As South Africa continues to deal with the social and economic turmoil of the pandemic, a vocal anti-vaccine backlash has emerged. Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook are awash with disinformation and unsupported claims about hidden medical cabals, religious paranoia around satanism and the occult overlap with QAnon and other far-right beliefs.
Protests have been organised against masks and lockdowns, where it’s claimed that vaccines are the cover operation for a shadowy plot to subjugate and kill ordinary South Africans. Well-known crank Andile Mngxitama, the leader of the pro-Jacob Zuma lobby group Black First Land First, has described the Covid-19 vaccines as “666 inspired”. He has also promoted various right-wing conspiracy theories centring on Bill Gates, 5G and the idea that vaccines will be used to “microchip” people and “corrupt” their DNA.
But conspiracy theories do not only fester at the margins of the public sphere. People with significant standing in society have also rushed down the rabbit hole. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, a Christian fundamentalist, has raised the spectre of a satanic plot being perpetrated via vaccines, and insisted if this is the case it must “be destroyed by fire in the name of Jesus”.
The trade union movement in South Africa, and elsewhere, has an impressive record of commitment to science and public health, but Congress of South African Trade Unions president Zingiswa Losi has also come out against vaccines. In Durban, ANC ward councillor S’fiso Mngadi – who grassroots activists have accused of being complicit in a series of violent and unlawful evictions – circulated a voice note with the now-standard set of Covid-19, vaccine and 5G conspiracy theories. It went viral. When cellular towers were destroyed, it showed how these beliefs are not only misleading but also dangerous. By refusing to accept scientifically established material reality, these fear peddlers are prolonging the very disaster they claim to be exposing.
In South Africa, Covid-19 conspiracies have captured the imaginations of a range of political reactionaries. The pro-Trump white Right were early adaptors of anti-mask and anti-lockdown sentiments.
While their online spaces are awash with QAnon and 5G paranoia, there has been a concerted effort by right-wing media influencers to make their beliefs appear reasonable and grounded in legitimate concerns about science and civil liberties.
A group called Pandemics Data and Analytics (Panda) was formed in response to the government’s quarantine policy, and claims to be an apolitical lobby group offering scientifically informed advice. But, the Twitter account of its “coordinator” Nick Hudson regularly boosts the far-right “great reset” conspiracy theories supported by the lunatic fringe of Trumpism, and claims that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the medical “establishment” have been manipulating the pandemic for political, and probably covertly communist, gains.
Panda’s team includes Jonathan Witt, the former co-host of South Africa’s first alt-right podcast, The Renegade Report, and one of the most bellicose voices of the online Right. Witt is a qualified medical doctor but is not a specialist in infectious diseases. His professional title is used to give a pseudo-empiricist gloss to a group clearly motivated by an ideological project rather than by scientific inquiry.
Another anti-lockdown organisation, the Liberty Fighters Network (LFN), purports to be an advocacy group standing up against onerous government overregulation. The LFN’s own website, however, seems less concerned with protecting civil liberties than with standard tropes driving Trumpian paranoia.
One section, titled “Lawyers Must Fall”, claims, without any corroborating evidence, that the entire South African legal profession is guilty of a grand conspiracy against the public. The text is laid over a clip from a music video by C-list heavy metal band Disturbed, which shows Nazi-style soldiers butchering civilians and destroying cities. This apocalyptic imagery is used to suggest that public health measures undertaken in response to Covid-19 are a prelude to totalitarian government responses.
Covid-19 and Put South Africa First
While the white Right first imported the anti-mask panic of their American and European influences, these sentiments are gaining a wider audience by also tapping into reactionary currents in Black politics.
Covid-19 conspiracies have connected with xenophobia against African and Asian migrants. For instance, Twitter account Put South Africa First promotes both vaccine refusal and grotesque and dangerous anti-migrant material. A post on 9 January 2021 wondered why “illegal immigrants are crossing our borders but [the South African National Defence Force] is going to patrol beaches”.
Descending into a fascist approach to medicine, the notorious Lerato Pillay account tweeted: “Government must use those illegal Zimbabweans and other immigrants in our labs to test the vaccine.”
Covid-19 paranoia has also been adopted by accounts formerly implicated in pro-Zuma propaganda networks. They claim that Zuma was the target of shadowy “globalists”, who are now trying to use their wicked henchman Cyril Ramaphosa to force vaccines on the population. Mngxitama has described the WHO and Ramaphosa’s government as “satanic” forces bent on foisting “666 vacines [sic]” on people.
