Wilde, Wilder, and Wilderer Things

by Fingal Wilde

I have always regarded myself as being pretty hot when it comes to satirical writing, but when I read the following piece from the Daily Maverick sometime in June 2023, penned by Richard Poplak, I realised that I had a long way to go to reach the summit of satire. I bow down to the master, and give my readers a classic piece of satire, laced with sardonic humour, and deserving of the triple title Wilde, Wilder, and Wilderer Things:

The Eleventh Baby — the unmaking of South African reality

Born again. And again. And again. In June 2021, a bad time for Earth by any measure, the beleaguered nation of South Africa received a bundle of joy. Ten bundles, actually. An “exclusive” story informed us that a woman named Gosiame Thamara Sithole had given birth to decuplets — the official term for twins times five, or triplets times three plus one, or quadruplets times two plus twins. They were dubbed the Tembisa Ten. The maths, to say nothing of the obstetrics, was mind-boggling. Ten babies are a lot to emerge from one person in one stirruping. But there was Sithole on the front page of the Pretoria News, presumably hours before giving birth(s), pictured in a pink dress concealing what would on later inspection resemble an overinflated yoga ball. Happy stories are not common in South Africa, and so the decuplets were greeted with a mixture of joy and wonder, but mostly with memes. As is the way of these things, the story went globally viral for about a third of a news cycle. But even for amateur South African media watchers, there were signs that this tale would not meet the smell test — and we’re not just talking about the diapers. For one thing, the news was broken by a veteran investigative journalist named Piet Rampedi. As far as truth is concerned, Rampedi has never had much use for the stuff in a professional context. He was one of the key misinformation pedlars in the Sunday Times “Rogue Unit” series, during which the paper helped launder the fiction that the South African Revenue Service harboured a secretive investigations unit tasked with hounding political enemies, former president Jacob Zuma’s cabal primary among them.

Rampedi was dismissed after the Sunday Times attempted a course correction following the scandal, and he whined about his mistreatment to all who would listen. Among those paying attention were the Gupta brothers, Zuma’s main mafia backers, and the bunch of ANC elite who, allegedly, funded a start-up Rampedi news outlet that no one — not even Rampedi, apparently — remembers. But South Africa is the land of the fabled Third Chance, and Rampedi’s skills as a bullshitter were summarily retained by Independent Media, a money-laundering scam owned by the Sauron of bullshitters, Dr Iqbal Survé. Independent — a misnomer, sadly — is just one of the many businesses festering inside a Sauron-family-owned Sekunjalo conglomerate that also ultimately controls the infamous AYO Technology Solutions. Independent’s the only business owned by Surve with an actual mandate — which is to spread mis- and disinformation on behalf of a shifting brace of factions within the ANC, all of whom hope to depose the current leadership. Just over five or so years ago, AYO received R4.3-billion from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), the ostensible manager for the custodian of hundreds of billions of Rands of retirement funds belonging to millions of South African government workers, through the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF). The PIC also has a mandate — to help grow the South African economy through judicious investment in local industry. Under former director Dan Matjila, the PIC became just another money funnel for connected shysters, and AYO was a major beneficiary. (Just recently, the PIC clawed back a small portion of the money it invested in Iqbal’s grift, but who’s kidding whom?)

In other words, the 10 babies were born into a contextual framework of extreme corruption and weaponised lying. The story was obviously a hoax, but Independent doubled down, insisting that the infants were whisked away by Nigerian doctors in league with the government, and then trafficked into slavery in some ghastly African dystopia. Independent’s videographers produced a documentary alleging as much, and even after an in-house investigation revealed the story’s deficiency of fact, Rampedi kept insisting he could hear the wails of the babies — far away in the Gold Coast or Zimbabwe or Zaire — where they were being subjected to the horrors of non-South African languages. It took more than 18 months, but Rampedi was recently released from his duties at The Pretoria News/Independent. We await his Fourth Chance as one does the fitting of a colostomy bag. (In the meantime, the hapless The Pretoria News itself was released from its very existence — after 125 years, the title met the end of its history. — Ed) But why lie about this particular story with such vigour? We tend to think of disinformation as hermeneutical, as open to endless interpretation. We also think of it as an airless, odourless technological expression of 21st-century warfare. In doing so, we fail to understand it as poetry — as a roar of rage from our collective subconscious. We are a species suffering through enormous change in a short space of time, which challenges our famous capacity for adaptation. Has the world ever moved at such speed? Unlikely.

