Populist pretensions: Former Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: Simphiwe Nkwali
Populist pretensions: Former Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: Simphiwe Nkwali

Some of our readers might remember an animated TV show called Pinky and the Brain. It featured two mice living in a test lab. Pinky is lovable but idiotic and Brain is an obsessed, scheming mastermind.

In each episode, if memory serves me, Pinky would say: "Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?" And Brain would answer: "The same thing we do every night, Pinky — try to take over the world!"

I often think of this exchange when I’m trying to decide what to write in this weekly column. Every week, I promise myself I’ll write about something positive, like, oh, I don’t know … the fact that Banyana Banyana just won a record seventh Cosafa women’s championship title.

But every week, one of our beloved politicians, or someone from our fools’ gallery of for-profit rabble-rousers, chooses, yet again, to say something that’s either stupid or a lie, and once again, I’m compelled to point out how dangerous their crude attempts at misinformation and propaganda are for our society.

This week’s entrant in the "make up shit for your own selfish ends" competition is Herman Mashaba, erstwhile mayor of Joburg, former member of the DA and staunch supporter of the death penalty. Oh, and also leader of ActionSA, the party whose slogan reflects its founder’s fervent desire for a nation-state that is controlled, rigidly defined and unquestioned, and which has the bludgeoning power of authoritarianism: "Act as One."

Recently, Mashaba made one of his usual appeals to xenophobia in a tweet of four points, whose strange numbering — 1, 2, 3, 2 — perfectly captured the circular reasoning of a politician appealing to populist prejudice.

"1) 15-million undocumented foreigners in SA, some occupying jobs that can be done by our own people; 2) Billions of dollars of counterfeit goods by undocumented foreigners into SA; 3) They have destroyed SMMEs in black communities; 2) It is against our laws to be illegal."

You won’t learn anything new about Mashaba’s xenophobia from this list, which includes his usual litany of complaints: that foreigners are stealing our jobs and destroying black-owned businesses, and that they are criminals who bring counterfeit goods into the country. Though the fact that it is against our laws to be illegal is a bit of a new spin, certainly.

Fanning the flames: Spaza shops belonging to Somalis are set alight in Philippi, in the Western Cape, after an outbreak of xenoophobic violence in 2010. Picture: Gallo Images/Lulama Zenzile
Fanning the flames: Spaza shops belonging to Somalis are set alight in Philippi, in the Western Cape, after an outbreak of xenoophobic violence in 2010. Picture: Gallo Images/Lulama Zenzile

But what is interesting is how he responded to being fact-checked about what the more charitable among us might consider a mistake, and the more cynical a blatant lie.

One of the first to call him out was University of Cape Town professor Nomboniso Gasa, who asked: "Please share the data from which you got these figures. Also, the collapse of township business is due to a number of factors and none of those are ‘undocumented foreigners’. You know all this."

Mashaba responded by pretending the data was everywhere. "Which data do you want? Just google the latest figures of undocumented foreign nationals in SA."

Awkwardly, someone took him at his word, and "literally the first link when you google it: ‘2015 estimate places the number of undocumented migrants between 1.2-million and 1.5-million undocumented migrants’".

Even more awkwardly, Gasa responded to Mashaba’s request that she "please help with factors that you believe are responsible for township businesses? I maintain that undocumented foreign nationals played a key role in their demise", with a closely reasoned 12 points.

But when a politician who is making up stuff to gain votes is confronted by facts, he just ignores it. Because facts don’t matter.

Writer, academic and seasoned fact-checker Nechama Brodie followed up and did the fact-checking that showed exactly how Mashaba went wrong — in the process exposing some shoddy editing at The Citizen newspaper.

"So, I did the work the journalist and politician should have done. I found the source of the ‘15-million unregistered people’ at the World Bank … the journalist conflated unregistered citizens with stateless people. They are not the same," she tweeted.

"The Citizen newspaper claim that SA has more than 15-million unregistered people basically refers to ‘legal residents who don’t have birth certs [certificates] or ID docs and is not connected at all to research into undocumented migrants."

Now, there is only one way to respond to both Gasa and Brodie, you’d think. Acknowledge that your data was wrong, apologise, and withdraw the xenophobic statement.

As Gasa said: "Numbers matter. That’s why you inflated those figures five times. You have been caught! So, the first thing you should do is retract that 15-million and post a correct figure. You owe us that much. ‘Us’, the people you are trying to sell your political platform [to]."

When a politician who is making up stuff to gain votes is confronted by facts, he ignores it. Because facts don’t matter

You’d think, but no.

Mashaba’s general response included: "It is ridiculous for us to be debating about numbers instead of the rule of law. I am not prepared to listen to anyone trying to divert our attention from the lived experiences of our poor people of my country."

And there you have it. In the world of populist politicians like Mashaba, whose only concern is getting votes, facts are an inconvenience. They get in the way of what he wants to believe and, more importantly, what he wants the struggling, suffering people that he’s taking advantage of to believe.

As filmmaker Richard Poplak put it: "Herman Mashaba is lying about the number of ‘undocumented foreigners’ in SA. That means he is lying about the nature of the problem, likely for two reasons: 1) Political gain; 2) He’s a genuine anti-black xenophobe. The man is dangerous. Be afraid."

The DA’s Phumzile van Damme was even blunter. "One day you will have blood on your hands," she wrote.

Mashaba, like many people desperate to see the story they’ve concocted become accepted truth, sees only the facts he wants to see. Perhaps he genuinely is a xenophobe, and therefore when he sees a lone source falsely and absurdly claiming there are "15-million undocumented foreigners in SA", he doesn’t stop to wonder if someone maybe would have noticed if one in four people in the country were here illegally. He just sees what he wants to see.

There was another example of this myopia last week, but a funny one — as opposed to one that could result in people being attacked by vigilantes.

One of SA’s bedraggled flock of contrarian broflakes, who has spent the past few months trying to convince his followers that the guvvermint is trying to take away all their libertehs, added "They’re stealing our air!" to the list, and tweeted from a plane he was catching.

"The airport has become absolute propaganda. Apparently, we’re in a war zone."

He then took a photo of the overhead lights in the plane, which are protected by a sheet of perspex, with the caption: "All the fans inside the plane are closed too. So now you can die from heatstroke."

There are literally switches with light icons next to the lights, so it’s hard to understand how anyone could make such a basic mistake.

As you’d expect, people responded with the sort of mirth you associate with a video of one of those anti-mask Trump idiots screaming about the American constitution in a Walmart.

What should we do tonight, Brain? The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to switch on the lights.

At least the broflake fanboy had the courtesy to admit to his error, though quite why he felt it necessary to do this via a fact-check on another flight, as opposed to just looking at his own photo, I leave to you to decide.

But Mashaba? His response to having his "facts" challenged was to become threatening, and to respond to Brodie by calling her citizenship into question.

"Why are some people so determined to get South Africans not to ask for our laws to be respected? This is very worrying. If you are a South African, are you happy to have one undocumented person in this country?"

It’s a classic move — one you can imagine being re-enacted violently in the street. Imply that someone is a foreigner, and then suggest that the test of South Africanness is whether they agree with Mashaba or not.

When a politician blatantly and unashamedly tells you that facts don’t matter — only what he wants you to believe does — you know we’re leaving the sanctuary of the democrat and entering the territory of the demagogue.

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