While many capitalise on conspiracies for explicit political reasons, South Africa’s deeply embedded religious conservatism allows misinformation to flourish. Linking vaccines to “666”, a number widely understood to represent the Antichrist in The Book of Revelation in the New Testament, taps into a long-standing moral panic over satanism and occultism.
It is psychologically understandable that paranoia and suspicion are flourishing in this period. Before the pandemic hit, South Africans were already reeling from mass unemployment, everyday forms of violence and the precipitous decline in respect for the state and the political class that followed the looting of the Zuma years. Now we have experienced almost a full year of heavy-handed lockdowns, uncertainty, worsening economic depression and the government’s inability to provide either a real stimulus to aid recovery or an effective medical response to the pandemic.
Suspicion and anger against the authorities is often rooted in daily negative experiences, and in such stressful times, fear and anxiety are entirely understandable. If a political party that calls itself a liberation movement could loot funds allocated to deal with a severe medical crisis and preside over a series of police killings during a pandemic, anything seems possible.
Medical conspiracies are not entirely produced by irrational and ungrounded fears. The medical industry is often cold, impersonal and ruthlessly exploitative. The view that the pharmaceutical companies are driven by a monomaniacal search for profit rather than by a real commitment to the public good is not paranoid. It is a rational assessment of the logic of capitalism and the consequences of its capture of medical research, and the production and distribution of medicines.
It is not surprising that a long history of racial and gender abuses in medical experimentation – a history by no means concluded – has also understandably encouraged vaccine hesitancy.
In the decades before Covid-19, these fears were cynically promoted by an “army of hucksters”, who spread misinformation about vaccinations, while also promoting their own “alternative” medicines and potions.
Rather than a cry from the oppressed, contemporary anti-vaccination theories originally emerged from a bourgeois “wellness culture”, which combines New Age beliefs with an obsessive focus on personal bodily purity.
Ill-advised celebrity endorsements from the likes of Robert de Niro, who promoted the false belief that vaccines can cause autism in children, gave anti-vax theories a global platform.
In recent years, however, far-right groups and ideas have attempted to infiltrate and influence the anti-vax movement. This is not to say that New Age and wellness culture is intrinsically fascist – much of it is benign and concerned with individual spiritual development in an alienated capitalist culture. But the Right uses shared interests in both “purity” and conspiracy to push its own ideological direction.
The 2020 pandemic supercharged existing conspiracy theories. Many believers feel that politicians, the medical establishment and the media are puppets of a shadowy elite cabal that truly runs the planet. It is thought that the depravity of these cabals, which are often said to engage in organised child abuse or even human sacrifice, knows no bounds. While only some fringe adherents follow the deranged British conspiracy theorist David Icke and hallucinate shapeshifting reptilian aliens, it’s generally accepted that these cabals are made up of satanic paedophiles, at the very least.
These online beliefs led to “anti-lockdown” protests in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The composition of these rallies brought esoteric conspiracists together with the armed, militant hard right. In the US, these events laid the groundwork for the attempted fascist insurrection against the Capitol, the legislative seat of the government.
Anti-lockdown movements were often framed as grassroots expressions of working-and middle-class socioeconomic pain. But these sentiments were publicly supported by super-rich blowhards like Elon Musk and Donald Trump, who wanted the workforce to return to “normal” – regardless of the very real health risks.
Anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown figures imagine themselves as freedom fighters against overbearing governments. In practice, they are serving as the information mercenaries of some of the most voracious members of the capitalist class.
Paranoia in the 21st-century
While conspiracy-inspired political movements have rapidly gained global influence, it is important to remember that political paranoia and conspiracy theories have been around for centuries.
Some conspiracy theories, according to author Jesse Walker, focus on the enemy within, such as the red scares, which claimed leftists were a fifth column working for foreign powers. Others generate a fantasy of an enemy without, such as in anti-Semitic fears of an international Jewish conspiracy. There are also fears about the enemy above, like the QAnon belief that politicians such as Hillary Clinton are actively involved in ritualistic human sacrifice.
