KERWIN LEBONE: The third force, the counter-revolution and fake news - Business Day, 13 February 2017

Feb 13, 2017
'The ‘third force’ narrative's most explosive assumption – an organised, high-level plot – proved untenable'


By Kerwin Lebone

A year ago, this is a concept that would probably have been associated with the sort of over-the-top story that occasionally appears in one’s inbox, prompting amusement and annoyance in equal measure. Thanks to last year’s American presidential election, it has assumed altogether more far-reaching connotations. Across the world, earnest editorials and concerned columnists have taken to warning that fake news is undermining the integrity of our political processes. Indeed, we are said to be entering – or have already entered – a world in which truth no longer matters.

In a recent analysis, The Economist argues that while lies and deception have always been a feature of politics, fake news dismisses the importance of truth altogether. In effect, it proceeds from the assumption that facts need not be verifiably true. Evidence is of secondary importance, if not altogether irrelevant. What counts, rather, is working on emotive and intuitive impulses, either confirming or confusing an audience’s sense of what ‘sounds right’. In effect, it creates its own truth; more accurately, its own ‘truth’.

What is important here is not whether or not a particular story or contention is true, false, or skewed in its representation. What really matters is how it fits together in a larger whole and advances a particular narrative, maybe not true, but ‘true within context’ – ‘we’re being undermined from within’, ‘they’re taking our jobs’, ‘they’re all like that’, ‘it’s all their fault’. It’s the sort of thing that is ripe for the Manichaean divisions that are inherent in populist politics, and fits nicely with a conspiratorial mindset, with nothing ever as it seems. (This is by no means a phenomenon confined to the political ‘right’; ‘9/11 was an inside job’, for example, animated many left-wingers during the presidency of George W. Bush.)

Why should this matter to South Africa?

Despite talk of a brave new ‘post-truth world’, deploying fake information is a venerable and time-tested tradition. A disregard for facts in favour of pushing a bigger objective is hardly unknown in South Africa. Nowhere was this of greater significance than in the propaganda war in the 1980s and 1990s. With the prospects of overthrowing the erstwhile government military always remote, dominating what was believed, domestically and internationally, was one of the most potent strategies available to the liberation movements. (The National Party Government attempted its own propaganda although, in the face of the consequences of its policies, this was increasingly ineffective and disbelieved.)

The opening of political space in the early 1990s was accompanied by a high tide of political violence: approximately three times more people would be killed between the start of 1990 and the end of 1994 as had been killed between 1984 and 1989. It was a central tragedy of South African history, all the more so given that in this period the transition away from minority domination was tantalisingly close. To explain this, the African National Congress and groups sympathetic to it coined the idea that a ‘third force’, whose bloody trail wound its way into the highest offices of the then government, lay behind the carnage.

But proof was thin. Exposés of outfits such as the Civil Cooperation Bureau gave it some credence. There were clearly elements within the security forces with blood on their hands, running guns and taking sides. But the labyrinthine conspiracy was always more an article of faith rather than fact. The Institute for Contextual Theology, for example, in a widely-read 1990 document, declared political violence ‘the new Kairos’, a profound challenge to the church and society. Dealing with this demanded an ‘astute’ analysis. It boldly identified the existence of a grand conspiracy, but conceded that it could not point to anyone actually responsible: ‘Of course, this is all speculation. There is no hard evidence that can lead us to the conspirators. All we have is circumstantial evidence, but people are dying and therefore we must leave no stone unturned in our search for clues.’

True enough, but once this narrative was in play, clues were to be sought under specific stones on very particular fields. It was a beguiling idea, which ‘seemed right’, and it became a staple belief in the political whirlwind of the day.

This arguably reached its high-point on the night or 17 June 1992, when a force from the KwaMadala Hostel attacked the township of Boipatong in southern Gauteng, leaving 45 people dead and many others injured. The Boipatong massacre proved a turning point. Allegations of police complicity in this (claims were made that white assailants directed the attack) were widely believed, confirming the very worst suspicions of the then government. Its credibility – always fragile – was badly undermined in the eyes of most South Africans and the international community. Whatever initiative it may have retained was rapidly lost.

But whatever the misdeeds of the government and its security forces, the Boipatong massacre was not one of them. Despite extensive investigation, no credible evidence of their participation has ever been unearthed. But this did not prevent Boipatong from becoming a prime exhibit for the ‘third force’. Indeed, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (which was established in 1996 to understand the human rights violations that had taken place in the period between 1960 and 1994) accepted these allegations as facts. From its report:

The Commission finds that Kwamadala Hostel residents, together with the police, planned and carried out an attack on the community of Boipatong and the surrounding informal squatter settlement, Slovo Park, on 17 June 1972. The Commission finds that the police colluded with the attackers and dropped them off at Slovo Park. The commission finds that white men with blackened faces participated in the attack.

Thanks in no small measure to the dogged (and often unpopular) work of a few researchers – the journalist Rian Malan and the Institute of Race Relations’ Anthea Jeffery spring to mind – claims of ‘third force’ instigation of the Boipatong massacre have generally fallen away. And with no small irony, the TRC’s own Amnesty Committee, bound by stricter rules of evidence than its mother body, granted amnesty to a number of the attackers, and explicitly accepted that they had acted without police collusion.

The ‘third force’ narrative has proved a little more durable, and it featured prominently as a catch-all descriptor of covert and illegal security force activity. However, its most explosive assumption – an organised, high-level plot – proved untenable. The TRC report conceded that ‘little evidence exists of a centrally directed, coherent and formally constituted “third force”’.

Did this matter? Certainly, a failure to concede the nature of the problem meant that it would not effectively be dealt with. For example, Prof. David Welsh, in his masterful The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, notes that no political leadership could effectively control all of its adherents and, within each of these blocs, there were plenty of operatives prepared to use violence. Whether joint or cooperative action on this was possible in the early 1990s is debatable. But, ultimately, the propaganda war probably had a cost in lives.

But this is history; does it matter now? The ‘third force’ and conspiracy narratives have injected a strain of official paranoia into South African politics in the democratic era. This bubbles distressingly near to the surface. Both Presidents Mandela and Mbeki were given at times warnings about the threat of ‘counter-revolution’, omnipresent although never defined, and which never seemed to emerge in any concrete form. ‘These groups of the past have regrouped, reorganised’, said Mbeki darkly in 1998.

Non-governmental organisations have been assailed for their activities – whether in the policy space or undertaking relief work following xenophobic violence (itself supposedly directed by nefarious masterminds). The American embassy is supposedly a hub of regime-change networking. So it goes on.

Is there any evidence for any of this? Perhaps the question is irrelevant. Maybe it fits a narrative of perpetual siege and struggle, an unverifiable ‘truth’ which is ‘accurate within context’. This is bad news for South Africa, and promises greater incoherence and polarisation in public debate, and poor prospects for effective policy.

As South Africa’s journalists and intellectuals speak out on the dangers of fake news, an eye should be cast on the past. A disregard of evidence and a construction of politically useful ‘truths’ is nothing new. And it was not the project of political parties alone. Many who might have known better – journalists, academics, intellectuals and church officials – were themselves deeply invested in this. Their motives may have been commendable, but the legacy has been toxic.

Carl Sagan, the renowned astrophysicist, once said: ‘All assumptions must be critically examined. Arguments from authority are worthless. Whatever is inconsistent with the facts, no matter how fond of it we are, must be discarded or revised.’ This is a path that South Africa has, at times, failed to take. Looking to the future, it cannot afford to do so again.            

Kerwin Lebone is head of the Centre for Risk Analysis at the IRR, a think tank promoting economic and political freedom. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica 

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