Military theorists speak of the “fog of war”. It’s that swirling mist of uncertainty where not only the true intentions and capabilities of one’s adversaries are unclear, but so too the true measure of the resources one can deploy.

The great Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz wrote that it took a particularly skilled intelligence to scent out the truth through the fog. Honing that discernment is a critical aspect of a general’s job and makes for inspired leadership in the field.

This is where politicians differ. While soldiers want to slice through the fog to expose the bones of truth, politicians instinctively want to embrace it, to cloak inconvenient truths.

Politicians are drawn to the fog because it’s a convenient cover to venality, duplicity and straightforward stupidity. Fog deployment is one of those basic skills that politicians of all stripes have to show they have mastered before graduating from the Hogwarts School of Political Witchcraft and Semantic Wizardry, as is also the ability to speak out of both sides of one’s mouth at the same time.

Unfortunately for South Africa, the African National Congress tripartite alliance appears to have cornered the market in Hogwarts’ summa cum laude graduates. These stellar individuals far outnumber the ANC wannabes, those who claim imaginary qualification from Harvard, London School of Economics and QwaQwa Secondary.

In an article this week, Charles Simkins, senior researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation, touches on the doublespeak/doublethink that is characteristic of our politics. He notes the oddity of having ANC politicians claiming to be constitutional democrats and revolutionaries at the same time.

Simkins considers various explanations for the phenomenon — basically that they are the one and sham to be the other — then plumps for Orwellian kind doublethink. In his novel 1984, George Orwell defined the concept simply: “To hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”

Simkins recounts as a particularly egregious example, a recent tirade by Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande against the media as the spearhead of an “anti-majoritarian, liberal offensive, whose objective is regime change to dislodge the liberation movement from power… The agenda is simply that where the ANC is the majority, the opposition must rule through the courts, the public protector etc.”

I am sceptical as to whether this is the Orwellian doublethink that Simkins claims. My impression is that Nzimande actually believes all the tired Stalinist claptrap that he spouts and if indeed he is a practitioner of doublethink – in that he simultaneously has some redeeming democratic beliefs – these extend no further than his right to have the taxpaying peons buy him the most expensive BMW that is on the market.

It is, however, doublethink that has dumped Eskom in a marvellous pickle. It is important to the ANC government that Eskom’s inability to assure a continuous supply of power is addressed, not only for the sake of economic growth but in order to appease voter fury. However, the punctilious enforcement of the government’s own Employment Equity Act makes this difficult, if not impossible

As Rapport reported last week, Labour Director-General Thobile Lamati has insisted in a directive to Eskom chief executive Thediso Matona that the “correct” racial demographics be implemented by March 2020. This means Eskom must shed 1 081 of its white engineers, which in a skills-short country it cannot replace, and 2 179 white artisans, in whom it has already invested millions in training.

Totally in tune with this doublethink, Matona – he of “there is no Eskom crisis” fame – wades in with some doublespeak of his own. There will be no retrenchments is the assurance, for it will all be done by “natural attrition”.

It is such race purging by “natural attrition” that lies behind the high vacancy rates in many government departments. Eager to meet the only performance criterion that seems to exist in the civil service, managers will rather leave a highly skilled job vacant, than fill it with “over-represented” minority applicants who do, through the accident of history, happen to have those requisite skills.

It’s classic doublethink to bemoan, as this week did Public Service parliamentary portfolio committee chair Peace Mabe, that some critical jobs were taking three years to fill, causing “a major impediment to service delivery”, while she simultaneously ordered managers to ensure that the 40.4% of women at senior public service rank were “without delay” upped to their demographic entitlement of 57.6%.

While the contempt for voters that is implicit in doublespeak is galling, it’s the doublethink we should be most concerned about. It’s a self-inflicted, debilitating intellectual fuzziness that can be at least as dangerous as Von Clausewitz’s fog of war.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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