How not to go about accusing a ‘liar’

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IOL st Phumzile Van Damme (42949355) INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS All that matters concerning DA MP Phumzile Van Damme is whether she has South African citizenship. To be appointed as a lawmaker, says the writer, you need to stick to the rules. Picture: David Ritchie

It’s a pity the Sunday Times chose to be sensationalist in their treatment of the story regarding DA MP Van Damme, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - It’s fascinating how the identity of a person or an institution can determine responses to stories about that person or that institution. The lead story in the Sunday Times this week is an excellent case in point and worth unpacking.

The front page of the Sunday Times screamed, sensationally, “DA MP a liar and a fraud”. The story suggested that DA MP Phumzile van Damme is not a South African citizen and so isn’t eligible to be an MP in our National Assembly.

Worse, the headline, as well as the tone of the piece, and specific word choices and phrases in the main story, bluntly attribute deceit to Van Damme, implying that she is indeed a liar. The article instructs the reader to ascribe a damning character trait to the MP.

But reactions to the story from DA politicians, from the DA as a party and many readers (of various political affiliations) focused disproportionately on the tonality of the piece and its hasty character judgment. The nexus issue, which must be the boring but important matter of whether the MP meets the requirements to be in Parliament, got ignored.

Let me be clear where I think criticism of the Sunday Times is fair. You cannot reasonably call someone a liar unless you have evidence of two facts: first, that that person deliberately deceived you; second, that they lie habitually.

In this case the Sunday Times has proved at most that, objectively speaking, Van Damme was born in Swaziland and never applied to be declared a naturalised citizen of South Africa.

But if that is true, it does not follow thereby that she lied. She could be sincerely mistaken about the truth, and so convinced of her version that she vehemently asserts the Sunday Times’s version to be false.

I’d do the same if someone called me to claim I was born in Cape Town; an upsetting possibility at odds with my internalised eRhini birthplace story.

So that first condition – deliberately deceiving – to be branded a liar isn’t met by the Sunday Times. But let’s assume Van Damme lied in this case, in the sense of conceding truth deliberately (for the sake of argument).

It still doesn’t mean the second criterion to be branded a liar has been met, that of lying habitually. To say you’re a liar is a deep character judgment about your tendency to behave in certain ways in certain circumstances over a long period of time. That’s the essence of character.

One data point about my life cannot suffice as a basis on which to make a character judgment. We casually do so at times in many ordinary interactions between us, but actually that is sloppy. A person of integrity can tell a lie on a particular occasion. Otherwise, the bar for being regarded “an honest person” is set impossibly high: one strike and there is a vicious liar at the core of your identity. That surely would be hasty.

In this case, the Sunday Times branded Van Damme a liar with only a single data point from the narrative about her life to support such a big conclusion.

But here’s the snag about the reactions to the Sunday Times. If this story was about Julius Malema or Blade Nzimande, say, I seriously doubt whether all the people moaning about the fairness of the headline, or the fairness of the tone of the story, would have come to their defences. Let’s keep it real.

In fact, many of these critics would salivate at a story proving Malema is actually Namibian, say, and take it as further proof that prior views they have about him are right.

But Van Damme is a new MP with no public imagery attached to her name – yet. So readers can unconsciously afford her a presumption of truthfulness that would not be afforded an unlikable person.

The same goes for the brand of the institution at issue in the news piece. How can the squeaky-clean DA possibly feature in this kind of story?

Little wonder DA members attacked the Sunday Times viciously, with choice descriptions of their journalism ranging from “disgusting” to “gutter journalism”. Not sentiments they’d hold and express if it was, say, a story about the IFP. I guess consistency isn’t everybody’s cuppa tea.

The salient issue has been lost in the middle of the fat klap given to the Sunday Times. And that salient issue remains breathtakingly simple: Is Van Damme legally eligible to be in Parliament?

Simply get the Independent Electoral Commission and Home Affairs to settle the matter as a matter of fact, and to adjudicate between her claims and the evidence of the Sunday Times journalists to the contrary. That is the nexus issue here and not the fair criticism of the word and tone choices made in the writing up of the story.

It’s almost as if critics refuse to reflect on the significance of the role of an MP. MPs have huge constitutional power. They make binding laws that regulate our lives. If we are supposed to be a rule-bound society, then that must start with MPs role-modelling rule-following, by making sure they are rightly appointed to the very role of lawmaker!

If not, the credibility of Parliament as a lawmaking body is undermined because the body would not be legally and ethically properly constituted. So it matters profoundly whether, objectively, Van Damme is a South African citizen. The relevant authority must settle this factual dispute.

Finally, additional good critical points that have been raised are red herrings. Given our history, many of us would not be able to prove our citizenship; some ANC politicians no doubt were born in exile and never properly applied for citizenship, etc.

Add to the mix family secrecy which is rife in many of our families and you have reason to sympathise with Van Damme, and also to warn those loving this story that they, too, may be proven to have been born outside our borders.

But these historic truths must not be overemphasised in the context of this story. If there’s lots of antisocial behaviour in your area, should you only punish one person guilty of such behaviour if you can also punish everyone else guilty of the same behaviour? No, otherwise we must release all prisoners until everyone objectively guilty of crime can be found and sent to prison also.

The point is simple: we deal on a case-by-case basis with transgressions of laws and moral codes. So all that matters here is Van Damme’s citizenship, and this investigation is not dependent on also setting up, say, a committee to look into every MP’s background. It’s perfectly fine to be pragmatic and deal with cases as they surface.

It’s a pity the Sunday Times chose to be sensationalist in their treatment of the story. That conveniently gives the DA space to change the subject of the conversation.

The alert citizen, however, should not miss what’s most important here. Parliament is too crucial to our lives to be distracted by the DA’s outrage.

* Eusebius McKaiser hosts ‘Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser’ on Power 98.7 weekdays 9am till noon.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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