The Emperor’s New Clothes, By Hans Christian Andersen, is very nearly two hundred years old, and is still as fresh and relevant now as it was when it was written. But something very odd has happened. Its meaning has changed.
For most of its life, it was a parable about pride and the fear that adults have of standing out from one’s peers. As the emperor paraded naked down the street, no-one dared point out his nudity for fear of seeming stupid. In the end, it took a child to point out that the great man’s goolies were flapping merrily in the wind in front of the assembled masses, because children are innocent and pure and free from the social fears and insecurities that plague us adults.
Now it’s about how a skilled pair of tailors can make a set of clothes out of nothing more than words. We have discovered magic. Real magic. It’s called spin.
In 2003, the United States, the UK, Australia, and, bizarrely, 194 Poles invaded Iraq. They did so because Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction. Only he wasn’t. The invading forces searched high and low, and found nothing. It should have been a crushing blow to the Presidency of George W. Bush and the credibility of all involved in the invasion. But it wasn’t.
Within a few months, the whole embarrassment just disappeared. The reasons for the invasion simply changed. Retroactively. The invasion of Iraq turned out to be a war of liberation, freeing the Iraqi people from the clutches of a brutal dictator.
It was one of the most remarkable examples of spin that the world has ever seen. Subtle connections were made between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the attack on the World Trade Centre. The French, who had refused to take part in the invasion due to lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, were cast as villains, and had their fries taken away, and the good guys triumphed. Even more remarkably, a “significant minority” of Americans even now believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. A “significant minority” of Americans means millions of people.
If it sounds like I’m picking on the Americans, I’m not. Americans are no more pliable and credulous than the rest of us. They are simply the first people to televise one of their wars like a sporting event. The rest of us could tune in to CNN and watch the whole saga play out in real time. The truth is that spin is everywhere.
Corporations use it. Governments use it. Global baddies like the tobacco industry and the oil industry use it. And no wonder. It works. Put the right talking head up on a TV news show and he or she can change how the world thinks. Print something in a reputable newspaper or magazine and it becomes true. We don’t just pretend we can’t see the emperor’s goolies; we really can’t.
Spin isn’t propaganda. It isn’t slanty-eyed, sharp-toothed, yellow Japanese soldiers battling Superman for the forces of evil.
It isn’t glowering, murder-eyed Nazis molesting Lady Liberty.
It’s more subtle than that. It’s taking the facts and presenting them in the best possible light. It’s making subtle connections in the minds of an audience without stating them outright. It’s half-truths and misdirection. And it can furnish an emperor with a pretty natty pair of pants. It’s magic.
But it has its limits. I haven’t written much over the last months or so. The kids are at home for the holidays. I love them dearly, but they do not bring peace and calm to our happy home. As I sit here now, the four-year-old is loudly narrating her use of an antique head-board as a computer, while the nine-year-old has just brought all of our cushions outside to make a long pathway across our garden. I don’t blame him. Apparently the floor has turned to lava, and I would hate for him to get burned.
But I did make one or two exceptions. Our ruling party’s spin doctors, you see, have jumped the shark. (Should that expression be new to you, google it; it’s a good one). They have set aside the half-truths and misdirection and resorted to high comedy instead.
Our President, you see, is building himself a house. A private house, not an official government residence. It’s in the middle of nowhere, a sparsely populated backwater in the middle of nowhere’ at a place called Nkandla. He is, of course, a rather important person, and as such, he is entitled to a bit of security at the taxpayers’ expense.
And he’s got some. The ministerial handbook said he was entitled to 100 000 Rands worth. He got a little more. More than two hundred million Rands worth. That’s nearly 19 million Dollars, or 14 million Euros. Which is quite a lot, in a country filled with hungry, unemployed people living in tin shacks. It’s caused a bit of a stir.
And so the President’s spin doctors have gone to work. These are, by the way, some pretty well-seasoned spin doctors. Over the last few years, a man has gone to jail for having a corrupt relationship with our esteemed President. A close personal friend of his from India used one of our most secure military airbases as a private airport to fly in guests for his daughter’s wedding. His extended family have grown appallingly rich under his Presidency. Oh, and he fought off a rape charge after having sex with a trusted comrade’s HIV positive daughter in his home, and then having a shower to prevent himself from being infected with AIDS. These guys work hard for their money.
But they’ve blown it. They have gone too far and the emperor’s goolies are starting to show. We have an institution here called the Public Protector. She (it’s a very formidable she) is a constitutionally appointed official whose job it is to investigate any shenanigans that might be harmful to the great South African public. And she’s about to release a report on the President’s house at Nkandla.
This is a little worrying for the powers that be. But they have not been idle. They’ve released a report of their own. It’s a masterpiece; one of the greatest comic turns of our recent history. The President’s security, you see, has included rather a lot of interesting extras.
