Iqbal, Piet and the mystery of the missing decuplets

Jeremy Gordin writes on the latest "low point" in South African journalism

In his 1947 essay on Tolstoy and Shakespeare, George Orwell asks the reader: “If Shakespeare is all that Tolstoy has shown him to be, how did he ever come to be so generally admired?

“Evidently [wrote Orwell] the answer can only lie in a sort of mass hypnosis, or ‘epidemic suggestion’. ...Throughout history, says Tolstoy, there has been an endless series of these ‘epidemic suggestions’ – for example, the Crusades, the search for the Philosopher's Stone, the craze for tulip growing which once swept over Holland, and so on and so forth.”

In my (ahem) as yet unfinished novel, one of the protagonists called Roses (a black journalist) finds himself feeling uncomfortable with a manuscript he’s been left to edit by another (female) protagonist named Charley. Roses thinks that Charley doesn’t “get” and communicate effectively the real “feel” of township violence in the 1970s and 80s.

“... [N]ever mind ‘pain’ and ‘anguish’, these were abstractions [Roses said to himself]. The point was that, when reading Charley’s manuscript, Roses couldn’t smell or see those rubbish-strewn and stony streets, any more than he could when reading ‘history’ books.

“It suddenly occurred to Roses that one of the documented early symptoms of the Covid-19 virus was that a person lost his or her sense of smell and taste – and later, if the infection became acute, would suffer from gigantic lassitude; also, it was anecdotally reported, such a person might even find that swatches of memory had disappeared. Maybe, then, if you’d lived in, or ‘through,’ South Africa in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, not to mention the preceding decades – lived, that is, in more than a vegetative state – you had long been infected by a type of Covid-19.”

Then Roses says to himself hold on, don’t be silly – “[m]etaphysics and epiphanies weren’t his bag; [he needed to] take a deep breath and think again”.

But what if (I, Jeremy Gordin, ask you) what if – as a sort of corollary to, or by-product of, Covid-19 – we Seffricans feel the need to subscribe to and immerse ourselves in “epidemic suggestions”? What if such suggestions are a way of relieving the national tension?

I pose these seemingly outlandish questions in connection with the recent newspaper stories, and the many various reactions to them, written by no lesser a personage than the editor of the Pretoria News, Piet Mahasha Rampedi, who, for reasons not readily apparent to me, calls himself “Mr Putin” on Twitter [1].

According to the Pretoria News’ front-page story of June 8, written by Rampedi, Gosiame Thamara Sithole, 37, of Tembisa Township in Ekurhuleni, gave birth to decuplets on June 7 at an unspecified hospital in Pretoria. This was stated by her “partner” (initially referred to as her husband) Teboho Tsotetsi.

Tsotetsi also said that Sithole delivered her seven boys and three girls by Caesarean section, that she was not on fertility treatment, that she is already the mother of six-year-old twins, and that she’d given birth to “their bundles of joy” 29 weeks into her pregnancy.

The article was also accompanied by a (pre-birth) photograph of the happy couple, in which Sithole does seem to look – how shall I say? – enormously pregnant.

Now, being an old fart whose days of waiting nervously inside and outside the delivery room are ancient memories, and whose present anxieties are more about Covid-19’s frightening gallop up the charts or Gwede Mantashe’s championing of Karpowerships or the sale of SAA to Takatso consortium, I was, I readily admit, slow to grasp the importance and magnitude of the decuplet birth.

But it was soon pointed out to me that Sithole had broken the Guinness World Record held by one Malian Halima Cissé who gave birth to nine children in Morocco last month. I was reminded that this was important; to hell with the nay-sayers; let it not be said by anyone that we Seffricans lag behind the world in any way.

It was perhaps also for this reason – the breaking of the record and the desire to share the national joy at a difficult time for the nation – that (as the SA National Editors’ Forum, SANEF, has phrased it) “the rest of the country, the government and other journalists” were eager to verify the story.

Whoops. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

None of the various hospitals and clinics knew anything about the decuplets. Government spokesperson Phumla Williams said neither the babies nor their mother could be found; her assertion was repeated by the Gauteng MEC of Health and by Gauteng Provincial Government spokesperson, Thabo Masebe.

Disbelief became the order of the day; twitter was rife with it. Why this should have been so was difficult to understand. As Mr Putin was to tweet yesterday: “I am a credible and reliable journalist who has NEVER lied to you. So is Independent Media. We will not start today” [2].

Much of the disbelief was presumably fed by white people who simply don’t understand black “culture” – who don’t grasp that black people can’t simply show off their children to the media, because ... sorry, I forget why this can’t be done, but there is some explanation. That there seems to be no “cultural” problem about doing this every year on December 26 and January 1 is of course beside the point [3].

