Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

One of the most dangerous shifts in recent years is the impunity with which political leaders are able to divorce words from reality. From Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, there is a cavalier sense of verbal immunity. They seem to feel little requirement to base their statements on truth or evidence, but consider themselves free to utter any fib or slur that serves their immediate purpose.

Politicians have always lied. But in democracies they mostly tried to skate round the truth, whereas dictators didn’t have to bother with such niceties. Nowadays some of the most powerful leaders in the Western world barely trouble to make such distinctions either. The reason they can get away with wild untruths is that their supporters mostly don’t seem to care — just so long as their prejudices are pandered to or reconfirmed.

This indifference to facts mirrors the corrupted conditions, identified by Hannah Arendt nearly 70 years ago, that can render societies ripe for dictatorship.

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist,” she states in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (the standard of thought) no longer exist”.

Zuma, under pressure, blithely accuses critics of being “spies”, without making any attempt to produce evidence: a tactic long employed by his former protégé, Malema. Indeed, in the court case against the EFF leader over hate speech, his lawyer even argued that Malema’s words should not be taken literally.

The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes
Mark Lilla , author

As with Derek Hanekom’s defamation suit against Zuma for labelling him “an enemy agent”, judicial rulings will have little affect if Zuma and Malema are not deemed culpable by the court of public opinion. In both cases their supporters will probably never be swayed by the evidence, or the lack of it, but will continue to imagine that dark, unexplained conspiracies and enemy agents are responsible for all their tribulations.

The rapid spread of populism is often ascribed to a lack of discernment or fact-checking on social media, where feelings regularly trump facts. But it is also the outcome of the rise of identity politics. Organising more by differences (gender, ethnicity, sexuality) than by commonalities has fragmented the Left, while simultaneously in the West propelling greater numbers — including the disenchanted white working and middle classes — towards the populist Right.

Perhaps the clearest theme that unites the trio of major global populists — Trump, Johnson and Vladimir Putin — is the claim of a betrayal by elites of a glorious past, allied to a promise to make their nations “great again”. All three, outlandishly, exemplify the elites of their respective countries (multimillionaire Trump, old Etonian Johnson and the ex-KGB officer Putin.)

“The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story,” wrote Mark Lilla in The Shipwrecked Mind, a lucid study of this rightward swing. “The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” He adds: “The militancy of his nostalgia is what makes the reactionary a distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one.”

In SA, our closest equivalent is AfriForum, fostering Afrikaner identity politics with increasing stridency. In court in August it defended the right to display the old SA flag. Whether the Equality Court was right to define “gratuitous displays” of the old flag as hate speech is quite separate from the disingenuous boast from AfriForum that it was “fighting for freedom”. Denying any love for the old flag, AfriForum asserted that seeing it would help us, “reflect on how far we have moved as a nation”.

Old flag

Now Ernst Roets, AfriForum’s head of policy, even claims: “The underlying issue here is the culture war waged by the ruling elite of this country,” contending that “the added bonus is totalitarianism” — eerily echoing exactly the kind of paranoia displayed by white supremacist in the US and Europe.

Flags are habitually the focus of intense nationalist fervour. So the old flag AfriForum is so keen to protect was not nearly nationalist enough for its precursors. In 1926 then interior minister DF Malan (later the first National Party prime minister) formally proposed a radically different flag, similar to the old Boer ensign, eliminating imperial symbols and the Union Jack. Such was the hostility provoked by this proposal that many feared the renewed animosity between English speakers and Afrikaner nationalists might even unravel the union itself, then barely 16 years old.

What was at stake was competing ideas about identity, but only differing versions of white identity. Prime minister Barry Hertzog denounced opponents of the suggested new design as unpatriotic. Die Volksblad prophesied that blood might have to be shed. Fights broke out at rival rallies. As tensions escalated, Hertzog and his opponent, Jan Smuts, realised that the dispute was splitting their own ranks. The two men met secretly and a compromise was agreed, with the Union Jack given the same size as the emblems of the two old Boer Republics in the centre of the new flag.

Ironically, the ANC had held a series of protest meetings to demand that the Union Jack be retained. Black opinion was entirely ignored, and when an opposition MP pointed this out in parliament a columnist for the newspaper Ons Vaderland asked sarcastically, “What notion have their k***** friends about a flag?”

Despite all the other huge political issues, which were to haunt SA for generations, Smuts claimed this bitter controversy was the biggest crisis the union had yet faced. That crisis, an absurd squabble over symbols on a flag, should remind us that symbols can arouse powerful emotions — resulting, back then, in an uneasy pact between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, to the total exclusion of the black majority.

More than 90 years later, despite AfriForum’s sophistry, it seems some whites find it impossible to move on. Such nostalgics, forever dreaming of a golden age that never was, were pithily described by Mark Lilla as being “time’s exile”.

Like Malema’s claim that his hateful words should not be taken literally and that to curb his violent rhetoric would curtail freedom of speech, AfriForum confuses freedom of speech with being authorised to offend and hurt. One is a black chauvinist, the others white “ethno-nationalists”. Each would take the country on different paths. Both, however, lead to perdition.

• Rostron is a journalist and author.