David Gemmell: Lie, the Beloved Country – Joost’s biographer swings at a national cancer

Dave GemmellDave Gemmell (right) is one of those delightful Mooi River characters it was my privilege to meet during our semi-sabbatical farming in the Midlands. A freelance journalist he is a wonderful raconteur with a pen that takes no prisoners as you will read in this contribution below. Gemmell wonders what gives when even a respected talk show host suggests it’s OK to lie. Knowing John Robbie, it’s likely he meant something other than the way it came out – that can happen when you’re live on air three hours a day. But the deeper focus of this piece is exposing a cancer that has taken grip of South Africa. Lying, he laments, is becoming an acceptable way of getting what you want. That’s the real worry. – AH

By David Gemmell*

In recent weeks, the plethora of news articles about people claiming to have degrees they don’t have; the constant appointing of crooks into senior positions by our cabinet ministers; the idea purportedly from Jacob Zuma that ‘…corruption is a western thing’; and the never ending list of politicians caught red-handed telling porkies (pork pies = lies) makes me wonder if lying is not perhaps our national sport?

If the unravelling of various businessmen’s spurious credentials and massive collusion in the construction industry are anything to go by, lying is no longer the preserve of politicians. We even had the intelligentsia in the form of respected academics like Steven Friedman tying themselves up in knots defending Pallo Jordan’s mendacity concerning his phantom doctorate. Friedman’s patronising, disingenuous explanation would just be disappointing if it wasn’t so ethically shallow.

Just a few days ago, speaking on the John Robbie show, acting South African Airways CEO, Nico Bezuidenhout, claimed he had never said he had degrees and that, quite frankly, he was astonished at the maliciousness of the investigation into his qualifications. You mean he never noticed the qualifications behind his name and thought to correct them, in TWO annual reports?

But never mind Nico your host, John Robbie is not averse to a bit of deceit it seems. Possibly not his exact words, but recently he said, ‘If I had to lie about where I lived to get my child into a better school, I would. When it comes to your kid’s education you have to do everything you can…’ This he stated on air. So it’s not the lying – it’s the motive? By logical extension John therefore believes if your motive is acceptable; lying is acceptable. Really??? So lying about your qualifications because you want to earn more money so you can send your kids to a good school is ok then? Bizarre.

What about the speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete? A while back, as a very busy mysterious recipient of BEE funds (that is another story…) she didn’t have time to stand in queues; so she ‘bought’ her driver’s licence. That she is still employed in the ANC is proof dishonesty is not a criterion for getting bulleted by them; given the number of politicians with dubious backgrounds, it would appear it is a requirement to hold office. Akin to the Englishman checking into Australia; when asked if he had a criminal record he replied, “Sorry old chap, I didn’t know you still needed one.”

What about the unctuous, odious Mac Maharaj, the president’s spokesman? If you simplify his double-speak and obfuscation, what he does for a living is, twists the truth. I’m hesitant to start on his boss as I’ll run out of space. (This is all reminiscent of the joke that goes – how do you know he is lying? His lips move.)

And, what of JZ’s predecessor the dwarf intellectual, Thabo Mbeki? If his AIDS denialism hasn’t condemned him to be in history’s gallery of mass killers; his refusal to release the Khampepe report and his maintaining the 2002 Zimbabwe elections were free and fair – despite being fully aware of the report’s contents – a massive lie by omission, should hopefully be sufficient to nudge him in.

I don’t think many comedy writers could have come up with a script as surreal as the on-going saga of who-has-what qualifications at the SABC. Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who is self-admittedly (after being found out) unqualified – subsequent to the public protector recommending he should be dismissed had his appointment confirmed by SABC chairperson, Ellen Tshabalala who it transpires, has misrepresented her qualifications.

In Ellen’s case, I would love to know if she has ever heard the maxim: ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’.

The qualifications issue is not that complicated. You either have them or you don’t. There is no interpretation involved. UNISA has publically confirmed Tshabalala does not have a BCom degree or post graduate diploma. (Intriguingly, she only got 13% for her Human Resources module, (News24)). She also claimed her degrees had been stolen in a burglary. Non-existent degrees can’t be stolen; lie. So how does she think this is going to pan out? You don’t need a degree to guess – in tears.

Then you get cabinet ministers who seem to delight in issuing statements correcting their previous statements. The debacle around the recent appointment of a crook as CEO of PetroSA is a case in point. The remarkably talentless, but redoubtable Joemat-Pettersson, at first claimed she had had no hand in this appointment. When proof emerged she did, curiously, her story changed.

Sadly the list of public figures that lie or think it is ok to in certain circumstances is endless. Even villains do it. Just a few days ago we had the Czech mobster, Radovan Krejcir, releasing a statement to the press professing the charges against him are all a big mistake and have been made up. ‘They are holding me hostage to their conspiracy theories.’ He seems to have overlooked he is wanted in his home country and entered South Africa illegally.

There is currently a fascinating documentary out called, ‘204: Getting away with Murder’, about the Kebble killing. Superbly well-made and produced by Warren Batchelor, it is a chilling account of Brett Kebble’s supposedly assisted suicide. But the number of conflicting stories from people like Glen Agliotti and numerous others, made me feel I needed a shower when I left the theatre. If anyone in the movie told the truth; he didn’t stand a chance of being heard against the deluge of lies.

A list of disgraced politicians and businessmen in this country from the last twenty years would fill a book, never mind this article. However, in no particular order, these names might be familiar for all the wrong reasons and this is not exhaustive by any means: Tony Yengeni; Dina Pule; Jackie Selebi; Bernie Tannebaum; Jeff Levenstein; Peter Gardener; Rodney Mitchell; Pansy Tlakula; Manto Tshabalala-Msimang; Menzi Simelane: Joe Modise; Carl Niehaus and, before I throw up, let me end with that paragon of deception, the erstwhile President of Athletics South Africa, Leonard Chuene. He admitted to lying about tests done on Caster Semenya. He did it to protect her privacy and therefore it was ok to be dishonest.

It seems he and John Robbie subscribe to the same theory – if the motive is good – then it is ok to lie. The rest of the dissemblers just seem to do it because they can and not enough is done to catch or stop them. Ah, cry the beloved country.

* David Gemmell wrote the bestseller, Joost:The Man in the Mirror and recently completed Colour Blind Faith, a biography of Father Stan Brennan, the priest who buried Chris Hani. Among other publications he has written for The Star, FM, Business Day, The Weekender, SAWUBONA, Daily Maverick and numerous magazines. In a previous life he was a project manager before quietly morphing into a full-time writer.

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