A few years before the 1994 demise of South Africa’s apartheid government, an organization calling itself the International Freedom Foundation launched a vicious campaign to discredit Nelson Mandela, then a political prisoner.
At a 1988 benefit concert for Mandela in London, the secretive organization (nicknamed Operation Pacman) circulated fake fliers claiming that the money raised would fund black terrorists in South Africa.
In 1990, when Mandela made a triumphant visit to Miami, the group placed newspaper advertisements portraying him as an ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
At the time, Americans were unaware that the International Freedom Foundation was one of many covert front groups supported by Pretoria’s apartheid regime, and that attacks against Mandela were being orchestrated by a sophisticated apparatus of high-paid lobbyists. In “Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War,” Ron Nixon, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times and a former editor at the Star Tribune, meticulously unpacks the complex web of relationships and covert money flows that promoted South Africa’s repressive policies.
At a time of widening alarm over the onslaught of “fake news,” Nixon provides a disturbing exploration of the extreme lengths to which institutions can go to spread misinformation. With ample funding and a small network of willing functionaries, even a project as morally indefensible as forced racial separation can be refined, packaged and exported on a global scale. For nearly five decades, the white minority-led government in South Africa made propaganda a central plank of its regime.
South Africa’s disinformation campaign began in earnest following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when white policemen opened fire on a crowd, killing 69 black people. To deflect attention from its racist policies, the South African government funded junkets for journalists, distributed glossy magazines to U.S. schools and libraries and produced hundreds of articles and films featuring “smiling black Africans” amid scenes of pastoral wildlife, Nixon recounts.
As moral revulsion to apartheid grew, Pretoria’s propaganda tactics became increasingly brazen. In the 1970s, in a scandal later known as Muldergate, South Africa’s information minister, Connie Mulder, shifted millions of dollars from the country’s defense budget to fund about 160 propaganda projects worldwide. Much of the money was used to bribe journalists and to buy positive coverage by acquiring newspapers and other media outright.
Nixon writes with the authority of one who has gone to extraordinary lengths — even mining the National Archives in Pretoria and public lobbying records in Europe — to reveal the vast scope of this global propaganda apparatus. Yet this dark chapter of history leaves us with few memorable characters.
In a vein similar to Hannah Arendt’s banal bureaucrat, the executioners of South Africa’s misinformation campaign were mostly unremarkable government functionaries and lobbyists, many with checkered pasts.
In the end, there is little evidence that Pretoria’s often clumsy effort to “buy” favorable news coverage swayed worldwide public opinion. Even so, Nixon quotes anti-apartheid scholar Sylvia Hill, who argues that the propaganda enabled the apartheid regime to stall while it kept the lid on the democratic aspirations of black South Africans.
“They didn’t succeed,” Hill said, “but they did manage to create confusion and allow the government in South Africa to survive a little bit longer than it should have.”
Chris Serres is a Star Tribune reporter. On Twitter: @ChrisSerres
By: Ron Nixon.
Publisher: Pluto Press, 256 pages, $24.