Final Word

ANC war room and fake news not all that new


The fact that the African National Congress (ANC) had a ‘war room’ from where it launched fake news operations against opposition parties during the 2014 election campaign is not really news.

When knowledge of the war room and the ANC’s operations was forced by the court case into the public domain, however, that created ‘new’ public knowledge and was therefore indeed ‘news’. But the concepts of ‘war rooms’ and ‘fake/false’ things, people, conduct and information go back donkey’s years.

Having been involved over the last more than 50 years in the worlds of news and political campaigning, starting off a working life reporting the news, I thought it was about time I had a proper look at where the term ‘news’ comes from!

The term ‘news’ made its appearance in late Middle English around the 14th century as the plural of ‘new’ from the Old French word nouvelles (the plural feminine form of nouveau – new), from Latin’s nova for ‘new things’.  

First ‘fake’ news

There is, however, also a false or fake etymology for ‘news’ that is sometimes put forward. It claims that ‘news’ is an acronym for the four cardinal directions on the compass – north, east, west and south.

If it was true, it would have been quite ironic in the context of the latest ‘fake news’ allegations against the ANC – considering how the party under the pressure of factionalism and leadership battles appears to be directionless.

The term ‘news’ replaced ‘tidings’, which was used before the 14th century for the announcement of something like an event, from the Old English word ‘tidung’ for an event, occurrence or other piece of news.

War room

As one would expect the term ‘war room’ comes from the world of the military, describing a command centre to coordinate military activities. By extension it came into general use for a single location, office, centre or collection of people from which related activities are coordinated.

It is the location where information important to the joint effort/campaign is collected, strategies planned and their execution managed.

Just last week news broke that a member of the Democratic Party in the US has decided to keep their ‘war room’ from last year’s presidential election going. Their intention is to keep opposition to newly elected president Donald Trump going – and there we thought South Africans were unique in the way we conduct our political battles.

The sins and fun of fake  

Most sources tell us that the word ‘fake’ made its appearance in the English language in the late 18th century as a criminal slang term, but that its origin is uncertain. One guess is that it might be related to German word fegen, meaning ‘sweep’ as in polish.

It made its first appearance in reference to ‘counterfeit’ in 1775, as a verb in 1812, indicating ‘to rob’ and as a noun to describe a ‘swindle’ some forty years later.

This history has some etymologists guessing that it might have developed from the word feague, meaning ‘to spruce up by artificial means’, from the German fegen, meaning which also meant ‘to clear out, plunder’, in colloquial use.

It also has an application in the nautical environment, where it indicates the windings of cables hawsers on a coil.

To fake something, dates to 1915 and in sport, as a fake pass by a player to create a gap for attack in rugby or football to the 1940s.

Fakes, however, can become serious fun in an area where they have been proliferating, the huge collection of so-called Chinese proverbs.

The use of proverbs as a means to educate children and to impart wisdom, is an important part of Chinese culture and strongly associated with the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Most of the Chinese or Confucian proverbs one so often hears one will not find in any authentic Chinese text and were clearly coined in a world that Confucius did not know. Consider, for example, these two: “Man who run in front of car get tired” and “Man who run behind car get exhausted.”

As pretenders of being authentic ‘Chinese proverbs’, they are clearly fakes, but are a fun way of playing around with words.

And often they do convey real wisdom, like the one that has it that: “War not determine who is right, war determine who is left”. Or: “Man who drive like hell, bound to get there”.


Some of these Chinese ‘fakes’ often also capture real-life truths in a fun way, like the one that tells us “marriage is like game of poker. You start with pair and end with full house.”

Here is one I want to frame and put on the wall of my own home: “Man who sinks into woman’s arms soon will find arms in woman’s sink.”

To those senior members of the ANC who blindly defend President Jacob Zuma and generate ‘fake news’ to deflect attention from his many controversies, we would like to offer the following purported Chinese wisdom: “He who thinks only of number one must remember this number is next to nothing.”

by Piet Coetzer

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