Be wary, SA, of mediocre politicians’ sly schemes

Ideas

Be wary, SA, of mediocre politicians’ sly schemes

We must call out the excesses and inflated claims of those desperate to use the virus crisis as a career move

Columnist
What!? Cutbacks? Pity poor Wayne Rooney.
Help! What!? Cutbacks? Pity poor Wayne Rooney.
Image: Action Images/Carl Recine

Former England captain Wayne Rooney says the pressure being put on English Premier League footballers by the UK’s health minister to take a 30% pay cut is a “disgrace”. And he’s absolutely right.

For starters, just imagine the psychological trauma of such a move. Imagine being an average Premier League footballer, getting by on the average EPL income of R70m a year, and suddenly being told by health secretary Matt Hancock that you might have to make do on R49m. Reader, do not scream, but that’s only R134,000 a day.

Imagine having to look at the expectant little faces of your family, your coke dealers and your escorts and telling them that you’re going to have to make some cutbacks, because, even though you’re not allowed to go anywhere and have nothing to spend your money on, and you’re therefore going to have more disposable income than you’ve had in years, you’re ... er ... well, it’s still crappy, OK?

Secondly, Hancock’s call, although disguised as an appeal to solidarity, threatens to tear up the fabric of modern society. That’s because football is the planet’s most widely prescribed sedative, easing away the stress of billions of men by encouraging them to scream their feelings at their television set. And central to that soothing chemistry is the immense sums of money footballers get paid. The whole point of elite sport or show business or celebrity worship is that they provide a fantasy world, a place eternally separate from our own reality, in which otherworldly beings exist like a sort of heavenly host, flitting around us on great wings made of money and luxury, inviting us to take solace in their shimmering, distant, ludicrously overpaid existence. Forcing them to take a pay cut is like catching a fairy, gluing its wings together, dressing it in a tiny pinstripe suit and making it study accounting.

The real problem with Hancock’s decision to target footballers, however, is that it is transparently cynical.

It takes a very special kind of entitlement, and a very fragile grasp of history, to draw a parallel between a crime against humanity and not being allowed to go walkies because there’s a global pandemic happening.

I can understand the logic behind asking or even forcing the super-rich to tone down their bling slightly during this time in which hundreds of millions of people are facing financial ruin, but the fact that he didn’t extend his demands for pay cuts to royalty, oligarchs, corporate executives or Britain’s most infamous tax dodgers suggests that he was indulging in some particularly effective scapegoating. After all, add the unquestionable, Versailles-like decadence of professional football to old snobbery around working-class people who have come into new money, and the result is catnip for conservatives.

This is, admittedly, a fairly small political story that happened on the other side of the world and which will be forgotten in a week. But I think it’s a useful reminder to us in SA, as our attention spans are crushed under the weight of too much information and too little knowledge, of the speed and skill with which even mediocre politicians can use a crisis to shape public opinion to aid their long-term goals.

We’ve already seen Bheki Cele starting to fantasise about which restrictions he would like to see kept in place in the long term. On the other side of the aisle, some in the DA have seized on this kind of behaviour to insist that the ANC is embracing totalitarianism and that our democracy is dying.

Of course it’s the job of the opposition to oppose, but this Rooi Gevaar approach has already started producing some fairly tumescent reactions from likeminded WhatsApp groups. On the weekend, for example, someone who works for the Institute of Race Relations tweeted: “Stupid laws are stupid laws. Whether it’s saying black people can’t use the same benches as a white person or that you can’t walk your dog on a public road, some laws are just dumb. We should break dumb laws.” Perhaps he and his dog were having a bad day, but I must say that it takes a very special kind of entitlement, and a very fragile grasp of history, to draw a parallel between a crime against humanity and not being allowed to go walkies because there’s a global pandemic happening.

All of which is why, right now, we need a clear, dispassionate, trusted voice coming from outside of the political circus tent, calling out the excesses and inflated claims of politicians desperate to use this crisis as a career move, and sifting out the confusing, alarming fakery from the truth.

That voice should come from the media, but after the weekend’s catastrophic failure by News24 – publishing fake news about Bill Gates testing vaccines in Africa – terrible harm has been done to its credibility. Apologies have been made, but now the work must begin again, and more rigorously than before.

Or next thing we’ll all be blaming Wayne Rooney.

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