After the report was released, I wrote this and posted it on a local news site. I’ll put in the odd little explanation in italics, to explain things that might be unfamiliar.
It’s a little old now, in terms of news, but here it is;
“Nkandla. The truth at last.
Today, I am ashamed. We should all be ashamed. We are a nation of moaners, always ready to criticise and to complain. We occasionally do so without even bothering to find out the facts. And sometimes, just sometimes, when those facts emerge, they act as a mirror, exposing us to ourselves for what we are.
The government report on Nkandla was released yesterday. And it has done just that. It has exposed us for what we are; whiners. Or worse; uninformed whiners. Whiners who don’t let simple matters like the facts stand in the way of a good groan about our government. Corruption? Ha! The expenditure on Nkandla turns out to be perfectly reasonable.
I read a report on News24 this morning listing ten explanations for the security upgrades at Nkandla, and now I feel like the worst sort of running-dog capitalist counter-revolutionary. Was too much spent on Zuma’s (the president’s) security? Hell, no! I don’t think we’ve spent enough.
1. The fire pool.
One of the security “upgrades” that we taxpayers bought for the president was a swimming pool. The spin doctors explained it away as a reservoir to keep water on hand in case of fire.
There is no swimming pool at Nkandla. There is a high-tech conflagration-management device. According to National Police Commissioner Riah Piyega, people who grew up in rural areas aren’t smart enough to use fire extinguishers; “the best we know”, she said, apparently referring to those responsible for the safety of our President, “is to take a bucket, dip it in water and throw it on the fire”.
This explains why the original plan, for a row of Jojo water-tanks to be elevated on platforms at the highest point in the complex, to provide water at pressure, was scrapped; it would have taken far too long to climb up to the top of the tanks to dip the buckets in.
Reports of a cocktail bar having been installed in the fire pool area have also been dismissed as a scandalous lie. There is, of course, an assembly point for residents in case of emergency. It is well-laid-out, a safe distance from any buildings, and serves a mean pina-colada, although their G&T’s are reported to be a little heavy on the gin.
We also paid for all of the dirt roads at the President’s country seat to be paved. The spin doctor prefaced the explanation for this by announcing that Nkandla was not a suitable place for wearing high heels
General Vijay Ramlakan is a very smart man. He’s a retired Surgeon General, and knows better than to wear high heels at Nkandla. Especially when it rains. This is why the roads needed to be paved.
I’m being a little disingenuous here. The real reason for the paving of the roads is that the security force detailed with guarding the life of our leader cannot drive on dirt roads. We simply do not have access to the sophisticated technology required. And besides, it would just be an added expense to replace Nkandla’s fleet of security Lamborghinis with bakkies (Trucks. Utes. Pickups.) We’re not made of money.
On an unrelated note, General Vijay Ramlakan now looks absolutely fabulous when he pops in on the President.
3. The chicken run.
The President’s chicken coops were moved at great expense. Yes, the President has chicken coops.
Those in charge of the safety of a president cannot leave any bases uncovered. “What if”, they said to themselves, “someone breached the electric fence, dashed past the security Lambo’s, and spent a few hours lurking unseen in the President’s chicken coop?”
Sound far-fetched? Maybe not. There are unconfirmed rumours doing the rounds that just the other day, a dangerous schizophrenic cunningly snuck through the highly sophisticated security cordon surrounding the President by walking through it and saying “hi”, and spent a few hours within a few feet of him, waving his arms around like a coked-up break-dancer being attacked by a swarm of bees.
By now the whole world knows that the Mandela memorial service was presided over by a fake sign language interpreter. What you might not know was that he was a diagnosed schizophrenic who had narrowly escaped being tried for burning a man to death in a vigilante killing, on the grounds that he was unfit to stand trial. Yup. That’s the guy we let stand two steps away from Obama, waving his arms around at random.
4. The cattle kraal.
A cattle kraal is, traditionally, a ring of thorn bushes in which cattle were corralled at night to protect them from predators. These days they’re a bit more fancy. Or, if you’re the President, a lot more fancy. We built him a new one. For a million rand. For security reasons.
Do you know how stupid cattle are? How would we feel if one of the President’s prize Ngunis stumbled into the fire-pool area, causing hundreds of Rands of damage to the emergency assembly cocktail bar?
We’ll never know. Those hundreds of Rands have been saved for the nation’s poor. By spending a Million rand to move a patch of cleared earth surrounded by a fence. As an added bonus, the cows now have their own cocktail bar.
5. Air conditioning.
We installed a swish new aircon system for our leader. The spin doctors claimed that this was a part of the security upgrade because the bullet-proof windows we’d installed were hard to open.
