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How Apartheid South Africa Targeted Black Americans in a Propaganda Effort that Rivaled Nazi Germany's

The South African propaganda campaign devised to sell racial separation was a vast machine, spending $100 million yearly.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

The following is an excerpt from the new book Selling Apartheid by Ron Nixon (Pluto Press, 2016): 

On the morning of 8 June 1988, dozens of children from Washington DC schools spread out across the well-manicured lawns of the United States Capitol. Holding hands, the students walked one by one into the domed building. This was no ordinary field trip. The children weren’t there just for a civic lesson—they were also there to deliver a message. Each child carried a small black doll to hand to the law-makers. Each doll represented a child who would be harmed by the sanctions that Congress had imposed on South Africa two years earlier in protest against the country’s apartheid government. The message behind the dolls—part of a lobbying campaign called Operation Heartbreak—was simple: sanctions against South Africa would do more harm than good.

The organiser of the event was the Reverend Kenneth Frazier, a former Methodist minister and failed congressional candidate, as well as the leader of the group behind Operation Heartbreak, which called itself the Wake Up America Coalition. Despite his opposition to a policy meant to weaken South Africa’s white-dominated government, Frazier was also black.

Operation Heartbreak and the Wake Up America Coalition would vanish as quickly as they had sprung up. Within weeks, the House of Representatives would pass a tougher sanctions act, and apartheid would finally be dismantled in 1994.

Years later the event would be revealed as part of an elaborate campaign aimed at turning an unlikely coalition of black Americans against further US sanctions against South Africa. In part, that meant isolating African Americans from prominent African opponents of apartheid, like Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC).

With plans hatched by officials in Pretoria and aided by an army of lobbyists in Washington, the apartheid government waged a relentless campaign for the hearts and minds of the black American community by appealing to the economic suffering of fellow blacks in South Africa—the very victims of apartheid. As Donald Johnson, a California political organiser hired by the South African government, put it, ‘black Americans can work it better than anyone’.

The US campaign targeting black Americans was part of a larger and longer propaganda push by the apartheid regime to improve its image. The South African government and its allies made similar moves in Britain, France, Germany and Australia. Official estimates from the former South African Department of Information put annual spending on the campaign at about $100 million a year (in 1980s dollars). An investigation into secret funding projects by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the 1990s estimated that the amount spent on these projects was R2.75 billion (about $270 million) between 1978 and 1994. But even the TRC admitted that this figure probably underestimated the total sum spent by various departments. The true amount may never be known because dozens of records of secret projects were destroyed by officials in the 1970s and before the handover to the ANC-led government in 1994. Even official records about the sums of money expended by US lobbyists hired by the South African government, which are housed at the US Justice Department, vastly underestimate the amount spent because they were self-reported. Foreign lobbyists rarely had their records examined unless there was a complaint. Moreover, at one point US officials stopped collecting records on the amount spent by the agencies of the apartheid government because they were given diplomatic status and not required to report their spending.

The South African propaganda campaign devised to sell racial separation was a vast machine. As with Nazi propaganda, art, politics and sport were all used to promote the regime’s message and ideology. But the South African campaign, which began shortly after the National Party took power in 1948, was much broader in scope and took advantage of technologies not available to the Nazis, raising the propaganda effort to unprecedented levels.

This campaign would not reach its zenith until Eschel Rhoodie, an ambitious former journalist and government press officer, became secretary for information in the early 1970s. Before then, Rhoodie had published a book, The Paper Curtain, in which he outlined the need for a special programme that would use hundreds of millions of dollars and unconventional methods in a global information war to counter the regime’s critics and what Pretoria considered the ‘hate South Africa campaign’. From its origins as an ideological manifesto appearing in a small book, the campaign would grow into a worldwide media and lobbying operation run with military precision. A large focus of the campaign was on the US because, as Rhoodie wrote, ‘America dominates western thought as far as Africa is concerned.’ James Sanders has described Rhoodie as the Joseph Goebbels of the apartheid government and The Paper Curtain as the Mein Kampf of the propaganda campaign.

Not even the exposure of the secret programme by South African journalists in the late 1970s, and the ensuing scandal that brought down a prime minister and a high-ranking cabinet member and sent Rhoodie on the run before his eventual arrest and trial, would stop the campaign. In fact, it would expand and morph into a much larger and subtler operation, hidden behind front groups and individuals with seemingly little connection to Pretoria. It would end in the early 1990s, only after domestic problems caused the government to focus its energies on issues at home.

Along with its own institutions, the South African government would coordinate its public relations campaign with a worldwide network of supporters. These included global corporations with business operations in South Africa, conservative religious organisations and an unlikely coalition of liberal US black clergy and anti-communist black conservatives aligned with right-wing Cold War politicians in the US and the UK who opposed sanctions against South Africa.

Some of the people in the global propaganda war were willing participants—public relations firms, lobbyists, filmmakers and journalists— who were paid handsomely for their services. Others, like the black children who delivered dolls to members of Congress in a failed lobbying effort, played an unwitting part. In the US, in a stunning example of the Washington influence game at its most cynical, the campaign even involved many prominent civil rights leaders, some of whom had once fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. The apartheid agents would also make their presence felt in London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Sydney.

To be sure, foes of apartheid also made their presence felt in the same capital cities. The ANC, for example, maintained lobbyists in Washington, and anti-apartheid groups such as the American Committee on Africa in the US and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain also lobbied law-makers. Over the years, critics of the South African government poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into outreach, organised mass demonstrations, staged boycotts and hired their own lobbyists.

Still, the efforts of these groups paled in comparison with the massive resources brought to bear by Pretoria in defence of apartheid. Most of the anti-apartheid groups operated on shoestring budgets. The ANC spent a few thousand dollars each year on one or two representatives in the US. The South African government, on the other hand, was able to finance its massive propaganda operations with its abundant supply of minerals, spending three to seven million dollars a year on lobbying in the US alone.

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