If the scriptwriters of the blockbuster television series Homeland had invented such a yarn it might have been rejected by its producers as too fanciful, and certainly too gory, to be filmed.

A well-known dissident Saudi journalist enters his country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and is never seen again; soon enough the host country provides lurid details of what happened inside the protected premises of the diplomatic mission: he is beaten by some 15 Saudi officials, including a medical expert in dismemberment, flown in under diplomatic cover; he is drugged and, under cover of loud music, has his fingers cut off.

A fellow journalist and friend of the unfortunate Jamal Khashoggi, Nicholas Kristof, in an outraged response, offers the view that the removal of Khashoggi’s digits is because “presumably that’s what he wrote with”. And the royals in Riyadh did not approve of his mildly dissenting views which, from his perch at the Washington Post, suggested the so-called “liberalising reforms” of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman were essentially a sham.

Both the gruesome deed and the implausible cover-up are to be expected from a ruthlessly repressive top-down regime that cannot entertain dissent. When the mask is pulled, it cannot fathom how to respond at a minimum level of credibility, because accountability is not in the playbook of a dictatorship. Local critics are sentenced to 1,000 lashes. But it’s more difficult when your dead victim is a columnist for the premier newspaper in Washington DC.

Of course, no end of grim ironies accompany this extraordinary real-life tale, whose ending is far from sighted.

First, another of the crown prince’s regional frolics, the war in Yemen, has produced thousands of victims, including school children bombed, and now – according to a recent report – “eight million Yemenis on the brink of starvation”. Far from front-page coverage, international sanctions and generalised outrage, this catastrophe remains invisible to most people, and certainly to all world leaders.

Second, it was the usually exquisitely politically correct foreign affairs columnist for the local Independent Newspapers, someone closely connected to the ruling ANC, Shannon Ebrahim, who noted: “Not even in the darkest days of apartheid did we ever hear of the regime’s hit squads having tortured and dismembered the body of a leading journalist who dared to take issue with government policies.”

Third, because presumably nothing can interfere with Cyril Ramaphosa’s investment targets, a statement of such spectacular equivocation and mouse-like timidity is proffered by the department of international relations. Issued on October 17, it hoped that the “investigation will provide clarity and answers regarding the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi”.

Note that this statement still stands, even though at the time of its issuance, two weeks of Saudi lies and evasions had been acknowledged by Riyadh.

But however lamentable and predictable the South African government response, at least there was one.

The official opposition DA and its somnambulant spokesman on international affairs allowed the entire episode to pass it by. Finally, prodded into a response, it issued a statement on Wednesday this week, more than 20 days after the story on the biggest current foreign affairs crisis first broke.

Simply put, some deeds have huge consequences.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

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