Teaching South Africans to think critically; the false news flood

If ever there was a time to apply critical thinking to the flood of false news that washes over us daily, be it Donald Trump’s insanely false assertions or the Zuptoid racism-stoking, evil white monopoly capitalism discourse, it is now. Especially when it/they seem to confirm your beliefs. In this telling opinion piece, management consultant Graham Sell, unerring and repeatedly, hits the target on what ails our South African society. Wait – perhaps I say that because his erudite analysis shores up my existing beliefs. Think! OK. So, are Sell’s assertions demonstrably true? Yes, actually, on virtually every single point. Apply the same test to Trump and Zuma and his Zuptoids’ assertions and again; they are demonstrably false. Just go on YouTube and view some of Trump’s outrageous claims and then watch the TV network commentator’s responses. My favourite one is CNN anchor’s; “what does it mean when he says words”? We should examine everything that comes out of politician’s mouths with great care and caution, especially those in power here who seem to literally get away with murder (witness the over 100 dead mentally ill Gauteng patients, or Jacob Zuma’s assertion that former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela gave him no chance to respond to her State Capture report). As fond as the media is of tearing into Msholozi, he’s ‘merely’ (and cynically) taking advantage of a deeply Constitutionally-flawed system where elected politicians are accountable to all-powerful party chiefs and not constituencies. (They pay lip service to “constituencies” only at election time). Who would have thought those of us who scribbled furiously in the mid-90’s about the dangers of the ANC achieving a two thirds majority to change the Constitution, would now shout loudest that that is exactly what needs doing when it comes to the proportional representation system? – Chris Bateman

By Graham Sell*

Graham Sell

We are living in a surreal post truth era, where alternative facts (lies) and fake news reports (more lies) proliferate; an era dominated by fake politicians making fake promises to voters living in fake democracies, and we are falling for it over and over again.

Social media platforms in particular demonstrate how gullible we are, confirming Edward de Bono’s view that… “There’s a danger in the internet and social media. The notion that information is enough, that more and more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information (is) very dangerous”.

The key observation here being “you don’t have to think”, and it only takes a quick glance at any of the on-line social media platforms to realise that, worldwide, this already constitutes a clear and present danger.

That we can be selective about what we read and who we follow, coupled with a proven propensity to believe something is true simply because it fits what we want to believe, pushes us further into the unthinking danger zone of seeking only affirmation of our beliefs, while blithely ignoring contrasting viewpoints and contradictory evidence. A proverb that begins with the words “birds of a feather….” springs to mind, which also seems a particularly apt way to describe one of the more prominent social media platforms.

Unsurprisingly it is the world’s demagogues, past masters at exploiting weaknesses in the human condition, who are thriving in this environment.

“Leave” campaigners in the UK Brexit saga used a number of alternative facts including, for example, savings of £350m per week to be directed to the National Health Service, to carry out “the greatest fraud ever perpetrated in British politics”.

In the United States, Donald Trump is a living and breathing generator of random alternative facts and fake news, to such an extent that it prompted CNN reporter Zachary Wollf to rhetorically ask: “What does it mean when he says words?”. And if you can spare 30 minutes, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight dissection of Trumps problem with the truth sums up the very real danger of having a bullshit artist in charge of a nuclear arsenal.

US President Donald Trump

Here in South Africa we have also stopped thinking; and because we have stopped thinking we are being buried under a mountain of vitriolic alternative facts and fake news. Launched by the EFF’s post-truth land ownership crusade, and their alternative facts assault on so-called White Monopoly Capital, this predominantly anti-white rhetoric has now been hijacked by Jacob Zuma and his captured cohorts. They have learned quickly that their followers will unreservedly believe anything and everything they are told, so truth has become the main casualty of their ambition.

Their latest Radical Economic Transformation mantra is a minefield of alternative facts and fake news reports, all of which ignore the fundamental prerequisites for sustainable transformation, which are fiscal stability, and a first class education system. Pravin Gordhan is fighting tooth-and-nail for the first, but despite providing huge budgets for education the ANC government has failed spectacularly over the last 22+ years to properly educate, or to provide any alternative value-added skills to the majority of the black population.

