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A pandemic within a pandemic

South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is an especially likeable man not least because he has presided over that country’s judiciary with so much aplomb, defied expectations and confounded naysayers.

Crispen Manjonjo
journalist

President Jacob Zuma appointed him as the Chief Justice of South Africa in 2011, during the early years of what is now being conveniently characterised as the “nine wasted years” across the Limpopo.

His appointment as the chief executive of South Africa’s judiciary was mired in controversy and it was roundly condemned by others solely because he seemed to have vaulted over other senior judicial figures who were thought to have been “unfairly” passed over for promotion.

Mogoeng disarmed his critics, when under his leadership, the Constitutional Court returned a scathing verdict against his supposed benefactor — Jacob Zuma — during the Nkandla débâcle, stating that the latter had failed to uphold the constitution.

While he has presided over South Africa’s judiciary with admirable stewardship — outside the confines of his air conditioned office — he is also a man who has a knack of courting controversy largely because he is not coy to wear his steadfast religious beliefs on the sleeves.

A few months ago he drew the ire of pro-Palestinian activists during a webinar — a seminar conducted over the internet — for The Jerusalem Post, when he suggested that owing to his Christian beliefs, he had an obligation to love Israel.

“I’m under an obligation as a Christian to love Israel, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem which actually means the peace of Israel and I cannot as a Christian do anything other than love and pray for Israel because I know hatred for Israel by me, and for my nation will, can, only attract unprecedented curses upon our nation,” he opined at that time .

Recently he waded into the eye of a storm — during a prayer at a private function — when he temporarily traded court robes for the dog collar and laid into the putative Covid-19 vaccines, for which he was terribly castigated.

In his robust rebuttal to the ensuing criticism, Mogoeng was unrepentant, he even suggested that the much-celebrated vaccines could be “satanic”, adding fuel to the anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

“I’m not a scientist. I’m a prayer warrior and I’m encouraging prayer warriors to pray. I said if there is any vaccine that is being manufactured or advances a satanic agenda of the mark of the beast, 666; if there is any vaccine, anything manufactured for the purpose of corrupting the DNA of people, then that vaccine must be burned, it must die (sic).”

“If there is any vaccine meant to corrupt the DNA of people, I’m asking God — do interrupt . . . it. Any clean vaccine, they must produce it quickly. People need that for their own health. I’m not against vaccination, no, but any vaccination that will do harm to people I’m praying against it and I will never stop,” newspapers quoted Mogoeng , who was a lay preacher before his appointment as Chief Justice in 2011.

While this is not a treatise on Mogoeng — no, far from it — it is the clearest demonstration yet how disinformation, rank conspiracy theories and downright lies seem to be militating against the fight to arrest the spread of Covid-19, which emerged from China exactly a year ago.

Recently Reuters reported that “. . . coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 swept across the world and killed more than 1,5 million in the past year, it has mutated into several major groups, or strains, as it adapted to its human hosts.

“The analysis shows there are currently seven main strains of the virus. The original strain, detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, is the L strain. The virus then mutated into the S strain at the beginning of 2020. That was followed by V and G strains. Strain G mutated yet further into strains GR, GH and GV. Several other infrequent mutations were collectively grouped together as strain O.”

If Reuters’ report is true, then they omitted the eighth and most stubborn strain of the virus — disinformation and internecine international recriminations, unhelpful one-upmanship, conspiracy theories and downright lies.

A novel term — disinfodemic — was recently adopted to describe this phenomenon as “the falsehoods fuelling the (coronavirus) pandemic because of the huge viral load of potentially deadly disinformation.

Disinfodemic often hides falsehoods amidst true information, and conceals itself in the clothes of familiar formats.”

While it is the learned jurist’s constitutional right to hold such views or any view for that matter, it brings back to the fore the abiding legal and philosophical debate on how much individual background, gender and religious views impact on the work of judicial officers.

Owing to his statements, there are growing calls for Mogoeng to step down, largely because of his position, he wields so much influence and he ought to have known better than to stoke anti-vaccine conspiracy theories at a time where both lives and livelihoods are at stake.

At a time when people are susceptible to misinformation, at a time when it is easy to believe that 5G technology is responsible for Covid-19 and some such baloney than to believe that pork comes from pigs, it is irresponsible to spread more phobia and vaccine denialism under the guise of religion.

Unfortunately there are people who are likely to believe this, like someone who queried — after Mogoeng’s gratuitous comments — why is there a sudden pell-mell rush to get a vaccine and why must there be mass vaccine now when other viruses, including flu, which also killed quite a substantial number people broke out have not yet found cure.

Elsewhere other leaders are making a beeline for “the jab” of the vaccine in a valiant effort to disabuse and disarm doubting Thomases and plain conspiracy-mongers, some hiding behind small fingers of religion.

In the United States, it has been announced that septuagenarian President-elect Joe Biden will soon get a shot of the coronavirus vaccine, while the current vice-president Mike Pence got televised vaccination, to try and build public confidence around it and to stem the spread of the pandemic.

Because of the vaccine breakthrough there is light at the end of the tunnel and China is opening its doors to the world as WHO announced that scientists will be dispatched to Wuhan to try and retrace the genesis of the pandemic, which has killed millions around the world and decimated economies.

Certainly this is neither the time to spread unhelpful opinions nor to spout one’s religious beliefs and stoke convenient conspiracy theories; people like Mogoeng should know better.

It was bad enough that we have lost so many lives on account of the virus or to have spent the whole year behind a suffocating mask — a new normal — and life has been robbed of intimacy because previously innocuous and mundane acts like as handshaking, sneezing or even sharing a drink are now a definite no-no if one wants to protect themselves.

We pray that all the touted vaccines begin to work sooner rather than later so that we go back to our “normal lives” again and religious fanatics must just keep their unhelpful opinions to themselves for a while or at least pray for vaccines to work.

Manjonjo trained as a journalist and also graduated with a law degree from the University of South Africa

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