struck with China to balance the 2015 fiscal surge which was part of the Treasury's eight-point plant to ratchet up the overshoot of the underspend of the - see? We're nodding off already."But a swimming pool for putting out fires? Are you f***ing kidding me?"I know the rich and powerful won't stop lying to the rest of us, and frankly I'm OK with that: I don't want to know what they know. But for now can we agree to one, first baby step? Can we demand some better lies?