Perhaps you believe our democratic settlement was merely a ruse to get the old white regime to hand over power. When our living legend, Nelson Mandela, finally crosses the ultimate great divide, the whites will at last be driven into the sea.

Perhaps you believe the TRC was a trade-off, and the Constitution an elite pact between the ANC and powerful financial interests (which might include not only apartheid capitalists, but the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Council of Foreign Relations and Jews).

Do you think the media is a front for white capitalists?

Maybe you believe that Aids escaped from a biological weapons laboratory and beetroot will cure you. We had a minister of health who did.

Or that climate change is the biggest hoax since the Y2K millennium bug; the flu shot makes you sick; the polio vaccine causes autism; if you sit in a draft you will catch a cold.

Do you think evolution is false? Or that aliens landed and their bodies are kept in Area 51? Will the Large Hadron Collider accidentally turn the world into an amorphous mass of grey jelly?

Why do you believe the things you do?

Do you support the death penalty, but not abortion? Do you think racial classification is wrong, but affirmative action is right? Do you believe in a non-racial society, but believe there are biological racial differences?

Are you in favour of nationalisation or privatisation? Are you a libertarian or a communist? Who will you vote for?

A while ago, I found myself retelling a humorous story my father had told me as a child. I had often told it, but this time someone pointed out a glaring flaw in the tale. The story was patently false for a very logical reason. Yet I had never thought about it or questioned it before; simply retold it because it was funny.

We enjoy many stories we have never really tested or interrogated. What our parents tell us is part of our socialisation. We also tend to go along with our peers. There is a good deal of evidence from sociologists that our beliefs are more influenced by the circles we move in, and our desire for acceptance among our immediate peers, than it is by any rigorous investigation of our convictions. It’s a discomfiting thought, but true.

People value harmony with their neighbours, their spouse, their family, their class, their tribe. We hold as true all manner of shibboleths.

Or we put our careers first. You only have to look at the sorry level of debate in Parliament and the lack of independent thinking among MPs.

For nearly two terms, the ANC NEC didn’t speak up while the president perpetuated his delusions about HIV. Surrounding yourself with yes people has consequences. Thabo Mbeki appears to have believed up to the last minute he’d win at Polokwane.

Large political rallies of support for a leader are not to be believed. Time and again, tens of thousands flock to the streets to worship their hero – remember Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, and recently Putin – only to come back the next day and utterly condemn the same man. Gaddafi’s merciless end was not much different from Mussolini’s.

The dinner party of the chattering classes can be a mob of sorts too. People don’t tend to stick their neck out and spoil the occasion. Those who do it regularly may find that invitations dwindle. The polite prefer to keep quiet or they join in the stone throwing.

To disagree is to risk being constructed negatively by others: as “stupid”. Insult trumps argument; in the old days a “kaffir-boetie”, today “coconut” or simply “white”. Attributing colour to beliefs is probably the ultimate in thoughtlessness.

Comments on blogs, this one included, are with tedious frequency based on an utterly false construction by the reader of the writer. If you are sure of your beliefs there should be no need to shout down others.

How much of what we believe is based in ignorance and prejudice or fear and suspicion? When it comes to politicians, a little knowledge is a particularly dangerous thing.

An added complication is that we fall prey to confirmation bias. People searching the web tend to find those sites that verify their positions; online they soon assemble ammunition for their pre-existing beliefs. If you believe the Apollo mission never landed on the moon (as an honours student in economics at UCT told me), you’ll find all the evidence you need on the internet.

The world will end on December 21, 2012.

In fact, policy wonks and financial wizards keep on proving that often the most intelligent people get things horribly wrong, precisely because they are so good at arguing and articulating.

On the other hand, much of our political discourse is posturing; our public debate emotional argument. Politics has become the art of false consensus.

The problem is compounded by an inability among many in leadership positions to admit mistakes. Some of our policy debates are pathetically churlish. Political alignment seems far more crucial to people than getting facts straight: the ANC is totally corrupt, the DA are all racists etcetera. Taking a moral stance against political affiliates is even rarer. And far too many of the positions our leaders popularise have an unhealthy element of conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are especially seductive. They give the believer superpowers – the X-ray vision to see through the vile, secret scheming of the powerful. And they award the believer with imaginary status – the conspiracy theorist is one of the few who knows that the US military-industrial complex was behind 9/11.

The conspiracy helps explain away one’s own disappointments or failures. The Zimbabwe economy collapsed because of imperial machinations; the people are not rising up against Assad, it’s Al Qaeda or Nato or American-paid mercenaries. Leaders give legitimacy to popular beliefs (a Nobel scientist agrees HIV is harmless; Einstein believed in God; Iranian President Ahmadinejad says the Holocaust never happened).

The conspiracy comes to the rescue when the truth is unsatisfactory or unpalatable; the foreigners are stealing our jobs; whites are keeping us down; it’s a political plot; the election was rigged. Once lodged in popular belief they are almost impossible to disprove, yet need no real proof of their own – the facts on the ground are all that is needed: we have no money, no jobs; our candidate lost.

Conspiracy is of course the first step to dictatorship.

The sad thing is that conspiracy theories are often based in hope, in a yearning for justice, even out of a love for one’s country. They can become the sustaining illusions for a community: we try hard but the world is ranked against us. Their believers are in a sense innocents; hoping for a better world, wishing the guilty punished.

What our education system should instil in people is the desire to lead an examined life. An intelligent society values freedom of expression, creativity, disobedience, and non-conformity. Intellectual honesty cannot exist in a society or an organisation that frowns upon dissent or typecasts those who disagree.

One expects politicians to lie. As a famous South African satirist said, if politicians told the truth we wouldn’t vote for them. Unfortunately, too many of our columnists, analysts, and opinion makers, are also playing to the gallery these days. We could all do with a little more introspection.

Follow Brent on Twitter.


  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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