At the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, pop sensation, an understatement, Taylor Swift became the first honouree to win Album of the Year for the fourth time, eclipsing Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder in the process.

At just 54kgs, Taylor Swift bestrides the world of music today as a modern-day colossus, her concerts guaranteed to move the GDP of every city in the globe where they are staged – and Swifties, as her devoted fans are dubbed, last year shelled out around $5 billion (just under R95 billion) in the US alone on spending associated with her Eras Tour.

But while Swift shoots past all other pop divus and divas in record and recorded history, she stands alone in the middle of the latest political conspiracy theory to emerge from the cult of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) devotees of likely US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. The Trumper-MAGAs and the Swifties are equally pious in their worship of their cultural Gods, and the clash of the two thunders across and modern cyberspace with the fervour of a Titanomarchy from ancient Greece.

The latest conspiracy theory fuelling the war between Trumpers and Swifties relates to Taylor Swift dipping her elegant toes into the murky waters, indeed cesspool, of US politics. The MAGA cult, which believes the 2020 election victory of Joe Biden was a hoax, embellished this belief with such evidence as bamboo in the ballots was proof of Chinese interference, and Italian military satellites interfered with the election count.

Big daddy of conspiracy theories 

Then there is the Big Daddy of all alt-right conspiracy theories – Q Anon. Q, according to David Aronovich, a British journalist, is an anonymous security insider, deep inside the deep state, who heroically compiles “compendious almost rococo style conspiracy theories, involving the Clintons [Hillary Clinton trafficked and killed children in a pizza store basement in Washington DC etc] and the Bidens and just about anybody else that for some reason the Q Anon community doesn’t like”.

The latest conspiracy pushed against Taylor Swift and her footballer boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce, combines deep suspicion of Swift’s politics (Democrat) and Kelce’s pro-Covid vaccines stance, two items of apostasy in far-right demonology. And a very profound anxiety that Swift will use her huge influence on her own multimillion fan base to swing the November election against Trump. Thus, the latest pre-emptive strike against America’s most famous influencer couple.

It’s so bizarre that even to recount it makes little sense. Something along the lines of Swift and Kelce’s relationship is invented by the “deep state” which also is credited with artificially promoting Kelce’s team into the Super Bowl final.

As US commentator David French explains:

According to [MAGA], Talyor Swift’s extraordinary popularity isn’t the organic outcome of a talented and appealing superstar’s bond with her fans. No, according to them, Swift’s rise is an op or psyop engineered by the deep state to benefit [President Joe] Biden.

But at least US political conspiracy theories exercise the imagination. In South Africa, like the quality of our leaden politics and president, they are dull, unoriginal and boring. But no less dangerous and distracting in their effect. And the link between the conspiratorial fringe in the US and the presidentially endorsed cooked-up conspiracy here is straight out of the populist’s recipe book: “an excessively simple diagnosis of the world’s ills and the conviction that there are identifiable villains to blame for it all.”

So, when Cyril Ramaphosa and his government decided to put Israel into the Genocide dock, it could bank on some distraction from all its local and entirely self-made political crises. But given that the government also wants donations (for just energy transition, foreign investment, mining exploration, etc) from donors who might be more allied with Israel and the US and less in synch with Iran and Hamas – how in an election year does Ramaphosa demand the donation while offending the donors? Or at least explain his reduction of our once inviting sovereign into an investment desert? Find a villain that’s how.

In Ramaphosa’s case (by contrast with the granular detail offered by the US alt-right Magas), it is all shadowy and anonymous, though. Thus, the president announces ominously that “these forces might seek regime change here… The fightback may focus on our democratic politics and our electoral outcomes” a nod to Israel’s allies at the ICJ, though he and the government continued to mischaracterise the actual judgment and its consequences.

If “cabinet” as it reverentially self refers to itself, is often a centre of economic illiteracy and political grandstanding, then undoubtedly the star of the show is minister in the Presidency, responsible for state security, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.

Grand mistress of conspiracy-mongering

She is the grand mistress of non-accountable, evidence-free conspiracy-mongering. Taking her lead from the Big Man, Ntshavheni doubled down by advising us that, “We cannot allow foreign agencies to destabilise our elections. We continue to support the Independent Electoral Commission to make sure that we do not have a threat of cyber interference from foreign agencies.”

If Trump disparages his sole remaining rival for his party nomination, Nikki Haley, as a “birdbrain”, who knows how he might term our minister? Except, of course, neither he nor much of the world, despite cabinet’s pretensions and preening, are paying us much attention. But on this minister, there is some form to guide us. She conjured up back in November that the entire banking industry here was involved in sabotage and treason against the country due to “rand rigging” based on a dubious report by the Competition Commission.

As with the ICJ case, she exaggerated the finding and implicated one of our few guardrails against sovereign insolvency. Yet when the entire basis for her conspiracy – the Competition Commission report – was thrown out in a scathing judgment last month by the Competition Appeal Court, the minister uncharacteristically pressed the mute button. Not that her remedy against foreign cyber attacks is reassuring.

Readers might recall the state security agencies’ magnificent performance in the July 2021 orgy of riots and looting, which cost 354 lives and shaved R50 billion off the economy. A risible report last week by another cost-guzzling centre of national uselessness, the Human Rights Commission, issued their “findings”  on the riots, which managed not to find a single culprit nor a known instigator for the mayhem which came at the time as the Man from Nkandla was jailed for contempt of court.

But Zuma, unlike Ramaphosa and co, his nemesis and their electoral nightmare, is far more precise in naming names and identifying villains. He is the Trump of KZN. His “religious followers” recently advised, no doubt scripted by the great man, that should the Electoral Commission of South Africa fail to “give” Zuma’s MK Party a two-thirds majority, they will “shut down South Africa”.

In the meantime, the minister in charge of state security in the Presidency is chasing foreign ghosts. The ANC is hardly alone as a government facing a difficult electoral environment and like the Gorgon monster of old is starting to resemble its slayed predecessor eerily.

Back here in 1977, prime minister John Vorster faced a hostile foreign environment highlighted by the grotesque murder of Steve Biko in police custody. Unable to meet the real challenge of those times, Vorster called an early election and declared war on the world. “No self-respecting country,” Vorster advised an interviewer, “can allow itself to be pressured. We will never surrender. We will fight for our land.” This was his warning to the West.

On the eve of the election, at a rally at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, Vorster thundered at another external enemy:

There is a grand strategy of the Soviet Union to take control of the Cape sea route and all our minerals. Small as we are, we will defend this country to the last man – not only for ourselves but for the free world.

By then, the “free world” had largely given up on white South Africa and its leader. And the Soviets never did invade. But Vorster did have the consolation of winning a record 70% of the white vote at the polls.

No such consolation awaits the ANC in this year’s election, even as it alienates its most important investment partners in “the free world” and fuels anew “the paranoid style of politics”. Never mind the shadows cabinet is chasing, as Henry Kissinger reminded us, “even paranoids have real enemies”. In this regard, the security minister would find her time better spent by investigating MK not the CIA.