Most South Africans would know (at least, one would assume) that the Apartheid government tried very hard to convince the world at large, that its racist policies, were in fact, not, and that ‘separate development’ was in the interest of everyone, including black people. The country desperately needed multi-nationals to continue investing here, and so, for about half a century (starting shortly after Hendrik Verwoerd instituted Apartheid in 1948) the government spent millions of dollars, trying to whitewash its atrocities, and to ‘sell’ the concept of Apartheid.
In his book, Selling Apartheid, Washington correspondent for the New York Times, Ron Nixon exposes the incredible reach of this highly secret propaganda campaign. It’s estimated that at one point, this project cost the Apartheid government $100 million a year. It was so vast, that it trumped similar campaigns run by the Nazis. Based on interviews with some of the key players, and using previously unpublished records from archives in the US, UK and South Africa, Nixon pieces together the operation, that continued even after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Apartheid started being dismantled.
The project, though covert, was brazen. Only a select few in the government knew that large amounts of money were being siphoned from the defence budget to pay for lobbying and PR campaigns, positive news articles, ‘press junkets’, buying of votes in foreign countries to oppose sanctions, and even convincing black clergymen to support Apartheid. High-quality short films were made in Hollywood and shown in cinemas before feature films; glossy magazines were created and sent to schools in the US, with articles and photos of Africans in traditional garb living quiet, peaceful lives in South Africa.
When Connie Mulder was Information Minister in 1971 he recommended to Prime Minister John Vorster that an aggressive campaign should be launched, to “‘buy, bribe, or bluff its way into the hearts and minds of the world’ to counter the ‘propaganda offensive against South Africa’”. And that’s what they did.
Even after the Information Scandal in 1977, when Secretary of Information Eschel Roodie revealed that taxpayers’ money was being spent on propaganda, the campaign continued unabated. It in fact, intensified while simply becoming more clandestine. Each time there was a setback, more money was thrown at the problem.
There are many interesting titbits in the book, such as that a 23-year old David Cameron (now Britain’s Prime Minister) received a free trip to South Africa from a lobbying firm that was set up specifically to counter calls for economic sanctions against the Apartheid government. He wasn’t the only British MP to make use of such freebies, and US lawmakers also regularly took up offers of free holidays, to ‘showcase’ the country and prove that things weren’t as bad as ‘biased’ journalists were trying to make it seem.
It all had to come tumbling down eventually, of course. Sanctions were finally imposed in the late 80s and the Apartheid government could no longer function. It’s almost unbelievable that even in the early 1990s after the ANC was unbanned and negotiations were being held to transfer power, F.W. de Klerk’s government continued with misinformation campaigns to cast the ANC in a bad light.
What did it all achieve though? Nixon believes it was simply delaying the inevitable (listen to my interview with the author below). It’s highly likely that without this sustained campaign, Apartheid would have been dismantled much sooner. The country we live in now might have been very different. Perhaps, many of the issues democratic South Africa currently faces would have been resolved by now.
Selling Apartheid is an intriguing and astonishing read for anyone who wants to understand better some of the secretive and illicit means with which the previous regime managed to prop itself up. The audacity and underhandedness leave the mind reeling. The book is well-researched, but not written in that quagmire of tedious academic language that journalists sometimes fall into when writing non-fiction.
*Selling Apartheid is published by Jacana.
Listen to my interview with Ron Nixon, about how he researched the book and some of the interesting individual campaigns that were run.