They have, however, accommodated many of their undereducated and corrupt cadres in overpaid local, provincial, and national government positions – and we all know how that’s working out.

Forcing the same level of ignorance and incompetence on private enterprise will be disastrous for the economy. Education and skills development was, is, and always will be the key to sustainable transformation, and no amount of regulation will change that.

The real bottom line is that we are suffering from a politically induced societal sickness, and the promise of radical economic transformation is merely a placebo being fed to the poorest of the poor.

President Jacob Zuma

To relieve our present malaise, whether it involves mismanaged and bankrupt SOE’s, corrupt and incompetent provinces, mismanaged and corrupt government ministries, or Jacob Zuma’s single-handed “Rape of the Nation”, we have to stop trying to treat the multiple symptoms of this sickness individually.

There is an underlying and ultimate cause of all our ills, which is clear if you think through just two of the more obvious political issues shown below: (Clue: the answer is not Jacob Zuma, nor is it the ANC).

  1. How is it possible that Jacob Zuma can still be President after breaching his oath of office?
  2. How is it possible that this single individual also retains the power to frighten us with a threat to cabinet-shuffle the country into economic meltdown, while all we can do is stand by and watch?

If you are still not sure of the answer, then interrogate the ANC circus surrounding Brian Molefe’s appointment as a Member of Parliament, and see if that helps the penny to drop.

The answer is that the common source of all our political ills lies in a little book called “The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa”. Justifiably admired the world over for its human rights objectives it does, however, contain a single but singularly important legislative defect.

Our proportional representation electoral system makes a mockery of democracy as we have absolutely no say in the selection of individuals who are “deployed” to parliament. Our vote for a political party serves only to give that party absolute power over their “deployees”. In the case of Brian Molefe, factions within the ANC loyal to Jacob Zuma have manipulated the party list system so that yet another unsuitable candidate can be “deployed” to parliament – and there is seemingly nothing we can do about it.

We are reaping the sour fruits of a system that provides fertile ground for an unscrupulous politician who is a master at exploiting the politics of patronage. The Guptas could not capture the state without the head of state first capturing parliament. The legislative defect in our electoral system has made this ambition all too easy to accomplish, and again there is seemingly not a damn thing we can do about it.

Repeated successes in the courts, including the Constitutional Court, will not cure this systemic sickness. Such court judgments are like yellow cards in sport, except in this arena the demagogue can receive an infinite number of them without ever being “sent off”.

It is time for radical transformation of our electoral system to include constituent accountability as a predominant requirement. We must have direct influence over who represents us in Parliament, and perhaps even have a direct say in who should be our President.

It is also time to introduce meaningful sanctions against those who break their oath of office. There is absolutely no point in having such an oath if it can be broken with impunity.

While I have been vocal in my aversion to all forms of proportional representation, and remain very much in favour of a constituency accountability approach, after some serious rethinking I have come to the conclusion that what we need is a sensible combination of constituency and proportional representation. Not the 50/50 approach used for local government elections as all this does is double the number of pointless politicians, but a balance that favours constituency accountability without completely silencing the voices of a minority.

I was trained to hope for the best while planning for the worst, so at best we can hope that the DA ousts the ANC in 2019, and at worst we must plan for another Zuma to be in the driving seat. But no matter who is in control, we remain exposed to what can be called “the Zuma syndrome” until the system is changed, and we cannot afford to delay taking corrective action in the vague hope that alles sal reg kom.

The biggest challenge is to dispel a predominant belief that it is impossible to change the constitution, even if it is to effect what will essentially be a more democratic political dispensation; and the biggest tragedy will be if we don’t even try. We must move beyond bemoaning our predicament in the comments sections of various on-line publications, and become proactive in the movement for change.

If you are still among those who think it will be impossible, remember that it was our national hero, Nelson Mandela, who said “It always seems impossible until it is done”, and let this simple statement change your mindset. After all, to again quote Edward de Bono, “what is the point of having a mind if you can’t change it?

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