Ron Nixon’s “Selling Apartheid”: Understanding how myths were manufactured
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Reading 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.
Selling 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.
Fairly 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.
Over 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.
I 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 succeeded, however.
The 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).
Though 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.
The 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!
In 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.
Ron 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 attention.
This 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.