There are two novels I am going to read again. This, I am going to do because South Africa has become a matrix of false consciousness, manufactured consent, deception and counter-deception strategies, a false consensus about the economy, false consensus about the rule of law, the tyranny of a clique of democrats, as well as, the fictional and fictitious parading as reality. The first book I am going to read again is Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. The second is 1984 by George Orwell. Both books I am going to read again because there is something decidedly Orwellian about our country today.
Darkness at Noon is the story of a revolution betrayed. 1984 is a novel about the manipulation of the mind as well as the distortion and manipulation of perception. The two books tell the story of what happens to those who speak truth to the power of one man – Number One and Big Brother – in whom the grand lie is resident. Both of them are about the fact that, to political and economic elites, people are just objects, a means to an end … pawns in a Luciferian game of chess.
The two books re-entered my consciousness because I was thinking about the Tower of Babel and political communication. Political communication in its re-incarnation as the Tower of Babel seized my mind as I was thinking about the parlours state of our political discourse and the conspiracy theories of the president and his cabinet ministers as they lied to themselves about the root cause of the civil unrest of the past week. The most profound explanation the president posited was ethnic and tribal chauvinism. But his assault on reason did not end there. He, when he was in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), where he apologised for the gaffe, explained that he had been touched on his presidential studio by people who, disparagingly, referred to him as iVenda. Really now? Is this the kind of puerile response we should expect from the Commander-in-chief? As if this was not enough, he forgot about protocol. He forgot that his throw-away comment and euphemisms about Zulu chauvinism was an insult to both Zulus and their king. Therefore, what he should have done was to first go to the king and then report that he had apologised to the him during the stage-managed encounters with the media and members of the community. But I understand why he did not deem it necessary to have an audience with the king. As we saw, live on our television screens, the king himself parroted the nonsense about ethnic chauvinism and then declared that his father’s people – the Zulu people – were committing suicide by enjoining themselves to the ‘attempted insurrection’. When I watched the king I could not see the crown. It was not on his head but adorning the head of another not very far from him. In other words, the new king is not only cast in the role of a ventriloquist’s doll but the ventriloquists have captured and recruited him to their deception and counter-deception strategies.
But the king is not the only one who has been targeted for manipulation – Orwellian and otherwise. Citizens in general and journalists in particular were targeted too. Folk stories and fairytales were told about the root causes of the ‘attempted insurrection’, the rule of law and democracy.
What we must bear in mind is that, all these stories, told with a flourish of pious indignation, were an exercise in political communication and management. Political communication, as you know, is about the alteration of the political environment in your interests and to the detriment of opponents and enemies. It is about the construction of narratives and perception management to one’s advantage and to the disadvantage of opponents, enemies and the doubtful. It is about the imposition of a dominant narrative – your own or one that you have inherited from your masters whose tune you sing and dance to as one who, for thirty pieces of silver, has sold his voice and rhythm. At its best and worst, political communication is about the imposition of a canon of rational opinion outside of which anything that challenges your narrative must be deemed irrational.
It is at this point that I must remind you that Orwell once averred that the fact that we live in a democracy does not mean we are not going to be subjected to authoritarianism. In fact, what I have argued in the past and will argue again in this article is the fact that every cause, no matter how noble, has its tyrants. In our South Africa of the new dawn, this is finding expression in an attempt at imposing a single story – the story of a rainbow nation under attack from barbarians who are trying to destroy our democracy, our way of life as well as our sense of national unity.Any story to the contrary, any alternative narrative and any counter-narrative is an example of the irrational. In fact, any attempt at engaging with our social, political and economic reality in a language other than English is another example of the irrational. Those of us who speak English are custodians of rationality and reason, and we imagine ourselves and our Englishness as being representative of both the national mood and national sentiment. We are not like the mindless hordes who looted shops and malls in defence of another barbarian – – Jacob Zuma. We forget that a lot of learning – including the learning we have accumulated in English – is thoughtless. If the looters are mindless, their mindlessness and our thoughtlessness are two sides of the same Orwellian coin.
Unfortunately, this thoughtlessness has afflicted too many in our media space. It is for this reason that our newsrooms became purveyors of class and racial prejudice, as well as, selective outrage. It is for this reason that too many among us in the media allowed politicians to tell them which dots to join. When the president told us the sky is blue, too many among us in the media refused to check for ourselves. This is what reminded me of two things said in two books that I find instructive. The first is from the book, — Emotions, Media and Politics (Contemporary Political Communication) by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen
who argues that, “emotions are central to our social and political lives, and to the ways in which we make sense of ourselves and the collectivities and communities we inhabit–a process which increasingly takes place through the media.” The second is from the book, Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball who says that, “Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority, and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Let me hasten to say, lest I am misunderstood, that, in this article, the term ‘bullshit’ is a philosophical concept. It is not an insult. That said, the president and his cabinet ministers have been contradicting each other because they are at the top of the Tower of Babel which, in fact, is a tower of bullshit. In the this tower of bullshit, they have cast themselves in the role of both the liar and the bullshitter. The alternative is to tell the truth about the primary cause of the unrest of last week – the fact that our neo-apartheid order and post-apartheid reality are a postcolony of betrayal. This is a postcolony with colonial features where poverty, unemployment and the general underdevelopment of our people still have a black face, particularly that of a black woman and child. Our politicians are more comfortable with the story of an ‘attempted insurrection’, instigators and mindless barbarians who were duped into participating in a conspiracy against the New Dawn. Does this mean there are no opportunists who attached themselves to the genuine grievances of the poor, working poor and the middle class? I am not going to waste space and time on the obvious. What I will do, though, is to remind us of the primary task of citizenship in a democracy. We must be vigilant. We must not allow those we have elected into positions of political power to bullshit us. If we do, we are going to be complicit in creating a climate of lies, a climate, as we saw during the violent protests of last week, in which we become accomplices in the unleashing of state-sanctioned vigilantism against fellow citizens. If we are not vigilant, we will allow vigilantes in suits to hide behind masks of democratic civility.
Aubrey Matshiqi is a seasoned political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity.