Ron Nixon’s Selling Apartheid: South Africa's Global Propaganda War
(London, UK: Pluto Press, 2016), was like reading a good mystery.
It was describing a world and a process about which few of us were
aware. It was a world in the shadows with the active manipulation of
money, people and the media all carried out by a nefarious force.
Apartheid focuses upon a multi-decade
effort by the apartheid regime that dominated South Africa
(1948-1994) to shift world opinion in favor of apartheid and its
progeny. With the assistance, quite ironically, of certain African
Americans, as well as a list of public relations firms and domestic
(USA) right-wing organizations, the apartheid regime went about
producing material, offering trips and engaging in various forms of
lobbying (legitimate and illegitimate) in order to neutralize the
efforts by liberal and progressive forces in the USA who sought the
isolation and downfall of the apartheid regime.
soon after gaining power (in 1948) the apartheid regime recognized
that its pariah status was growing internationally. It undertook
various initiatives in order to deflect criticism including paying
off various black South Africans to speak in favor of the regime (or
at least to speak against the liberation forces, such as the African
National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress of Azania). It was
assisted in this work by certain African Americans, one of the most
notorious being Max Yergan, a former Communist who repudiated his
earlier views and became a rabid right-winger. Yergan served the
interests of the apartheid regime by, among other things, suggesting
that the main danger to South Africa was from the Soviet Union and
Communism rather than from the racist apartheid regime.
time the apartheid regime cultivated contacts in the USA and Western
Europe. As the book points out, none of these propaganda efforts
stopped the death of apartheid, but in reading this story it was
difficult to believe that such efforts did not contribute, in various
fashions, to lengthening the duration of the regime and its progeny.
have, for the second time, mentioned the “progeny” of
apartheid. Let me clarify. Toward the end of the apartheid era the
regime attempted a fast one. They proclaimed the independence of
certain so-called black homelands, e.g., Ciskei. These were simply
black majority puppet states that went unrecognized by the rest of
the world. There were black faces in high places, but the regimes
were clients of the apartheid government. The apartheid regime did
what it could to convince the world that these were legitimate
states, including the sending of delegations to visit. None of this
other progeny was the Angolan organization known as UNITA (the
National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). UNITA emerged
in the struggle against Portuguese colonialism—that dominated
Angola till 1975—but was at odds with the main other liberation
movement, MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). Led
by the late Jonas Savimbi, UNITA was all things to all people. When
their foreign affairs officer toured the USA in the middle 1970s, he
claimed that UNITA was a Maoist-led movement. Yet, quickly after
Angola received independence from Portugal, UNITA aligned with
another liberation movement, the FNLA (National Front for the
Liberation of Angola) and, with the assistance of the notorious
Mobutu Sese Seko regime then in power in Zaire (currently the
Democratic Republic of the Congo), they made war against MPLA. South
Africa joined this war in order to block the possibility of Angola
becoming a base for liberation forces aimed at South Africa. Quickly
there was a clear alliance between UNITA and the apartheid South
Africans (in fact, it was later reported that the files of the
Portuguese secret police indicated that there had been a de
facto alliance between UNITA and the
Portuguese against MPLA).
the South Africans were driven out of Angola, primarily through the
assistance of Cuban forces, the civil war in Angola continued until
the death of Savimbi in 2002. Among other things, Angola
became—along with Afghanistan—the country with the most
landmines in the world.
apartheid regime worked to build up Savimbi’s stature,
particularly targeting Black America. This included playing to both
anti-communism and black nationalism, ironically, with Savimbi
presented as legitimately African compared with the MPLA which was
attacked for so-called mixed-race people in leadership!
the context of the Cold War, US support for Savimbi’s UNITA was
essential, and the apartheid South African regime went out of its way
to ensure that this would continue. While US assistance to UNITA
ultimately ended, it appears that the South African apartheid work on
behalf of UNITA prolonged a miserable and disastrous war.
Nixon’s book is well worth the read. It is well researched and
very well written. It reminded me of how easily the public can be
fooled through the effective use of propaganda even in cases where
the public believes that it is otherwise well informed. In fact, in
reading Selling Apartheid
I was reminded of a visit to the USA by Jonas Savimbi in the 1980s.
Much to my shock, if not chagrin, there were right-wing Black
American religious leaders who mobilized to show support for Savimbi.
For the life of me I could not figure out from where they emerged.
But they were there and they were supporting someone who was an
absolute villain. In that regard, the work of the South African
apartheid regime and their domestic allies played a role in the
materialization of a political force within Black America that, while
small, nevertheless possesses a voice that receives mainstream media
is a book that needs to be read and studied with consideration going
to its implications for other arenas in the international realm.
Whether in the case of Israeli apartheid domination of Palestinians,
or Morocco’s illegal occupation of most of the Western Sahara,
the manipulation of the facts in the interest of self-promotion
remains very important and is a bubble that progressives must burst
as an act of international solidarity.