Pravin Gordhan: Highlighted various kinds of misdirection. Picture: Sunday Times/Alon Skuy
Pravin Gordhan: Highlighted various kinds of misdirection. Picture: Sunday Times/Alon Skuy

The greatest exponents of misdirection are magicians; think of bodies being sawn in half then miraculously reappearing in whole form.

Modern politicians are catching up fast, yet in SA misdirection is arguably losing its effectiveness.

Minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan complained at the state capture inquiry this week about various kinds of misdirection over the years. Outside the Tiso Blackstar Group headquarters where the inquiry is being held, the EFF held a protest accusing Gordhan of being not the antidote to state capture but, in fact, its enabler.

The claim contains elements of the kind of misdirection magicians use all the time. It is sometimes defined "as the intentional deflection of attention for the purpose of disguise". The essence of misdirection depends on directing perception and controlling attention. This is why magicians often wear white gloves; all the better for grabbing your attention while the helper sneaks behind the curtain.

Another aspect of misdirection is a sense of drama and moment, which is why sawing people in half is such a stock trick for illusionists. In politics, the same dynamics apply, hence the outrageousness of the EFF’s claim. A less drama-filled narrative would fail to gain attention-grabbing momentum. Hence also the feverishness and hysteria of the claims — all the better for the creation of a diversion. The EFF claims Gordhan has created a "reign of terror" at state-owned institutions, guillotining honourable people who, by diverting cash to their friends, were just doing their jobs.

The EFF is not alone in the politics of misdirection. In the US midterm elections, President Donald Trump conjured up the notion of an invading caravan of dastardly immigrants slinking up through Mexico. Like all good propaganda, there was an element of truth in it — a migrant caravan, consisting of about 5,000 people, was heading for the Mexico-US border. Trump sent 5,800 soldiers to meet them. It was mostly electoral gamesmanship, but at least the caravan did exist.

The evidence for the EFF’s claim is so speculative and irrational that there is an argument that the attempt is politically damaging. In attacking "an Indian", the EFF could find itself identified with that other Indian family of grand local renown.