MOST of the claims made in the "Source Reports" document that was allegedly circulated to Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) leaders to discredit general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi are deeply implausible in themselves. But there are nonetheless good reasons to take them seriously.

A society’s conspiracy theories reveal a lot about its political health. It is only when citizens are deeply confused that they fall prey to purveyors of plausible untruths and seek out narratives that divide the political world into forces of good and evil.

Conspiracy theories serve a diagnostic function because they follow the ideological fault lines of a society. The most deeply entrenched conspiracy theories in recent South African history concern the "red peril". According to this narrative, all African National Congress (ANC) actions were directed by Moscow through its puppets in the South African Communist Party (SACP). A popular version of this story is still propagated by a dwindling band of stick-waving liberals.

The red peril faces off against a far more enduring narrative counterpart that circulates as the institutionalised conspiracy theory of the ANC. "International capital" and "neo-imperialist forces", according to this narration, explain almost all of the liberation movement’s travails. Thus former ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe claimed a few years back that imperialist western powers, seeking an Iraq-style regime change, had "anointed" the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to destroy Zimbabwe’s liberation movement. "We would never be party to any such thing," he said, "because if it can be done in Zimbabwe it will be done to us tomorrow". The pro-imperialist Democratic Alliance, says Motlanthe, should not campaign in South Africa’s townships. Antiretrovirals, he observed in an anticapitalist vein, could not combat HIV/AIDS; they were merely the inventions of profiteering western drug companies.

"Source Reports" is definitely more outlandish than our deputy state president. It purports to be written by a mole within the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US-government funded international nongovernmental organisation that advocates liberal democracy. Fantasists who believe that human affairs are managed by communists, Jews, or a reptilian race that hides under the earth’s crust, will be shocked to discover that, in fact, everything is controlled by the NED.

The NED manipulates Mamphela Ramphele. It instigated the Marikana massacre. It fomented xenophobic violence. "Who do you think started the service delivery protests?" The NED of course — by identifying community leaders who are "capable of rubble rousing (sic)". It has infiltrated "at least 23" trained Rwandan intelligence operatives into Brakpan. Worst of all, the NED fuels the intellectual deliberations of the Midrand Group.

The central thrust of "Source Reports" echoes old-school ANC leaders such as Motlanthe. The MDC, it claims, is controlled by the NED. South Africa’s liberation is under threat because of the country’s "strong and vibrant civil society". Liberal democracy and free news media are bad because they can be manipulated by the imperialists and their proxies. As Vavi’s lawyers observed, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini has recently made similar allegations about the malign role of "CIA-linked organisations" in local politics.

We should pay special attention to conspiracy theories when the elements of truth that they contain threaten to make them politically explosive. Disoriented and confused party activists in other countries quite often fall under the sway of conspiracy narratives. The ANC, however, is not just a political party: it is one of the world’s most theoretically advanced liberation movements. For this reason it does not just have conspiracy theories: it also has conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories.

The biggest such metatheory circulating in South Africa today concerns a purported "great Zulu plot", and Dlamini and SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande enjoy starring roles in this drama. Those who play with conspiracy theory matches should be careful that they do not get consumed by the flames.

Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.