You can't make these things up

You can’t make these things up

“We have learned in recent years to translate almost all political life in terms of conspiracy” – John Le Carré

As paranoid theories swirl around the world on the wings of social media, the early 2000s may be known as the “age of conspiracies.”

However, before Twitter, South Africa had long hosted intrigues. While these multiply during times of social stress, it says a lot about the state of our nation.

Both former President Jacob Zuma and suspended public defender Bosesewe Mkhwebani reflect this patriotism, seeming to believe – as do their followers – that everything under the sun is a diabolical plot against them. During apartheid, a prominent American professor described South Africa as the “Republic of Rumors”. It clearly still is.

One of our strangest conspiracies emerged shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He returned home to Soweto for the first time in nearly 30 years. In the late afternoon, as the light faded, Mandela spoke briefly in English, before going inside and closing the door.

“By Nightfall” author Johnny Steinberg records, “In a section of Vilakazi Street that has been since the late 1950s, it was said that the man who came back from prison was not Nelson Mandela. Why did he choose to reach the dying light? Why did he avoid speaking Xhosa?”

Nelson Mandela is pictured at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on July 18, 2013 (Photo: EPA/Nick Bothma)

These rumors continue to circulate intermittently, claiming that Mandela was murdered in the late 1960s, and that the man posing as him is an actor named Motsami, who trained on a secluded Anglo-American plantation. His endowment was the Xhosa; Fluent, but not a fluent native speaker.

“The moral of the story,” Steinberg concluded, “is that the central institutions of society are a hoax with a conspiracy behind it.” “Mandela never became president. He made the white capital a complete charade. The entire institution is illegitimate and must go.” A truly successful conspiracy theory needs to confirm existing prejudices. And this, at least, is a resource that South Africa has no shortage of.

The mistrust and assumptions of bad faith behind the explosion of conspiracy theories have a long history in Africa. The slaves developed myths to explain the cruelty of the white slave traders: that European leather shoes were made from black leather, that the gunpowder of their guns was ground from African bone, that the crews of slave ships feasted on the boiled and salted flesh of captives, while the cheese they ate was made from the brains of black Africans, and wine The red they drank was drawn from African blood.

Read more at The Daily Maverick: Conspiracy Theories 101: Why You Should Be Skeptical About QAnon, Crawler Rulers, and Pizzagate

It was a mirror image of European horrors about Africa, with tales of dog-headed black men or tribes that overshadowed no one.

This historical record of mistrust did not vanish overnight in 1994. Archives in Pretoria are full of police reports in the 1920s predicting imminent uprisings, with plans to massacre all whites. In the 1980s, it was rumored that on a certain day all blacks would rise up and massacre every white man, woman, and child.

Urban Legends can travel internationally, and even jump in ages. One is “The Tale of the Township Decoy”, which circulated in Vichy France, again in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and reappeared 30 years later in apartheid South Africa: “A group of township youths paint green potatoes. While it was An armored car rolls past them, with a soldier in the tower, they set off the “bomb” in the car. All the soldiers rush into the car, the young men jump out and take over the car. The story, of course, is being hushed up by the authorities.”

Traditional Afrikaans musical tastes also seem to have influenced the report, as Michael Jackson has been named as a possible financier of this revolutionary plot.

The bodies of those on death row, who were mostly black, were never seen again after they were hanged. In the 1990s, two powerful myths circulated to explain this ambiguity and the harshness of the white regime. One is that the condemned men were not actually killed but taken to a shelter under a nearby hill where they were put to work on dangerous chemical and nuclear weapons. The other is that the government used them as slaves to make money in the underground mint.

Most recently, in the aftermath of the July 2021 mass rioting and looting, which President Cyril Ramaphosa called an “attempted rebellion,” conspiracies and rumors have swirled on social media. Images of burned-out trucks and burnt-out shops caused alarm across the country. The frightening stories circulated by ordinary citizens, often from the middle class via SMS, had the effect of generating panic in previously quiet areas.

In the Western Cape province, which has been largely unaffected by the chaos that has left 354 dead and billions in damages, the local government has issued an urgent appeal not to pass on or publish completely unverified memos and chilling audio notes. “I appeal to the public to please help us stop the spread of fake news regarding false reports of public violence,” begged the Mayor of Cape Town. “Sharing outdated videos and unverified reports has the potential to leave communities vulnerable.”

Two weeks before that, another wave of alarm went off in Cape Town. Rumors have been circulating on social media that the city will soon be hit by a terrifying tornado, causing devastating damage and flooding. People were urged to leave the city if possible. The city’s disaster operations center was flooded with panicked calls. Throughout the day, radio stations broadcast denials, urging people not to pass on this false alert. However, facts are rarely able to stop rumors once they spread.

Coups never were

In 1998, General George Mering handed President Nelson Mandela a top-secret report. Meering was appointed army chief by Mandela as a continuity gesture. The report detailed a planned coup, with the assassination of Mandela, the killing of judges and the suspension of Parliament. Impressively, this was not a plot by the far-right, but allegedly orchestrated by Mandela’s allies.