Bullet proof windows are hard to open. This, according to General Vijay Ramlakan, is why the cost of air conditioning counts as a security measure.
Bullet proof doors are also really heavy, and opening them to go outside is really taxing. This is why the cost of the home cinema and indoor bowling alley count as security measures as well.
6. Astroturf soccer pitches.
Sharp eyed journalists noticed that one of the smart new features at Nkandla was a pair of Astroturf soccer pitches. It turned out we hadn’t paid for these. They were a gift from a non-governmental organisation, because they think the President is a super guy.
Not a security measure. An NGO just felt that an isolated homestead in a thinly populated rural area was the ideal place to set up a FIFA World Cup legacy project. We’ll be laughing on the other side of our faces when half of the 2018 World Cup squad turn out to be neighbours of the President.
7. Relocation of neighbouring families.
Part of the cost of the security upgrade included the cost of moving the homes of some of Zuma’s neighbours.
Some insensitive swine asked, in light of all the security issues surrounding Nkandla, why the Presidential homestead was not simply moved to somewhere safer. This, as Riah Piyega so rightly pointed out, was a “demanding, if not arrogant question”.
When did we suddenly forget about basic human rights? “When you choose what is your home and you knew that home forever and ever and a day”, the good Ms Piyega added, “[that is an] insensitive question, every person has a right to choose where they should live,”
It was thus imperative that several of Zuma’s neighbours had to be moved. You may think that you have spotted a little irony in this statement, but you are wrong. These were simply not the sort of “persons” that Piyega was talking about. They were just a bunch of inconvenient peasants who happened to be in the way, and everybody knows that peasants don’t have the same rights as proper “persons” like our President.
8. Tuck shop.
At some point you’re going to stop believing me, but I kid you not. The President had a tuck-shop on his property; a little store from which one of his wives sold sweets and cool drinks and basic household necessities to their neighbours. This turned out to be in the wrong place. But fear not; we moved it for her. Nobody has seen the new one, since the President’s tuck shop is a matter of national security, but I’m guessing it’s a little nicer than the old one…
The tuck shop was in the wrong place. Simple. It had to be moved. The idea of the President of one of Africa’s richest and most developed countries being expected to struggle on without a tuck shop is simply inconceivable.
Presidents the world over use public money to run small businesses in their homes, and nobody says a word. Obama himself has set up a small hair salon and spa in an unused wing of the White House, and you don’t hear the Yanks complaining. Why should Zumba be any different?
9. The amphitheatre.
We built our President an amphitheatre. For security reasons. Or so we thought. It turned out to be a retaining wall. For security reasons. The fact that it looks rather a lot like an amphitheatre is pure coincidence; it’s a well-known fact that unstable ground in South Africa tends to be semi-circular and stepped.
There is no amphitheatre at Nkandla. There is merely, as pointed out by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, a semi-circular, stepped concrete structure designed for “ground protection”. It is unclear whether the ground of the President needs to be protected, or the President needs protection from the earth itself.
It was probably the latter. We all remember the nasty incident four years ago when three members of Zuma’s family were injured by a minor landslide during their production of Les Miserables.
Never again. The Zumba brood can happily stage this year’s dramatization of Far From the Madding Crowd untroubled by the fear of sudden shifts in the structure of the ground beneath their feet.
10. Three attacks at Zumba homestead
This was classic spin. We were told about three attacks on the President’s homestead. We weren’t given any details though. I’m kind of guessing that they didn’t happen last week.
There have been three attacks at the Zumba homestead. Oh dear. Somebody should consider putting in some security measures. Maybe they should get a dog.
So that was that then. I thought we had been subjected to the most blatant little piece of government spin doctoring the world had ever seen. I was wrong.
Just a few days later, a man called Irvin Jim, leader of one of our strongest trade unions, announced that his union would not officially be backing the ANC, our ruling party, in next year’s elections.
This sort of backsliding could not go unchallenged. Mzwandile Masina, national convenor of the ANC Youth League, our leading party’s junior arm, stood up at a press conference and announced; “Look, you see, our view is very clear. Irvin Jim must fuck off if need be, as a person…”
Or did he? Of course not. That would be rude. Nope. As pointed out by a haggard looking spin doctor the next day, what the good Mr Masina had actually said was that Mr Jim should “fork off”. You know; as in “What comrade Masina said means Jim must ‘go a separate way; leave’. It is not vulgar language or a swear word.”
The emperor’s goolies aren’t just showing. He’s painted a bright red, downward pointing arrow on his chest and is doing a pole-dancing routine on the nearest lamp post.
Oh, well. On the bright side, there’s an election on next year, and if this is the quality of the entertainment in store for us, I’m genuinely looking forward to it.
Anyway, it’s time for me to fork off. Happy New Year.