Enough conspiracy theories

ANTHONY BUTLER: Politicians abuse our tendency to assume that big events have big causes

Loosely co-ordinated violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng does not equal an insurrection

First published in BusinessLive Premium 5 August 2021.

Ten years ago this week a 29-year-old man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham Hale, north London. In the days that followed civil unrest spread to various London boroughs and then engulfed cities as far afield as Bristol, Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester.

Looters posed for pictures with toasters and hairdryers. Community protection groups defended shops with baseball bats. When the smoke cleared five people were dead, 2,500 businesses had been looted, and property damage totalled more than £200m.

Shock was replaced by a yearning to know why these events unfolded. It is human, though incorrect, to assume that big events have big causes. People wanted somebody to blame. Leftists blamed government austerity and heavy-handed policing. The prime minister of the day opted for criminality, “pure and simple”. The Right fingered gangs and anarchist groups for spreading unrest from city to city.

The scale of recent events in SA dwarfs anything seen in England a decade ago, and an even stronger yearning for a compelling narrative exists. The hot air we have been subjected to — about insurrection, counterrevolution and plotting — is a symptom of our disorientation.

There is no doubt that a range of actors promoted violence, arson and theft. They included construction mafias, extortion rackets run by pseudo-military veterans, “business forums”, criminal gangs and politicians facing corruption charges. 

Numerous events also exhibited planning: warehouse break-ins, looter transport, co-ordinated arterial road blockages and targeted social media drives. Whether strategic points and critical infrastructure were also scheduled for attack, as the security cluster maintains, remains unclear.

One cognitive ability — and disability — of our species is pattern recognition. We take distinct actions and events and link them up into a single story of causes and effects. We are often wrong.

During the unrest, groups loosely co-ordinated their actions, especially once disturbances were under way. But we do not have evidence of “an insurrection”, still less of any “ultimate objective”, such as the attempted overthrow of democracy or removal of the president.

Imitation and opportunism drove the widespread looting, without which we would not even be considering these events today. Were there 12 “instigators” or 12 “masterminds”, as politicians and journalists have claimed?

Did 12 Twitter accounts really “instigate the violence”? Of course not. This is theological mumbo-jumbo that belongs alongside the 12 cakes in the Tabernacle or the 12 fruits borne by the Tree of Life.

To the degree that actors and objectives came together, they did so in the broad tent that is the ANC of KwaZulu-Natal. Politicians, mafias and organised criminals in that province have long since disproved former US president Lyndon B Johnson’s maxim: they are all inside the tent but they are still pissing.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa is not especially popular in KwaZulu-Natal, the provincial ANC did not vote on ethnic lines at Nasrec in 2017. The Zulu royal house defended the constitutional order. 

The terminology of “tribalism”, like that of instigators and insurrectionists, grows out of conspiracy thinking. The idea that events result from a plot by sinister groups is most often an act of faith that helps us cope with uncertainty.

The best reporters cognitively process information about many actors and events, their minds searching for connections and conspiracies. When our newshounds’ theories are proved correct — which they often are — this becomes known as investigative journalism.

Business people likewise abhor uncertainty and pay risk consultants to translate possibilities into probabilities, and uncertainties into priceable risks. Sometimes they would be better off consulting astrologers.

The real problem, of course, is politicians. They seek personal and partisan advantage, playing on our cognitive deficiencies to shape who we praise and who we blame. We shouldn’t let them.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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