During apartheid, a prominent American professor described South Africa as the “Republic of Rumors”. (photo: iStock)

Indeed, “The Meringue Report” reads as if a bunch of drunken horns in a tavern are mumbling the names of all those they don’t like. Among the conspirators were Winnie Mandela, Bantu Holomisa, Robert MacBride, and Merenge’s successor, Lieutenant-General Siphiwe Nyanda.

Read more at The Daily Maverick: A flimsy web of speculation and fabrications about who killed Chris Hani

Traditional Afrikaans musical tastes also seem to have influenced the report, as Michael Jackson has been named as a possible financier of this revolutionary plot. Even the name assigned to the supposed insurgency was semi-literate: the African People’s Liberation Army Front.

Mandela accepted the report calmly, and then appointed the Chief Justice to conduct an investigation. That strange bird was quickly dismissed as “without substance”, enabling Mandela to get rid of the apartheid-era general.

After that, the plots multiplied. Fake “intelligence” reports appeared, smearing political opponents. This was inheriting an excess of spies. In 1994 there were a staggering 16,650 intelligence agents in South Africa, drawn from opposition networks: several apartheid agencies, all bantustans, as well as returning ANC intelligence personnel.

After thunder and lightning, the dead would reappear, with new cattle, new corn, and all the white settlers to be driven out to sea.

By 1995, the number of official spies had dropped to 6,500. But that left 10,000 former spooks forced to find other ways for their slippery talents. Some, including former apartheid spies, have set up private security companies to sell their wares. Others have turned freelance, pitching shady secrets to the highest bidder. It was a recipe for an uncontrolled flow of whispers and intrigues.

conspiratorial mentality

This catalog of bogus “intelligence reports” was blunt, cut-and-paste jobs, almost comic book in its absurdity. This was intended to damage political opponents within the ANC. A “mole surfing” report, leaked in 2007, alleged that Angolan intelligence planned to fund the expelled Vice President Jacob Zuma to ensure his return.

In 2012, when Zuma was president, a Ground Coverage report alleged that three senior ANC leaders were plotting Zuma’s ouster. Two years later, the “Spider’s Web” dossier alleged that our treasury was controlled by apartheid-era agents to ensure white capital had control over South African finances. The purpose of such ridiculous smears was to create discord. You can’t make these things up. But someone does.

The most tragic plot of all, with disastrous consequences for South Africa, was the Great Xhosa cattle killing (1856-1857): a desperate millennial response to the relentless colonial incursion into Xhosa lands. In April 1856, 15-year-old Nongqawuse claimed that two of her ancestors had appeared to her at the mouth of the Gxarha River and announced that the dead would appear, the infidels defeated. First, the Xhosa must kill their livestock and destroy their crops.

Nongqawuse’s prophecy was supported by her uncle, a disillusioned “man of the gospel” as well as the supreme commander Sarhili. On the exact day in 1857, a prophecy vowed that a blood-red sun would rise and turn black at midday, plunging the earth into darkness. After thunder and lightning, the dead would reappear, with new cattle, new corn, and all the white settlers to be driven out to sea.

The prophecy divided the believers from the unbelievers. The believers slaughtered their livestock and burned corn. But the expected day dawned normally with sunrise and no storms. It was devastating. Up to 50,000 starved to death. Thousands of refugees crossed into the Cape Colony to find work.

The killing of the cattle caused panic among the white settlers. There was a fanciful rumor that some chiefs encouraged slaughter so that their warriors, facing starvation, would have nothing to lose by conquering the head. On the other hand, the Xhosa blamed Sir George Grey.

The mistrust and assumptions of bad faith behind the explosion of conspiracy theories have a long history in Africa. (Photo:

in The dead will riseHistorian Geoff Peiris asserted in 1989 that “nearly all of today’s Zusa” held Governor Sir George Gray personally responsible for killing the cattle, and that the ghosts Nongkaus saw were either agents of the governor or Gray himself, lurking in the mist behind the bush. Gray certainly did nothing to quell the disaster.

Peiris writes: “After the cattle-killing was over, Gray did his best to turn human tragedy into political and economic profit for the Cape Colony.

No wonder doubts persist.

In South Africa, we respond a lot like the two psychiatrists passing down the aisle. “Hello,” said one, and the other went worried, “What did he mean by that?”

As of now, there is no antidote to countering the bizarre intrigues on social media. However, there is a useful expression in Italian to explain the conspiratorial mentality: Conspiracy. from behind“behind”, Conspiracy He is usually looking for secret motives that are hidden by clear explanations; As in: “What’s really behind this?”

This was summed up by the slogan attributed to the dissident British journalist Claude Cockburn: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied.”

With our current political style, this is good advice. DM

Brian Rostron has worked as a journalist in Italy, New York, London and South Africa, writing for a magazine Labor Day, The Daily Maverick, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Spectator, And private eye. He was the South African correspondent for a newspaper New country state He is the author of six books, including Robert McBride: The Conflict Continues, Ranter’s Guide to South Africa And the novel black petals. for him The latest book is a diary, Lost on the Map.


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