Tjatjarag: Getting washed up in the spin cycle

2013-12-03 10:00

Granted, I’m getting on in years. Just the other day,?I was wracking my brain wondering which politician it was that had allegedly asked for a R500?000 bribe.

Then I remembered: the alleged bribe was requested by Schabir Shaik when he pimped as President Jacob Zuma’s financial adviser back in the days when Zuma was a provincial minister.

I may have forgotten because, as I said, I’m getting on. But it may also be because that whole affair has been successfully shrouded in spin to become an instance of “national security”.

We now speak not of an alleged bribe attempt but of the “spy tapes” – code for the recordings which either prove or disprove the alleged bribe request.

How did that happen? A massive spin cycle was put into gear and the nation was successfully duped.

So now the story is not about an arms deal that marked the start of our fall from a state of grace into the grip of Mammon, but it has become a legal wrangle about security and the president’s right to his tapes.

The arguments are far less clear in this spin cycle and the technocratic defences dissuaded even the most civic-minded South Africans from exercising a scrupulous attention to the detail of this important case.

A similar thing is happening with the renovations to the presidential estate at Nkandla worth R208?million. A powerful spin machine is being deployed by the state and its security cluster.

Look how quickly a story of excess and consumption is becoming a story of security and respect for the president. It’s quite something.

Once you take a narrative of conspicuous consumption and the illegal splurge of public money and turn it into a story about respect for the head of state (after all, at 72, an elder in every sense of the word) and concern for his security, you blur the boundaries completely and stamp out the opprobrium very fast.

It’s a spin masterclass deployed by a combination of elegant young men who wear immaculate black suits and can talk the hind legs off a donkey. They are the spokespersons, respectively, of the ministers of justice, safety and security, and defence: Mthunzi Mhaga, Zweli Mnisi and Simphiwe Dlamini.

(The spokesperson for Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, Sabelo Mali, is simply not in the same league and messed it up before the three masters took over.)

These three security cluster spokespersons are erudite, talkative and highly persuasive. They work the media troops. And it pays off.

Observe how quickly Nkandla has become a story of security where the trending topics are the National Key Points Act (the law cited to prevent exposition or images of the presidential estate) and alleged breaches.

I was listening to an interview with Dlamini recently and he almost had me convinced that Nkandla was a big fuss about nothing.

Here’s his riff: all the renovations happened on trust-owned land (so what’s the fuss?); the president built his own house (true, but not the helipad, bunkers, air-con, clinic, kraal, tuck shop and Astroturf fields); all the other houses are for his detail (maybe true, but the number of additional homes almost perfectly equal the number of presidential progeny); and that once the president retires in 2019 or thereabouts, it returns to us, the people (technically true, but really, how is that going to work??MaKhumalo, I call dibs on that tuck shop!)

The thing about spin is that if you repeat it often enough, it sticks. And it was beginning to stick in the popular narrative.

Luckily, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has caught on and her provisional report, as reported on Friday by the Mail?&?Guardian shows that the president derived “substantial personal benefit” from the upgrade.

She agrees that Zuma should have appropriate security, but the kraal and swimming pool were all added improperly in the security upgrade at an enormous cost to taxpayers.

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