LIKE Kafka, George Orwell (Eric Blair) left his eponymous mark on history; plus anticipation of a particular forthcoming year. It’s now forty years since 1984, which turned out not to embody the dystopic future Blair had feared. Perhaps only now are we getting there.

Orwellian means many things to many people. It frequently conjures up a picture of Big Brother using technology, all-seeing screens for instance, for purposes of oppression and mind control. Others take it as a metaphor for repressive communist or fascist regimes. None of these representations is wrong, but they miss Blair’s point: that the potential for totalitarianism is present in every society. And while Blair was a genius, one of the major thinkers and writers of the twentieth century because he expressed himself so clearly and vivdly, his dystopian fears were not original. He simply added to the ongoing saga like an evolving, mutating folk tale.

Blair’s political critique, expressed in both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, was ignited in the Spanish Civil War where he fought for the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). He was doubly lucky to survive. Shot through the throat, on returning to Barcelona after hospitalisation, he was warned by his wife Eileen to leave immediately ahead of a (Soviet Stalinist) communist purge. For the rest of his life Blair was a democratic socialist who warned against extremism. And the war in Spain he regarded, perhaps overdramatically, as a moment at which history paused. His crucial point was the imperative of truth seeking; and the need to accept that objective truth does indeed exist.

There are many intriguing, and witty, definitions of history pointing out that there can be no definitive, objective version; only varying interpretations. One of Julian Barnes’ fictional characters describes history as an outcome of imperfect memory and incomplete documentation. But this does not invalidate or devalue the fact that things happened; or they didn’t. A particularly relevant example of the latter are the pervasive alternative facts of the Trump administration in the USA. The mass production of lies is something we may soon have to get used to again.

In the meantime, the world is increasingly ignoring the inversion of truth put out by Putin’s Russia about Ukraine. This is the raw lying of fascism as opposed to the more subtle narrative of communism, which employed various alluring messages about brother- and sisterhood and solidarity. Variations in language and tone did not, however, eliminate the essentially similar aims and ultimate destination. This is more evident historically in Animal Farm than Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The abandonment of objective truth empowered Hitler and Stalin and their imitators, for example in Cambodia and Rwanda; and led to millions of deaths. The corruption of language precedes the erasure of memory and the elevation of supposed grievance that make possible lunatic ideas and reverence for a reputedly strong leader. This type of politics is a febrile one of emotion, feelings and chanted slogans ‒ or in South Africa’s case singing and dancing ‒ that creates a reassuring sense of solidarity. The exercise of reason that lies beneath its polar opposite, liberal democracy, encourages different viewpoints and even dissent. This is, of course, democracy’s great strength; but its opponents see it as a weakness and try to exploit it. Similarly, the healthy contestation within good science is regarded as a threat to populist certainty. Populists of right or left always have the answers; simple ones to complex questions they struggle to frame. Their contemporary enabler is social media. The Orwellian big screen has been miniaturised.

A famous dictum from Nineteen Eighty-Four is that those who control the past control the future; and those who control the present control the past. Blair anticipated fake news such as the alternative facts pumped out by the Trump White House in its war on reality: the job of Winston Smith, the book’s main character, is to change history by altering the written record, literally rewriting the newspaper archive, just as the Soviets used to erase individuals from the photographic record.

Does this have any relevance to South Africa today? Yes, it does, in a way. At a wreath laying for Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo at the Old Prison in Pietermaritzburg on 5 March 2024, KwaZulu-Natal premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube reportedly lauded the crucial role of traditional leaders in the struggle for freedom against oppressors. Traditional leaders, she claimed, were central to the formation of the ANC in 1912. In fact, the majority of the founding members were middle-class, Westernised and Christian. Many of the traditional leaders were co-opted first by colonialism then by apartheid.

Having given this distorted version of the past, history as she would have wished, Dube-Ncube then turned to present and future arguing that the many breakaways from the ANC were a plot to divide and weaken black people. This could lead to re-oppression and a second colonisation. Exactly who she had in mind was not spelled out. The Chinese, perhaps? The problem, she concluded, was that people are reluctant to be led by the ANC; just like the sheep in Animal Farm presumably. With this material Blair would be in his element.

In his investigation of Homo Sovieticus after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Russian sociologist Yuri Levada used a telling analogy. People, he observed, kept on dancing after the music had stopped. The dissident Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas noted the loyalty to ritualistic code; repeated words and phrases known as Newspeak. This involves a situation in which the powerful have lost belief in anything other than their own power. It signals fundamental decay. Listen to the phrases endlessly repeated at ANC rallies, lectures and report backs year after year: the same tired and now meaningless rhetoric that people apparently continue to believe. That’s more Orwellian than Big Brother.

The General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill at present before parliament is further proof of the ANC’s Orwellian inclinations. As presently worded it provides scope for expanded control over civil society and replaces the already contested concept of national security with national interest and values. It’s all-too clear who will determine those.