Official lies

2008-05-20 00:00

Both my grandmothers were Londoners,their lives neatly framed by two world wars. During the second, the authorities persuaded them to give up their pots and pans and other metal domestic items: the story was that they would be used to build planes and tanks. Park railings went the same way.

The thought that your old frying pan might be part of an aircraft flying off to defeat the Nazis must have been deeply satisfying. After the war, it is said, mountains of useless scrap metal were quietly buried. Psychologically it was probably worth the effort.

Governments consistently lie to us, occasionally for our good but more often for theirs. They even employ increasing numbers of people, known as spokespersons (or, more mysteriously, spin doctors), to do this work for them.

The aim is to get the public thinking the government’s way (or perhaps not thinking at all) even when fact, logic and plain common sense suggest something very different.

Take financial transactions, for instance. Investing your money or buying foreign currency now requires reams of documentation that involves minute verification of identity. We are told that this is to prevent the money laundering that assists organised crime, drug dealing and terrorism. So we comply, more or less happy in the apparent belief that we are doing our bit.

Much of this is illusion. Enormous volumes of money, particularly in Asia and Africa, do not pass through the formal banking sector or exchange control, but use a paperless system based on trust known as hawala. In a bureaucratic, computerised age of widespread distrust and suspicion, such faith is worth noting.

Hawala is simplicity itself, highly efficient and cheap. There is no promissory instrument: where there is a paper trail it is private and temporary. The sender of funds does a deal with a broker who uses a regular contact in another country to deliver so much money to the receiver. No one in authority is any the wiser about the sender and receiver and a transfer has occurred without apparent movement. The only complexity arises in settling the debt between broker and contact and there are a variety of ways, many too complex to unravel, to achieve this quietly. When both are involved in legitimate trade, under- and over-invoicing can be used. Small, hard-to-detect bank transfers are also employed.

Much of this involves the legitimate transfer of migrant worker wages. But black hawala, supporting terrorism, was used in the 1993 Indian bomb blasts and probably those in East Africa in 1998 as well. Interpol reckons that hawala movements in Pakistan alone account for $5 billion each year and it is not hard to imagine some of this involves South Africa. So much for all the paperwork at your local bank.

Do you remember the years of supposed total onslaught when security personnel in shops poked around in your bag with a stick and government offices displayed plastic replicas of various explosive devices (no doubt Russian) on their walls? It was all a psychological game, giving the impression that the authorities were in control and we were safe.

Charlotte Bauer recently wrote an amusing but penetrating piece in the Mail & Guardian about airline security in which she questioned whether the sheer misery of modern air travel is matched by real security, or whether it is all an elaborate charade.

Governments, and most politicians, lie in order to prolong their terms of office once the standard honeymoon is over. What is worrying, however, is the scale at which this now operates and its pervasiveness.

Eskom lies to us in small ways about loose bolts at Koeberg, wet coal, and supposed electricity savings in order to cover up widespread managerial incompetence and an inability to plan ahead and think creatively.

But globalisation has ushered in the era of the big lie, in remission since the age of the great dictators of the mid-20th century. The South African government has embraced this with gusto: the lifting of import tariffs will increase all-round prosperity; sports extravaganzas like Fifa’s World Cup will create thousands of jobs; and so will the offset agreements on the arms deal.

This is propaganda on the grand scale and it is remarkably effective: very little appears in the media to question it effectively and public debate is relatively muted. The official version goes largely unchallenged and the poor, and now the middle class, come under greater economic stress. The elite, as ever, smile all the way to the bank.

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