There’s an elderly hustler who works at my local shopping centre.
Around closing time, as the last shoppers leave, he lingers in the parking garage, anxiously pressing a cellphone to his ear.
The moment you’re close enough, he launches his pitch.
“What?” he stammers into the phone. “Oh dear! I…I don’t know what to do! My wife was supposed to fetch me but now they haven’t paid her pension and there’s no money and…No, I don’t know what to do!”
He looks around, desperate and alone, a man without options but too proud to ask for help.
If it’s the first time you’ve seen it, it’s completely irresistible. You’d have to be a monster not to plunge your hand into your wallet and thrust cash at him. And when you do, it gets even more convincing. He squirms, looking very uncomfortable, reluctant to take the money. You insist. He accepts. But only because you insisted.
This week he was there again, his voice becoming tremulous as he heard the bad news on his phone for the thirtieth time that evening. Oh dear! What should he do? As I reached him I suggested he find some new material, but perhaps the person on the phone was talking very loudly because he didn’t seem to hear me, instead turning his gaze towards the next shopper coming up the walkway.
It reminded me of the other small-time con artists I’ve encountered, each hustling away, wringing a small living out of the credulous and the kind; and I wondered about how many people fall for the same sob story twice. And that made me think about the much more successful hustlers we read about every day; the charlatans who’ve cooked up such convincing pitches that we don’t only give them money but also titles like “Honourable Member” or “Mr President”.
The moment that old man approached me a second time, I saw our first meeting clearly and understood that I shouldn’t believe a word he said to me in future. And yet what about the Honourable Members and Mr President? I understand how easy it is to fall for a good hustle, but to be swindled a second time? And a third? A fourth?
How do you read about the Arms Deal, Nkandla, Marikana, the Guptas, the barely disguised capture of the Treasury (to name only those crimes that stand out from an ever-lengthening catalogue of theft and misrule), and still give the con man your sympathy?
Perhaps one answer is faith.
This week I was contacted by someone called Mark. He was objecting to a column I’d written in this newspaper, in which I’d wondered what it would take for the president to be forced to resign.
Mark started off bemoaning the current state of the party. “The ANC, our liberators, are allowing [Zuma] to destroy their legacy,” wrote Mark. This destruction, he added, was “so sad”.
It was pretty standard stuff, but then things took a turn for the surreal. An increasingly angry Mark warned me not to speak disrespectfully of Zuma. Why? Because Zuma “remains our leader, for now, ordained by God”.
He went on to remind me that while this was a free country, I should watch my “impertinent” tone because it wasn’t going “unnoticed”. So apparently I’m going on a list somewhere, drawn up by some sort of Stalinist Santa who’s going to put a lump of coal in my stocking unless Eskom has already burnt all the coal.
Not that I dwelled on those veiled threats. I was still fascinated by the first part, where an ANC supporter had just told me that Zuma was destroying the party but one shouldn’t object because God had put him there. In short: it was God’s will that the ANC be destroyed, but the ANC is good, but God is good, but the ANC is good, but…Head explodes.
I hope this is an extreme and rare position and that the ANC’s remaining supporters do not find themselves trapped in this abusive relationship of cosmic proportions. But I do find myself wondering: what role does faith play in keeping our national Ponzi scheme propped up?
Faith is belief without evidence, or without accepting evidence. You’ve seen the con man’s shtick for a second time. You have evidence that he’s a fraud. But you discount the evidence, because you’ve decided to believe, despite everything.
And so you ignore the evidence of your eyes; you ignore Nkandla, Marikana and the Guptas; and you decide that the con man isn’t a con man. You decide he’s a good bloke who genuinely needs you.
Of course, you’re half-right. He does need you. Without your faith, he’d have to work for a living.
People have their reasons for believing. I get that. But if it all boils down to faith then God help us all.