We fact-checkers spend a fair share of our time monitoring public debate to identify claims to fact-check. Our eyes and ears are tuned to perk up when we hear an assertion that doesn’t sound quite right.
Sometimes we see claims that make us want to tear our hair out or bang our head against a wall.
From bad statistics to bizarre conspiracy theories, let’s revisit the claims that made us raise our eyebrows in 2021.
‘Vaccines have never been used to control outbreaks’
This jaw-dropping claim was made, surprisingly, by a group of doctors. The Kenyan Catholic Doctors’ Association published an advisory in March making a number of startling claims about Covid-19 vaccines that we fact-checked.
One of them was that “vaccines have never been used to control outbreaks”.
Anyone familiar with the history of medicine would have immediately found this claim suspicious. And rightly so: it’s wrong.
Dr Brenda Kubheka, a South African clinical risk and ethics expert, directed us to a 2013 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It showed how vaccines were used to control the H1N1 influenza outbreak in the US from 2009 to 2010.
And Prof Eftyxia Vardas, a clinical virologist with Lancet Laboratories in South Africa, told us: “Vaccines are routinely used to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases such as measles, polio, smallpox, seasonal influenza and H1N1 influenza.”
‘1 million African school girls pregnant during lockdown’
We watched as multiple news outlets reported that lockdown led to “a surge in teen pregnancies” across sub-Saharan Africa. One million teens becoming pregnant would indeed be shocking stuff, but the data behind the claim was questionable.
In August 2020 World Vision International, a Christian charity that operates in over 90 countries, estimated that “as many as one million girls across sub-Saharan Africa may be blocked from returning to school due to pregnancy during Covid-19 school closures”.
The first red flag shot up when World Vision told us that it used statistics from just two of the 46 countries in the region.
The first was Tanzania’s 2015/2016 Demographic and Health Survey which found 10% of women between the ages of 15 to 19 who fell pregnant had some level of secondary education or higher.
Not sure how those statistics add up to 1 million teen pregnancies? Neither were we. And the organisation didn’t answer our questions on it either.
Experts warned that Tanzania’s statistics and Sierra Leone’s circumstances couldn’t be used to represent almost the entire continent. This is because incidences of pregnancy differ from country to country.
With so little solid evidence supporting the claim, we had no choice but to rate it unproven, arguably a polite way of us saying “unlikely”.
70% of South Africa’s informal economy ‘in the hands of non-citizens’
We’ve debunked plenty of false statistics about immigrants in South Africa.
There aren’t 15 million undocumented foreigners in the country and they don’t make up “almost 100%” of the workforce in restaurants. So this claim made by Vuyolwethu Zungula, president of the African Transformation Movement, immediately raised alarm bells.
Zungula provided us with a number of documents to support his claim, but only one of them mentioned 70%. That was an interview with GG Alcock, entrepreneur and author of the book KasiNomic Revolution: The Rise of African Informal Economies.
But both the article and Alcock said that a small study found that 70% of informal retailers, also known as spaza shops, were owned by foreign nationals, not that they owned 70% of the entire informal economy.
In total, foreign nationals own 20% of informal businesses in Gauteng and only make up about 5.3% of the total labour force.
Let’s hope 2022 brings evidence- not emotion-based discussion about migration.
But it doesn’t get stranger than the ‘Spiritual White Boy Trust’
This was a wild one. What should have been a simple fact-check morphed into a rabbithole investigation into an elaborate scheme supposedly involving impossible amounts of money and shadowy secret banking systems.
It all started with a couple of photos and a post claiming that a man named Fanie Fondse had laid criminal charges against South African president Cyril Ramaphosa for a long list of charges including fraud, racketeering, theft, high treason and culpable homicide.
We managed to get our hands on the 200-page affidavit which included details for almost none of the above. It did however implicate Ramaphosa in a heist dating back to the 1960s where R41 quadrillion was stolen, much of it apparently in the form of 100,000 tonnes of gold.
This is more than the combined GDP of all countries on earth, which stands at $87.74 trillion, and a little more than half all the gold ever mined. As we went further through the affidavit, we saw 624 bank accounts that all traced back to a “Spiritual White Boy” fund.
This is the same fund that businessman Tokyo Sexwale claimed donated over R100 trillion to South Africa which then mysteriously disappeared.
We consulted Jean le Roux, research associate with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. He confirmed the affidavit listed bank accounts that couldn’t have existed on the dates recorded and bank statements with basic spelling errors.
Once we discovered that the story seemed to have started on 4chan, the same online message board that birthed QAnon, we realised we had landed squarely in conspiracy theory land. If you believed this one, we have a reptilian elite theory to sell you and a Nigerian prince you might want to meet.