A new word, “retcon”, has entered the lexicon, shorthand for “retroactive continuity”.
American journalist Lance Morrow explained this week it’s a “literary device in which form and content of a previously established narrative is changed. Retcon retrofits the past plot to suit present purposes.”
Retcon is a device for novels (such as when history is altered and the Nazis win the war) or TV series (think of the magical reappearance of a dead character from season 1 in season 2). But in politics it allows you to edit history to “escape its inconvenient truths”.
Retcon is now in overdrive in our local politics where magical realism and absurdist revisionism beat pesky old-fashioned concepts such as truth and consequence.
Last week some 600,000 pensioners did not receive their monthly stipends. No official was to blame, least of all the minister in charge of the department, Lindiwe Zulu, the same person and ministry who managed not to spend some R15bn of social relief funds.
Instead, it was all due to “a computer glitch due to a new method of payment”.
The minister of no-electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa made another pronouncement and promise and offered ever-moving timelines, omitting the fact that R233bn and 15 years later no power is being generated from the Kusile power station.
Many sentences in exhibit “A” of magical realism and retcon, the ANC manifesto, will be devoted to the number of new electricity connections, taps, sewerage, housing and social grants added by the government since 1994.
Each election promise though will tiptoe around the futility of providing services without the means of accessing them — whether due to “glitches”, incompetence, theft, corruption or cadre deployment. Likely all of the above.
Retcon also avoids the fact that the state, before the ANC decimated it and destroyed its functionality, in 1993 generated more electricity than in 2023 and delivered ore and metal exports to ports on time and in volume on functioning railways.
Acknowledging what worked in the past and how infrastructure added to economic growth and did not imperil it, does not stamp the truth teller as an apartheid apologist. Rather it’s the first step to course correction at the very point where the state has run out of money and is staring down the barrel of a debt trap.
Not that anyone — bar the beleaguered minister of finance, Enoch Godongwana — has any regard for the looming moment when the government can’t find enough buyers of its bonds, yields rise unsustainably, and the debt trap snaps shut and all the promises in the world meet the reality that servicing the debt crowds out all other activity.
Or the country follows Argentina down the path of sovereign default. Land reform and redistribution will be another heavily trailed achievement with the promise of more, eased by a punitive legislative cudgel recently enacted, the Expropriation Bill.
This week, a report in the Daily Dispatch in April 2018 was republished on social media and went viral. It dealt with the fact that only 26 of 265 farms the government purchased from Eastern Cape farmers at a cost to taxpayer of R1.4bn were viable — with the “rest in a state of dereliction”.
The article reappeared as a warning on the central premise that “while government had hoped that the farms would change people’s lives, it had the opposite effect in many cases, with communities worse off after government’s intervention”.
The prize winner of the retcon award this week, though, is minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan. He published in Business Day a spirited puff piece on the miraculous resurrection of South African Airways. He wrote on “decisive interventions”, “ongoing revitalisations” and “a new dawn”. It was strong on pompous nothingisms and light on real achievement.
To write in all seriousness — and Gordhan is one of the few serious people in cabinet — that “SAA’s launch of its first intercontinental route will be a significant milestone” is extraordinary.
A decade or so back, before the airline’s capture by deployed cadres, it flew to dozens of international destinations across the continents. One international route — and another to come next year — takes SAA back to the pre-jet era of 70 years ago.
No mention in the article of the R50bn pumped into the airline by Gordhan and his government between 1997 and 2020 — which even by the failed standards of a failing state must amount to the worst return on investment recorded.
This week saw the ANC in parliament use its majority to veto the DA-led, opposition supported draft bill which would have outlawed cadre deployment and professionalised and depoliticised the civil service. The precise cure for the empire of rottenness which Dudu Myeni navigated during her disastrous tenure at SAA. Another point omitted by Gordhan. And which could easily repeat itself.
There’s a depressing indication that the ANC will fight the 2024 general election on the contours of 1948 at worst, or 1994 at best — conveniently eliding the decades of governance and misgovernance since. Courtesy of “retcon” and the delete key, most of the hard truths and inconvenient facts that need confronting will be cherry-picked to absurd lengths or explained as “unfortunate glitches”, to purloin government gobbledegook.
A word for the wise from a distant age, when the US Republican Party — 150 years pre-Donald Trump — offered visionary leadership in the person of Abraham Lincoln. He said: “We must disenthrall ourselves with the past, and then we will save our country.”
That’s a thought to ponder if 2024 is to be rescue year for South Africa.