In the midst of this national scepticism and lack of trust, there was an upside, however. Dr Iqbal Survé, medical doctor, entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, and a person who has modestly admitted to staffers at Independent Media that he is a “genius”, arranged for Tsotetsi to fly to Cape Town to receive a gift of R1 million.

But some people simply can’t desist from biting the hand that wants to feed them. Having apparently collected the money (though a cheque can always be stopped), Tsotetsi and his family later issued a statement to the effect that they couldn’t locate Sithole or his babies and had concluded therefore that the decuplets did not exist. The family had even – if I understand correctly – made a missing person’s report at a local police station. Tsotetsi also said people should stop sending money. (Perhaps the ZCC star that Tsotetsi wears in the photographs is a clue – perhaps he is that rare person, an honest one interested in the “truth” and nothing but.) 

Adding to the confusion (to mine, at any rate), the forementioned SANEF went so far as to state that “This entire episode ranks as one of the lowest points in the history of South African journalism. The failure of Rampedi and Independent Media to do basic fact-checking and verify grandiose statements before publication has undermined and damaged the entire journalistic profession”.

The reason I am confused is that I’d been under the impression that the stories written by Sunday Times’ journalists about Cato Manor and the revenue service, or the Jacques Pauw imbroglio, had been among the lowest points in local journalism. How many low points can local journalism suffer, I ask with tears in my eyes? (And why, entre nous, do I not feel more undermined and damaged than I did yesterday?)

Talking of which, what does a smart journalist do when s/he feels the walls closing in?

It was time, friends, for the Reverse Ferret. We’ve discussed this before. But just to remind you: a Reverse Ferret (RF) is a sudden reversal in the line taken on a certain issue or occurrence by an organization or journalist; importantly, this should involve no acknowledgement of the previous position [4] .

Rampedi has yesterday or today executed an excellent RF. Instead of dealing with pesky issues such as whether he ever actually saw the decuplets, Rampedi has gone on the offensive.

Besides mentioning that he’s NEVER lied to us, he has argued that there is a conspiracy afoot, with “sources” saying “the denials [of the existence of the decuplets] were part of a campaign to cover up medical negligence that involved senior politicians and public servants including Premier David Makhura” and others. (A very saucy source, as we say.)

“[The sources] likened it to the Life Esidemeni scandal,” Rampedi continues, adding that “Nurses and doctors were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements barring them from disclosing information about Sithole’s delivery and the babies.”

“Instead of [the birth] being a cause for celebration, however,” Rampedi concludes, “it has resulted in an orchestrated campaign to discredit the story, the mother of the decuplets, Ms Sithole, the Pretoria News editor Piet Rampedi, as well as Independent Media and its chairperson, Dr Iqbal Survé, with claims that the story is ‘fake news’. It is not and we stand by our story.”

So, what’s it all about, Alfie (or Piet)? “Is it just for the moment we live? / What's it all about? When you sort it out, Alfie? / Are we meant to take more than we give? / Or are we meant to be kind?”

Or, as I wondered earlier, has it all been an “epidemic suggestion” to help relieve the national tension? Do we all suffer from a SA version of Covid-19, which has been around for longer than we think, as suggested by the fictitious Roses?

Geez, I don’t know. I do worry about those babies, though, even if there’s only one of them.

Anyway, when this is all over, I hope Sithole is given the Order of Mapungubwe for getting a million latkes out of Dr Survé. It’s more than the Public Investment Corporation has achieved, and it’s their money. But then, as I said, cheques are easily stopped, or something – because one thing I’ll never believe is that Survé is as gullible as we are.

As for Mr Putin, I guess SANEF will need to find the local equivalent of Sleepy Joe Biden to have a firm and meaningful chat with him about red lines and so on. I can’t imagine who that will be.


[1] If misinformation – or, as we say these days, fake news – is your bag, why not use as your avatar the name of one of the really great practitioners, Mr Goebbels or Mr Stalin?

[2] The fact that I, on reading this, muttered “Yeah, and I’m Robert Redford” is of no relevance whatsoever.

[3] At least the BBC has not been insensitive – as of today (June 17), the story of June 9, “South African woman gives birth to 10 babies in Pretoria” is still on the BBC website.

[4] As Wikipedia explains, the term originates from Kelvin MacKenzie's time at The Sun. His preferred description of the role of journalists when it came to public figures was to “stick a ferret up their trousers”. This meant making their lives uncomfortable and was based on the supposed Northern England stunt of ferret-legging (where contestants compete to show who can endure a live ferret within their sealed trousers the longest). However, when it became clear that the tide of public opinion had turned against the paper's line, MacKenzie would burst from his office shouting “Reverse ferret!”