African leaders are masters at ‘post-truth’ politics

“Post-truth” politics may have recently trended, but since independence from colonialism African leaders have been the most adroit exponents of manipulating the truth, distorting facts and fashioning alternative realities to cover-up their failures, to enrich themselves and stay in power.In fact, African post-independence leaders have been masters in an appeal to popular emotions, perceptions and myths to drum up continued mass support.

President Jacob Zuma has for long been one of the masters of the “post-truth” politics genre, appealing to emotions, historical beliefs and perceptions of supporters, rather than on facts.

The Economist magazine described “post-truth” politics as a “reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact. The term “post-truth politics” were originally formulated by David Roberts in 2010.

African post-independence governments and leaders either wholly distort the truth and facts, use partial truths and facts or manipulate historical beliefs, fears and perceptions of their citizens.

Often indigenous communities of former African colonies share a set of pre-existing beliefs, experiences and perceptions about former colonial powers, former settler communities and institutions. Such assumptions may be factual, part-factual or wholly unfounded.

Many African leaders deliberately hide their corruption, failures and self-enrichment, by lying, distorting and manipulating these widely beliefs, experiences and sentiments – blaming all their own self-inflicted wrongdoing on the machinations of these old enemies – which is perfectly believable from the perspective of the former colonised communities.

Many African leaders have used the bogey of former colonial powers supposedly coming back to colonise their countries and wanting to destabilise their countries as the sole reason for their own lack of performance, mismanagement and corruption. These include the belief that former colonial powers will try to control the former colonies – whether their resources, stunting their development or undermining their leaders – in new disguised ways. This is of course only part true.

African leaders spice their rhetoric with just enough truth to hoodwink the gullible, the naïve and the uninformed. They would say things which may not be factually true, but which “feels to a great many people like it ought to be true” or at least more comforting. They emphasise existing prejudices, feelings and beliefs.

For example, last week speaking at the ANC Youth League’s event in Durban Zuma said “the economic was constructed on a racial basis”, and “we sought deracialize the economy”. This is of course true. However, Zuma did not in the same breath how he has deracialise the economy only for a small black elite, including his family, allies and friends.

In the same week, Zuma claimed that rating agencies were part of the “arsenal” of Western powers to “smash” the economies of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries. Zuma claimed that former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was removed by rating agencies.

Zuma then alleged that the motions of no-confidence in him initiated by South Africa’s opposition parties were somehow manufactured by Western powers and global rating agencies. “Here in South Africa, we’ve been to Parliament seven times with a vote of no confidence,” said Zuma.

Of course, there is some truth in the fact that global rating agencies are often unfairly prejudiced towards African and developing countries. However, to say claim they are willfully plotting to overthrow a BRICS or African government is manipulating the truth.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, for example, blames former colonial power Britain for his and his party’s governing failures. Off course, Britain has some blame for its terrible colonial legacy. However, corruption, mismanagement and poor public service delivery by Mugabe and the Zanu-PF government cannot be blamed on Britain.

President Zuma blames the failure of “radical economic transformation” on the machinations of the “markets”, “white monopoly capital” and Western “imperialists”. At the same time, Zuma is enriching his family, and allies, such as the Gupta family, using state resources.

There is a populism attached to distorting the truth: leaders will say anything to stay in power. They feel no moral compunction because they tell themselves they are telling the “truth” – even because it is partially true, exaggerated or based on false beliefs.

African leaders and governments create alternative realities – based on the distorted truth and fact – to undermine the judgement of citizens. The supporters having no access to more objective facts easily fall for the truth according to the leader.

African leaders have pursued “post-truth” politics successfully because most often, African leaders and ruling parties manipulated the flow of information through the fact that in most post-independence African countries the media were state-owned.

African ruling parties and leaders therefore through control of state-owned television, radio and print media could disseminate their false truths or withholding alternative information and facts that will give citizens the true state of their incompetence, misrule and corruption.

The populations of most African countries are illiterate, rural and poor. Furthermore, African ruling parties and leaders often control other “trusted” non-government sources of information, for African citizens, such as traditional leaders, by coopting them through patronage.

African liberation and independence movements with that are well institutionalised, with branches, affiliates and members across most of the country, also effectively used these structures to spread partial truths and distorted facts, fostering unreal realities.

Post-independence African leaders also used false truth character assassination of opponents as a powerful tool for suppression.

In some African countries, where power is concentrated in the hands of one ethnic community, region or religion, leaders also manipulate the truth to reinforce their own rule.

In highly polarised countries, where different ethnic, race or religious groups are in conflict, leaders distorting the truth and creating alternative realities for their own community is potentially quite effective, because their own community often want to hear what they feel is right, and often automatically disbelief messages from ‘opposing’ groups.

Because democratic institutions in many African countries are weak, citizens cannot seek remedies for the distortion of the truth. Judiciaries are often controlled by the governing party. Independent watchdogs are captured.

African civil society, academia, media and opposition parties must counter the “post-truth” narratives of African leaders and governments.

Independent media – which could be a counter to partial and distorted truths and alternative reality-making, are often tiny or non-existent in many African countries. They are often constrained by leaders and ruling parties restricting media licences, withholding state advertising and sabotaging independent media organisations and journalists.

The rise of the mobile phone-based Internet, social media and SMS has opened up new ways to produce and distribute independent information to mass audiences in Africa, normally accessed only through government media. Although the populist leaders and ruling parties could use them to distribute partial and distorted facts, and alternative realities, they can also be used cheaply to provide counter-responses to this.

*This article was published in African Independent. To view the article on their website click here.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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