I was 21. Walking out of the massive terminus at Rome’s biggest railway station. I had a fully laden backpack, my wallet stuffed deep in my front pocket – fully aware of pickpockets looking to prey on vulnerable travellers in a foreign country.
“My baby! My baby,” shouted someone in my peripheral vision. I turned to face a woman about my age, a baby on her hip, it’s snotty nose, dripping.
She locked eyes with me and again: “My baby, my baby...”
She appeared distressed as she pawed at my chest, all the time keeping eye contact, sticking to her message. “My baby...”
The kid was fine. She achieved what she wanted. I was distracted. And then I felt the hands. There were at least three small kids delving into my pockets, trying to unzip the backpack, looking to lift anything of value. She’d reeled me in, and they were moving deftly to separate me from my belongings.
I bolted. Shouting. They all disappeared into the crowd looking for their next unsuspecting mark.
I had nearly been robbed blind, because my attention had been elsewhere. I very quickly wised up to the dangers of distraction.
Bell Pottinger ran a similar mugging attempt in South Africa. They created political noise and in the chaos and distraction that ensued, took the country’s attention off the widespread looting that brought us to the brink of collapse.
It was expertly done. They found trigger points for South African emotions and shamelessly exploited those vulnerabilities for their clients' benefit.
It all ended of course, thanks largely to the massive expose that resulted from the deluge of 200,000 so-called GuptaLeaks emails, which provided the catalyst for the collapse of the Zuma administration.
We have to be careful about those distractions as we head toward an election year.
Smart spin-doctors make it hard to discern between fact and fiction dressed up as truth, and we will be played many times.
Right now, one of the biggest distractions in SA is whether or not VBS Mutual Bank should be saved.
It’s as clear as day: that it’s a non-starter. Its brand is dead, its market betrayed, and its finances – without a massive bailout – unsalvageable.
So why all the calls for it to be saved?
Well, it distracts from the issues under investigation by the Hawks.
Misinformation and obfuscation distract from the real issues the country faces. Of course the criminals are trying to bully the SA Reserve Bank into submission. The rhetoric seeking to force investigations into the SARB shareholding, which has nothing to do with its ability to do its job or its efficacy in doing that work, is designed to undermine its legitimacy.
There will be attempts to undermine South Africa’s long overdue economic turnaround by those incapable of running legitimate businesses in a competitive environment. There will be disinformation campaigns in an effort to block private sector participation in the broken public sector.
Imagine if we spent half as much time finding solutions to SA’s education, health, employment and security crises as we do defending the indefensible.
Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.
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