South Africans desperately seeking some good news are unlikely to find it in the speech in parliament on Wednesday afternoon from Tito Mboweni when he delivers the medium-term budget policy statement.
Happier tidings might emerge from the pitch on Saturday afternoon when the Springboks meet England in the Rugby World Cup final at the International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan.
Our route to the finals might have been more grinding and ragged than England’s seemingly effortless win against an outclassed All Blacks, but there is one helpful link, for us, between the world of investment and the Rugby World Cup final: Past performance is no guarantee of future result.
But where some South Africans excel – far away from the rugby pitch and usually in the nether world of Twitter outrage – is in the sport of Jumping to Conclusions. “Some Among Us,” to coin a favourite Thabo Mbeki currency, are world champions at impugning bad motive based on false narratives or cooked-up facts.
Two prominent ANC Gauteng politicians leapt into the tweet-first-find-out-facts-later firepool on Sunday, by literally flying a false flag and accusing utterly patriotic and innocent SA fans of parading the old flag and not flying the current rainbow-coloured national emblem.
To his credit, one of those politicians, Gauteng MEC Panyaza Lesufi, apologised and the four wronged fans had the grace to accept it. The other politician who hurled the same accusation has maintained an uncharacteristic silence since.
However, while Lesufi leapt to the wrong conclusion based on a false reading of a photograph, at least it can be said that the misinterpreted image, in fact, existed in reality.
While the Twitter kerfuffle was happening in real time, I was reading a far more alarming feature in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. It should be obligatory reading for anyone who bases their knowledge, or relies for conclusion, on the torrents of information available on social media.
A long read story headlined “Can you believe your eyes?” is actually terrifying in its reach and import. It illustrates, literally, how AI-generated videos are fooling both the commenting class and the chattering, or in our case the tweeting, public.
“Deep fake technology – or AI-generated videos – designed to fool humans has started to affect politics,” writes Siddarth Venkataramakrishan. The last election in the US, for example, was marked by false bots on Twitter (the same sort used by the Zumaite Guptas of Bell Pottinger here) and by fake written news on Facebook (“The Pope endorses Trump”, etc).
Now we are in an entirely different and far scarier era – bolstered by technological advance which is exceeded only by unscrupulous operatives and a public frankly either too gullible or too idle to check out the real facts.
The trigger for the recent review of “deep fakes” was a video which appeared to show the Italian politician and former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, appearing on camera from behind his desk making obscene gestures and comments at and about his fellow politicians and rivals. The video went viral and caused the usual outrage. However, it transpired that in reality “it was not the real Renzi talking … the politician’s features had been algorithmically transplanted onto a comedian’s as part of a long-running Italian television skit”.
While counter-measures and even more sophisticated mitigating technology might be able to expose such malfeasance and malice, the effects of instant imaging are profound. We might not believe everything we read, but we generally (or until the brave new techno world now gives us cause for doubt) tend to believe everything we see. But maybe now your eyes are lying to you because the image you are watching is the result of digital manipulation.
The best antidote to the swirl of cooked-up conspiracies masquerading as fact is – at one level – trustworthy journalism based on proper fact checking and impeccable sourcing. This perspective is powerfully evidenced in an influential column in Business Day on October 29 penned by its former editor, Songezo Zibi.
Winston Churchill, who happily presided in politics at a time of international peril but without the false technologies every leader today has to contend with, said before the famous D-Day landings at Normandy: “In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
True to his word, Churchill helped mastermind the massive and entirely successful tactical surprise the Allies achieved – through a combination of stealth, deception and deceit – in locating the D-Day landings at the place the Germans least expected. A rollicking good book, Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown, explains the detail.
But the exceptions and exigencies of wartime have now become everyday reality in politics here and everywhere. And in SA, where race is so flammable as political fuel to light the fires of division, presumably we have an even greater duty of care.
Of course, it little helps that the most powerful politician in the world, US President Donald Trump, renders obvious truths and facts as their opposite by shouting “FAKE NEWS” at his many detractors. Truth itself then becomes just another commodity in political combat, fact checking is obsolete, and words and even numbers are malleable.
Back to Wednesday afternoon’s big parliamentary event. Mboweni has to perform four difficult and seemingly contradictory tasks: reassure restive markets and wary investors; offer some hope to the unemployed and under- stress consumer; provide some factual credibility on his new growth plan; and keep the lights on by bailing out Eskom while simultaneously reforming it. And he has to “stay in the lane” (to borrow a current phrase from the opposition side) of ANC policy.
But he has the numbers to announce and most of them are grim – missed revenue targets, low growth, spiralling government debt and budget-busting deficit. He has to paint his budget picture on the darkest of tapestries.
He is unlikely – if past form is a guide to this presentation – to jump to the wrong conclusion or fly a false flag. Let’s see, and the price of the currency and the yields on our bonds will tell the truths from the markets. And let’s hope good news from Yokohama on Saturday offsets the budget blues from Wednesday. And the scoreboards, in both case, won’t lie.