‘Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.’ These are the celebrated words of the American statesman John Adams, while defending a group of accused in a politically unpopular trial. Facts, Adams argued, are an absolute that must be respected as such – even when alternatives are that much more palatable.
The importance of facts and factual evidence in public debate has become a prominent theme in light of concerns about how so-called ‘fake news’ has been held to have manipulated public opinion and placed the integrity of democratic processes and institutions in jeopardy. And so, when President Cyril Ramaphosa told a Bloomberg reporter that ‘there are no killings of farmers or white farmers in South Africa’, it evoked a strong reaction in some quarters. We at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) were among those who condemned this remark.
This was entirely appropriate. President Ramaphosa’s comment was factually incorrect. It is quite defensible to describe it as a lie. Information provided in response to a question in Parliament in May showed that 338 people – farmers, farmworkers and family members – had been killed in some 3059 ‘incidents’ between 2012/13 and 2017/18. Last month, adjustments to the number of murders on farms for 2017/18 were announced (from 47 to 62), raising the total to 353.
A number of voices rose to President Ramaphosa’s defence. Most of these emphasised the ‘context’. The president was not denying farm murders, so they argued, but merely addressing comments made by US president Donald Trump a few weeks earlier. ‘I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers’, Trump tweeted.
Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko took issue with those who ‘deliberately distort the President’s remarks which were in direct response to “large scale killing of farmers”‚ a characterisation everyone knows holds no truth in South Africa.’
In a similar vein, News24’s Pieter du Toit dismissed Trump’s concerns as ‘untrue’. President Ramaphosa was, in his view, not commenting ‘on crime in general (where white farmers are also victims)’, but was specifically addressed at Trump’s remarks. Du Toit went on to argue that criticism of President Ramaphosa’s fealty to truth – specifically citing that emanating from us at the IRR – was ‘absolutist, which does not leave room for nuance or context’.
It’s not clear why this would be a bad thing, or why such ‘room’ is required. Unlike opinion and interpretation, facts are by their nature absolute. President Ramaphosa put out his comment as a statement of fact. Nor was it about nuance – his words denied the phenomenon of farm murders, they did not dispute President Trump’s description of them. If there was any ‘distortion’, it would seem to be the assertion that the president was doing something other than this.
When a statement can be verified as empirically true of false, and is found to be the latter, it surely contributes positively to understanding when this is exposed. Honest – not to mention effective – communication depends on an accurate rendering of facts. And an accurate rendering of facts is essential for healthy policy debate, whether that is with foreign interlocutors, or with domestic constituencies. The president fell lamentably short here.
Interestingly, a somewhat different standard seems to apply to President Trump. Although one might take issue with the (possible) implication that farm expropriations had taken place, and with the term ‘large-scale killings’, he referred to real issues. Senior figures in government and the ruling ANC (including President Ramaphosa) have repeatedly said that EWC will be pursued, and the best available analysis indicates that farmers are indeed more vulnerable to crime than the ‘average’ South African. The murder of farmers (farmers of all races, and certainly, too, of their dependents and of farmworkers and their dependents) may not be on an industrial scale, but it is a distinct and serious problem.
Essentially, criticisms of the content of Trump’s tweet are questions of interpretation rather than of undisputed fact. Yet numerous analysts and journalists tore into it – as Mr du Toit does in setting the scene for his defence of President Ramaphosa. Indeed, News24 posted a meme on its twitter feed, under the hashtag #truthmatters, taking aim at the American news host who had evidently prompted Trump’s interest. It read: ‘Carlson: Ramaphosa has begun seizing land from his own citizens because they are the wrong skin colour. Fact: No farms have been seized without compensation and race is not a part of the proposed constitutional amendment.’ (It should be noted that whether ‘the proposed constitutional amendment’ will reference race is unclear since it has apparently not yet been drafted. It is thus unclear why this was presented as fact.)
It rather appears that #truthmatters more in in some cases than in others. Yet the fact, the stubborn fact, is that what President Ramaphosa said was untrue. Since the President must have known this, it begs the question why he said it. Certainly, the extent of violent crime has long been a major embarrassment for the government, and the question of farm murders is one that attracts a great deal of attention.
And while the idea of the government being behind farm murders is a far-fetched and unsupported fantasy, it can legitimately be criticised for the adequacy of its response. Perhaps the most likely and obvious explanation is that President Ramaphosa was denying this reality behind a foreign audience, hoping to push back against the reputational damage that the issue has inflicted on South Africa. He may have wanted to manipulate the narrative as its reaches a foreign audience – expecting later to have to ‘qualify’ this for a domestic audience that would know better.
If this is correct, President Ramaphosa’s conduct may understandable (in the way that governments the world over hope that creative spin can extricate them from their troubles), but it is no more honest for that. And it degrades policy debate.
Facts are indeed stubborn things. Properly respected, facts cannot be ‘nuanced’ or ‘contextualised’ to support something which they do not provide evidence for, no matter how popular or appealing it is. Today the integrity of facts in public discourse needs to be protected. This applies to President Ramaphosa as much as to President Trump. A special responsibility for this rests on those who deal in information and communication; if this responsibility is abrogated, the very concept of truth will suffer.
Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations