Opinion

'Alternative facts' will only multiply in the face of this political cowardice

13 May 2018 - 00:00

When a nation is going through a period of turmoil and turbulence, its people - in an attempt to lift their spirits and steady their nerves - tend to hark back to the glorious events or achievements of the past that had made their chests swell with pride.
For South Africa this is such a period.
Twenty-four years ago this week, under a clear blue sky with a crisp autumn breeze, Nelson Mandela mounted the podium in front of the Union Buildings on Meintjies Kop in Pretoria to be sworn in as the president of all the people. It was a moment to savour, and worth capturing and keeping for future generations. It was truly the fulfilment of a dream.
The generals who not so long before had kept Mandela prisoner now saluted him. People pinched themselves, danced in the streets and oohed and aahed at the impressive military fly-past dragging the new South African flag. It was a miracle, they said. And the word stuck.Times have changed of course. "Miracle" has become a swearword. Mandela is a sellout, if not the devil incarnate.
But it is a fact that our democracy started on a high - the inauguration, the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup, Bafana Bafana's triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil. People coined a phrase: Madiba magic. And we had Madiba shirts. He was our Midas. The general mood in the country was one of reconciliation and togetherness. We were ready to take off.
Things have gone south since. Thabo Mbeki, it seems, sought to degrade or demean Mandela's achievement, much like Donald Trump is destroying Barack Obama's legacy. National reconciliation was something to appease white people.
Jacob Zuma's presidency, so recent and so painful, was simply a disaster. It's hard to believe that Mandela and Zuma are offspring of the same political lineage. But then, the ANC has morphed from a liberation movement into a monster that's plundering everything in sight.
It's obviously open season on Mandela. Budding political careers seem to hang on tearing him down. But it's futile to obsess about it. Mandela is huge. He'll take care of himself. Midgets can't touch him.The cause for worry, though, is the future. There's no doubt the country as a whole has degenerated and so has the quality of our public conversation. It's disturbing that falsehoods, fabrications, inventions and general ignorance seem to be driving the political discourse.
Truth is either nebulous or doesn't seem to matter at all. It was Henry Adams, the American historian, who observed that practical politics consists of ignoring facts. He could have had South Africa in mind.
It is understandable at times, especially in the heat of political battle, that there would be different interpretations of what happened or what was said, but nobody is entitled to their own facts. There's been a lot of rewriting of history lately by people who seem incapable of either reading or writing, especially those who never witnessed such events first-hand.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's death and funeral threw this into stark relief. Those keen to preserve her saintly status seemed determined to overstate her goodness and some inconvenient truths were written out of her life story. Their source was not the people who were in the trenches with Madikizela-Mandela, but a highly questionable documentary whose thesis relied heavily on interviews with former secret agents of Stratcom, the unit that carried out disinformation and smear campaigns against anti-apartheid activists.
It's a spectacle rich with irony. Not only was Madikizela-Mandela herself a victim of Stratcom's smear campaigns, but her political descendants were now using this as a convenient source to sanctify her, and damn those of her comrades who knew the whole truth.One of the former agents mentioned rather boastfully that at one point he had 40 journalists on his books. As a friend said the other day, Stratcom should release the names of the 40 journalists or shut up (and that was before President Cyril Ramaphosa made the phrase popular).
Even more disturbing was the silence of those who know the truth. Former safety and security minister Sydney Mufamadi cut a lonely figure as he tried to defend himself from charges that he had thrown Madikizela-Mandela to the wolves. None of his former comrades came out to support him.
Political cowardice is a badge that some seem keen to wear without any qualm. For almost a decade Zuma plundered with gay abandon without any of the people close to him uttering a word against it. Before that Mbeki, in his presidency, adopted Aids denialist policies that sent thousands of people to their graves. Nobody uttered a word in protest.
We now see the rewriting of our recent history by ignoramuses and political charlatans - and those who participated in it have decided to stay silent. They don't have the courage to raise their heads above the parapet.It's a mystery of our times that people who braved the worst that the apartheid state could throw at them - prison, torture, exile - are now unable or afraid to raise their voices in a free country in defence of the very freedoms they fought for.
Lies and falsehoods often have dire political consequences. Those who know the truth should have the courage to speak up.

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