Born not to a virgin but to a yoga ball, the 10 babies are thus the progeny of chaos, the Jesus Christs of manic dissolution. They are the realest things in a country that feels consistently unreal, a South Africa flailing and failing through the third decade of a democracy that has fulfilled almost none of its promise. And they were paid for by a government pension fund. It would be tempting to say that South African reality is bifurcated between those who believe that the Tembisa Ten are a hoax, and those who insist that they are real. But the 21st century is more complicated than that. There are as many realities as there are babies, and this becomes a political catastrophe in a system that depends on some form of consensus to function.

New Dwang

It shouldn’t be surprising that the bravest and most spectacular work of South African disinformation dropped during Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency. The Tembisa Ten perfectly articulate his administration: a series of seriocomic pratfalls so outlandish that they have shredded reality, cracked it into shards, revealing nothing beneath us but an abyss. Indeed, even for those who expected very little from Ramaphosa, his tenure has proved a staggering failure. Part of the mess can be attributed to circumstances out of his control. (A pandemic. Date My Family. High-waisted jeans.) Most of it, though, has been a self-generated combination of fecklessness, stupidity, indecision, negligence, inattention and magical thinking. The legacy issues he inherited — the corruption, mismanagement and murder that proliferates within the ANC — were problems that he himself assisted in deepening during his four-year deputy presidency. Although he can’t tie his own shoelaces without forming a committee or a commission of inquiry, Ramaphosa generates chaos wherever he goes. Sadly, he has victimised no one more than himself. Through the vector of the party he governs, he promised renewal, a New Dawn. The result? South Africans are so angry that they’re likely to burn down the National Assembly. Except that won’t be necessary. In January 2022, a homeless man entered the chamber, unhindered by security, and torched it. Whether a political act or an expression of insanity, the destruction of the seat of democracy by a lone arsonist is eerily symbolic of the country’s decline. Nothing is sacred, everything is propane. Within the ANC, little has changed except the number of factions vying for dwindling scraps, most of which have atomised in ways that are both dangerous and impossible to track. Under Zuma, there was one Don. Under Ramaphosa, there are dozens. Sadly, he isn’t one of them. The poor man just wants to retire to his farm and feed his high-end pets, but his handlers won’t let him. If they do, then the ANC stands less than no chance in the 2024 election cycle — despite his manic unpopularity within his own party, he’s the only politician in the ruling party palatable to mainstream South African voters.

He does not have much to work with. All of the poisoned seeds sown during the nine lost years have borne their misshapen fruit. Eskom has been destroyed, and it cannot be fixed. Not a single state-owned enterprise runs with any efficiency. Johannesburg’s kept getting mayors that look like they’ve nearly graduated from kindergarten, but not quite yet. Now Kenny Freaking Kunene is running the show. Hospitals are war zones. Ports are drugs and weapons trading emporia. Unemployment is the highest of any mid-tier economy, ever, in history. Assassination is so common it barely makes the news unless the victim is a celebrity, or the method of elimination is spectacular enough to cut through the clutter. If this is reality, then do we actually need disinformation? And yet there is a clue for what comes next embedded in the Tembisa Ten story. Piet Rampedi, one of the greatest liars in this country’s democratic history, calls himself “Mr Putin” on Twitter. And Piet’s Weltanschauung is shared among South Africa’s ruling elite: he has a deep, psychosexual affinity for the white supremacist midget boss of the Federated Republic of Russia. And it’s probably going to ruin what’s left of South Africa.