This is not to say that actual conspiracies, wherein people and organisations collude to lie to the public for private gain, don’t occur. Governments have conducted unspeakable clandestine medical programmes. German scientists, such as Hubertus Strughold, performed grotesque human experimentations for the Nazis. After World War II, he was quietly brought to the US as part of Operation Paperclip to work for the space programme and later became known as the “father of space medicine”.
In South Africa, the apartheid state’s clandestine chemical weapons programme was overseen by Wouter Basson, dubbed “Dr Death” – who, in an astonishing defiance of all ethics, is still a registered medical practitioner.
The private sector has also misled the public about the dangers of profitable medicines. For example, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue Pharma deliberately marketed dangerous products like Oxycontin, despite being aware of how highly addictive it was, fuelling the US opioid crisis.
However, these real-world examples of collusion and secrecy have been thoroughly documented and researched. By contrast, conspiracy theories about 5G or the “plandemic” are folklore and popular mythology, with no credible evidence to verify the existence of these imagined plots.
Believers mystify the normal functioning of capitalism. For example, instead of opposing the systematic greed and profiteering of the pharmaceutical complex, they focus on imagined evils involving the Devil and rituals conducted in dark, Kubrickian war rooms.
Hidden in plain sight
But the paranoid fantasy of an all powerful and unstoppable cabal attributes too much credit to government and big business. As the Zondo Commission into state capture has shown, bureaucratic incompetence and human error means that actual political conspiracies are difficult to keep hidden for long.
States and corporations regularly have their maleficence publicly exposed. But, much as in religious or political cults, conspiracists enjoy the narcissistic pleasures of believing that they are part of an elect that has pierced the veil of lies and seen the true nature of reality. Immersion in conspiracy theories breeds the self-righteous feeling that one is “mainlining the secret truths of the universe”.
But the mundane fact is that the worst abuses and injustices of our time are out in the open. The inequalities of for-profit medicine and the overbearing influence of plutocrats like Bill Gates are matters of public record.
In capitalist society, the biggest crimes are done with the stroke of an elegant fountain pen. There is simply no need for the powerful to resort to fantastical schemes.
The term “conspiracy theory” is often used as a euphemism for low class and uneducated, but the powerful are equally prone to paranoia. Governments constantly think their subjects are plotting against them.
Thabo Mbeki’s enthusiasm for pseudo-scientific theories about Aids had a disastrous effect on public health. Zuma, a politician forged in the John le Carré-style Cold War cynicism of secret intelligence, maintains there was a transnational imperialist plot to remove him from office. Former DA leader Helen Zille espouses bizarre far-right theories about “cultural Marxism” and genuinely believes the media and academia have been taken over by socialist revolutionaries.
The quasi-apocalyptic feeling of contemporary life, which seems to lurch from one economic or environmental crisis to the next, is a swamp that spawns all kinds of fetid beliefs.
Decades of neoliberalism and austerity have made many alienated and angry. With people facing more news of future economic dispossession and hopelessness, conspiracy theories become attractive mechanisms to explain anxieties and vent fears and resentments.
They are often embraced by the well-off. This was seen in the affluent QAnon supporters who flew across the US to attack the Capitol Building. Conspiracies also reflect paranoia about diminishing social privileges.
Right-wing conspiracies adopt an anti-elitist stance when railing against the “globalist elites” believed to be behind Covid-19. On the surface, their language and anger against the apparent profiteering of, for example, vaccine manufacturers seem to reflect anti-capitalist sentiments.
But these tropes are only used against the parts of the capitalist state perceived to be for lockdowns and masks. Despite their anti-elite pretences, the right-wing media influencers who whip up conspiracy theories support figures like Trump, the politics of tax breaks for billionaires and Thatcherite austerity.
Conspiracy theories channel existing resentments against the state and social order into a direction the far right wants. Legitimate suspicions about society are linked with reactionary hatreds and desires to punish imagined “enemies”. When channelled into existing prejudices, such as xenophobia or the white supremacist Make America Great Again movement, conspiracies can become a dangerous inciting force for political violence. As the crises of capitalism and the liberal state, and now the pandemic, continue to make consensual reality seem more surreal and inexplicable, these movements will continue to flourish.
There are two antidotes to the conspiracy theories circulating around the cause, nature, prevention and treatment of Covid-19: the democratisation of access to scientific knowledge by ongoing public education and a committed programme to place public health at the centre of the state’s commitments.