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  • Published in Book Reviews

Ron Nixon’s Selling Apartheid shows how money and power can be used to promote even the most immoral and distasteful of causes, finds Jacqueline Mulhallen

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Ron Nixon, Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War (Pluto Press 2016), xi, 238pp.

Selling Apartheid has been described as ‘a major contribution on the apartheid era’ and it is, although the subtitle, South Africa’s Global Propaganda War, is not quite accurate since the book deals primarily with South Africa's lobbying and propaganda efforts in the USA and to lesser extent in Britain. It appears that other European countries were targeted but there is little about these campaigns and nothing about African and Asian countries. It is not clear whether this is because of the author’s selective choice or whether it is because the South African government did not bother with those countries on the basis that it would be useless. Either way, they were clearly hoping to find sympathy or to sway opinion in countries where the population was mainly white. If so, they spent a lot of money and wasted a lot of time. Unfortunately, they did have some success and managed to hold up the abolition of apartheid for longer than public opinion in those countries would have wished.

Colonial governments all practised forms of segregation to a greater or lesser extent, but in 1948, when South Africa introduced apartheid, it was internationally condemned. Former colonies were moving towards being granted independence and, in fact, India, the jewel of the British Empire, had already become independent the previous year. It was late to be setting up a strictly segregated system which classified the population as ‘black’, ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, and which forced black people to carry pass books enabling the government to control their movements. Men working in mines which produced South Africa’s enormous wealth were lodged in barracks separated from their families. Protesters were fined, imprisoned and whipped. The courageous black workers, however, continued a civil disobedience campaign against the pass laws and eight thousand were arrested, including Nelson Mandela. In 1961, a demonstration resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre which left seventy dead and over 180 wounded. There was ‘a storm of international protest’ and demonstrations against the regime. As a result, South Africa left the British Commonwealth and the United Nations called on South Africa to abandon apartheid. No one could say, except the South African government and their lackeys, that the system benefited black people.

Since the introduction of apartheid there had been a well-funded media campaign to convince the United States and Britain that Black rule would be a takeover by communists. The US, in particular, wanted to keep in with South Africa because of its vast mineral resources, especially uranium. The US had also a specific Achilles heel when it came to condemning apartheid: its own disgraceful segregation laws in the South. Support for South Africa was strongest in groups against racial integration, with people such as James O. Eastland who believed that segregation was ‘the law of nature and god’. He got a trip to South Africa likely to have been sponsored by its government (pp.39-40).

The South African government tried to exert pressure on all journalists and TV networks which broadcast programmes critical of South Africa. New York public-relations firms spread positive stories over two thousand magazines, such as National Geographic, with photographs of South Africa’s scenic beauty and wildlife. When they featured black people, they were smiling, of course. Journalists were taken on trips to South Africa by the Department of Information. Newsreels and films were shown throughout the United States and Europe but the fact that the South African government paid for all of these was concealed; the PR firm listed itself as producer, an illegal act in the US.

Coverage in the US was condemnatory after Sharpeville, and when the NBC broadcast a programme criticising it, the South African ambassador tried to get a major NBC advertiser to exert pressure on the broadcaster, while the South African foreign minister travelled to the US to ‘inform Americans of the truth about South Africa’ (p.21)! Although this campaign was later abandoned because the films were recognised as propaganda, the extent of it was only finally revealed when in 1978 it was discovered that the Department of Information had been using funds from other departments. The ‘Muldergate’ scandal, as it was known, brought down the South African prime minister and other politicians, and exposed the government as not only cruel and racist, as they were known to be, but also corrupt. 

Another method used by the information bureau was to target individuals directly: politicians, journalists, academics and religious and civic leaders. The South African government, through its PR firms, sponsored trips to South Africa and meetings with black leaders friendly to the regime. These guests of the regime were encouraged to portray South Africa as unfairly represented and the independent African states as unstable. With some of those targeted, there was no need to change their opinion: they were racist and right-wing anyway. South Africa benefited from the election of Richard Nixon, for example, who believed ‘blacks are just down from the trees’ (p.41) and increased trade with South Africa at a time when sanctions against the regime were being called for.

The massacre at Soweto in 1976, as with Sharpeville before it, resulted in an upsurge of condemnation of the regime. By this stage there was a well-developed worldwide Anti-Apartheid Movement which had managed to get South Africa suspended from the 1964 Olympic Games, prevented a 1970 cricket tour and launched a boycott of South African goods. A dirty tricks campaign was launched. One of the leaders, Peter Hain, now Lord Hain, was accused of robbing a bank and an attempt was made to link him to a bombing in South Africa.

Much earlier, Max Yergan, a black American who had campaigned against apartheid and set up the Council on African Affairs with Paul Robeson, changed his stance when he was harassed by the FBI and began to lobby for South Africa. Shortly before his death, he contacted Robeson, who too was dying, and regretted his tragic betrayal. Other black leaders were encouraged to support South Africa. In particular, some religious leaders seemed to feel that anti-communism was sufficient justification to support a regime which most people considered immoral and anti-Christian.  

Support from black Americans was more significant than support from whites and, as the campaign for sanctions became more and more successful, there was pressure on African Americans to say that sanctions would actually harm black people in South Africa. In June, 1988 Reverend Kenneth Frazier launched a campaign entitled ‘Operation Heartbreak’ in which he implied that white Congressmen who were pro-sanctions were ‘abandoning black South African children to more hunger misery and disillusionment’ (p.151). He also used a film which discredited the ANC linking it to horrifying murders. Frazier claimed he had made several trips to South Africa and it is probable that the organisation behind Frazier (the Wake-Up America Coalition) was funded by South Africa. Frazier belonged to a fanatically anti-communist organisation, but he was not the only black American who campaigned against sanctions. Andrew Hatcher, the President of the PR firm which campaigned for South Africa, said that ‘he did not believe sanctions would help’. He had been a deputy press aide to John F. Kennedy, so his prestige and credibility were high. His firm was paid $356,000 by South Africa, and he made numerous appearances on TV. Clearly having African-Americans on the side of South Africa was very effective propaganda.

Sylvia Hill, a US anti-apartheid activist, said of these campaigns to influence public opinion:

‘They didn't succeed, but they did manage to create confusion and allow the government in South Africa to survive a little bit longer than it should have. But in the end, they couldn’t stop the inevitable’ (p.197).

Apartheid was a murderous regime which was commonly recognised as such and condemned accordingly. It is very probably true that the regime’s propaganda campaign was successful with only a small minority of people, but that it succeeded as far as it did, meant that apartheid persisted for longer than it should have, and many people would be alive today who are not, had the government’s secretive and corrupt campaigning been recognised for what it was. Those who did not support the sanctions, or who made money out of apartheid, should be exposed. This book goes part of the way to do this. It is also very timely and useful to see how propaganda by powerful institutions can work.

Selling Apartheid is a well-written, well-researched account of the propaganda put out by the South African government. It does assume, however, that its readers will know about South African history over the last seventy years and does not provide even a brief account of the ANC and such movements as the Anti-Apartheid Movement. This would, of course, have made the book much longer, but it would have been worth it to have a little more context.

Tagged under: Racism South Africa

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). She has written a number of plays, including 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends' (Lynx Theatre and Poetry), and books, including The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015).

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