Three times a Lady

Amazingly, South Africa has bumbled into a geopolitical crisis that has catastrophic consequences for the country’s future — a genuine accomplishment considering the fact that the country has no enemies, no contested borders, and no external threats. As most of us are aware, there is a war raging in Europe, which naturally followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of last year. Last December, a Russian-flagged ship called the Lady R docked at the Simon’s Town Naval Base. Under the cover of darkness, something was loaded off it — likely a standard order for ammunition — and something else was loaded on to it. Teddy bears? Rooibos? The Tembisa Ten? No one knows. Or, rather, someone knows, but no one knows less than the actual government. Late last week, US Ambassador Reuben Brigety told a roomful of journalists that he would “bet his life” that the Lady R left South African waters stuffed with war materiel. His implication was that the shipment violates South Africa’s status as a “non-aligned” nation regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Brigety did not present any proof; he did not share any intelligence. He represents a country that has, for the past 70 years at least, repeatedly lied about exactly these sorts of matters, while pursuing a side gig of regime change on four continents. (Five if you count the US Supreme Court ruling for George W Bush over Al Gore in the contested 2000 election.) Brigety’s life, frankly, isn’t worth much around these parts, given the performative anti-Americanisms that issue forth from the ruling class. No one in the Russia-mad ANC trusts him.

Indeed, in the Russia/Ukraine conflict, South Africa has chosen sides, electing to support its old friends in Moscow — which was famously supportive of the ANC during [checks notes] the Brezhnev era — over newer friends in the godforsaken Nato alliance. The ANC’s friendship is, of course, conditional. The conditions are: you get a hug if you donate. And you get a lot more if you throw in a few cars and a Dubai shopping vacation.  Naledi Pandor, the face of South Africa’s foreign policy (such as there is one), is fulfilling the role of stalwart Putin cheerleader, and a resolute defender of South Africa’s relationship with our 52nd-largest export market. Will Vladimir Putin be arrested here if he dares to travel for the August BRICS Summit, as per our commitments to the International Criminal Court? According to Pandor, he will not. Instead, she has insisted that in order for the ICC to retain any credibility, the institution must prosecute war crimes against “apartheid Israel”. This is a bit of a strange one: the ANC has long professed kinship with the Palestinian people, but over the past 29 years of actually running the country, successive leaders have done nothing to ease their plight. If anything, you could describe South Africa’s deeds — distinct from its rhetoric — as one hundred percent Zionist. Indeed, with enemies like the ANC, Israel hardly needs friends.

All of that being said, South Africa is not obligated to slavishly follow the West in its foreign policy decisions. The country owes nothing to the US. It owes nothing to Europe. But this isn’t about friendship and who did what in the 1960s. It’s what’s best for a country — this country — that desperately needs as many friends as it can get, in no small part to help us transition out of the energy poverty that is literally destroying the place. Does this mean endorsing every American fantasy that flits through Washington DC? No. But it does at the very least mean staying non-aligned in a way that doesn’t invalidate the trade agreements and relationships that keep this place afloat. But the ANC — the comrades don’t live in the real world any more. You have to understand it from their point of view. When there is no such thing as accountability, there’s no such thing as crime. And when there’s no such thing as crime, absolutely anything is possible. And reality begins to bend to your will.

Eleven babies

And so an eleventh baby is born. It resembles a mewling, botoxed Baby Putin. Like most babies, this one is a tyrant. Like most babies, he fundamentally changes the nature of the home. And like most babies, it is a narcissist — lying and manipulating its way to get what it wants, which is its lips firmly on the teat, drinking in billions and billions of dollars from anyone dumb enough to get near it. It is this baby that South Africa now rears, as the country finally, but definitively, drifts from its roots as a liberal constitutional democracy — a system its founders, very much including Cyril Ramaphosa, intended. The new path is an autocratic model that disdains the rule of law, and demands a breach with reality so that chaos becomes the baseline under which we all labour. As Bernard Malamud put it, “In a sick country, every step to health is an insult to those who live on its sickness.” It will cost everything to rear this, final, baby who shares none of this country’s founding values and aspirations. Postmodern disinformation has many roles, but its primary one — outside of poetry — is to function as a scorched earth political weapon: to fragment democracies so that dissolution favours zero-sum autocracy. As the ANC approaches complete failure, the eleventh baby represents its last chance at forging a reality that it can live with. But perhaps it’s time for South Africans to throw the babies out with the bathwater, and to understand that 2024 will be the final chance for the country to forge a shared reality — to tame the chaos that has left us changing the diapers of monsters who will eat our faces as we sleep.