A wolf in sheep’s clothing: Ron Nixon on the ANC and Apartheid

“All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”

 I.F. Stone, American journalist

When the apartheid government gunned down 69 black protestors at a Sharpeville police station on 21 March 1960, the killings drew international attention. Protest and demonstrations followed in nations across the globe. Several governments, even some of South Africa’s closest allies, condemned the shootings. Fast forward to 2012. When South African police forces opened fire on platinum miners, killing 34, during a strike in the town of Marikana between the 10th of August and the 20th of September 2012, the international response was muted. Although the shootings were described as the deadliest against civilians by security forces since Sharpeville, there were few if any global protest or demonstrations. Few leaders of other countries spoke out. To be sure, a spokesman for U.S. President Obama did express condolences for the victim’s families. And there were some protest against South African embassies in other countries, including New Zealand. But these responses paled in comparison to Sharpeville.


When the apartheid government used the government broadcaster, the SABC, as a propaganda tool and sought to limit what South Africans saw on TV or heard on the radio, these actions were widely condemned by activists and leaders around the world. But this year, when the appointed head of the SABC tried to implement an editorial policy that would keep violent protests from being shown on the air, there was hardly a rumble from international leaders or activists. (Sparing Amnesty International who condemned the action as censorship).

Without a doubt, Black South Africans enjoy a full range of freedoms and personal civil liberties that many of them would never have dreamed of 25 years ago. The so-called ‘homelands’ are now a distant memory and South Africans can live mostly where they like. And they can vote. A recent takeover of major cities by the Democratic Alliance in a nationwide election shows that the African National Congress grip on power is not ironclad.  The court ruling against the SABC proposed policy shows that things are a long way from what they were during the apartheid years. Still, the actions by the ruling ANC, while it has been in power, in some ways mirror those of its predecessors in its handling of dissent.

In my book, I explored the decades-long attempts by the apartheid South African government to sell the world its version of separate development, while trying to keep a grip on growing black militancy at home. My reporting showed that over the years, the apartheid government spent millions of dollars, on numerous lobbying efforts legal and illegal, to influence world opinion. It hired lobbyists in nearly all the capital cities in Europe and the US. It created fake think tanks, support groups like the ‘Club of Ten’ or the ‘International Freedom Foundation.’ It labeled anti-apartheid groups ‘Communist’ and raised the spectre of a takeover by the then-Soviet Union.

The ANC has done nothing close to this globally. Still, the South African ruling party efforts at home demonstrate much in common with the old apartheid government. For example, while the apartheid government raised the spectre of communism to cast doubts on its critics, the ANC’s critics are accused of being counter-revolutionary or pawns of the American Central Intelligence Agency. The public protector, Thuli Madonsela, was relentless attacked by ANC officials when she investigated South African President Jacob Zuma for using public money to make improvements at his private dwelling. Ronnie Kasrils, the former intelligence chief for the ANC, who has become one of the party’s biggest critics, was accused of sending a young woman to entrap Zuma, after the president was accused of rape. Kasrlis was accused of being an enemy of the people and working for “imperialist agencies.”

In a 19 February, 2016 speech, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe accused the United States Embassy of holding daily meetings to plan regime change in South Africa. His proof? Mantashe said the embassy of took young people to the United States for six weeks and then brought them back to the South Africa where they were placed on college on campuses. He was referring to the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which was part of the U.S. President Barak Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative—a program that the ANC was asked to recommend applicants. US ambassador Patrick Gaspard responded to Mantashe’s allegations of secret meetings in a tweet:

‘I wish that someone would invite me to these meetings. Let’s not blame others for our own challenges,’ he wrote. He then poked fun at Mantashe saying: ‘I’m so disappointed as I always imagined that if I organised a coup it would look like Mardi Gras – food, music, dance.’ But the tongue-in-cheek response belies the seriousness of the attempts by the ANC led-government to clamp down on critics and opposition.

Nowhere is this more apparent that its’ handling of the Marikana shootings. Following the shootings, National police Riah Phiyega, a former social worker, marikanasaid police had acted in self-defense. She would present aerial photos of the fatal confrontation, which suggested that the striking miners had advanced on the 500-member police force who then opened fire. A political ally of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which the striking miners had opposed, supported the police version of events and blamed minors for inciting the violence. According to leaked documents to local media, coroner reports showed that most of the 34 victims of the police action were shot in the back as they ran away. It was shades of Sharpeville. In that case, police also claimed protestors attacked first.

In 1994, when blacks turned out in force to exercise their right to vote for the first time, there was excitement across the globe. According to thinking at the time, gone were the days of police shooting protestors, the scapegoating of critics and painting them as pawns of a foreign power. But as Albert Camus has said: “All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the state.”

This is not to say that these actions are nearly the stuff of “Selling Apartheid.” But it does show that, when it comes to holding keeping its grip on power, the ANC has not been above using some of the same tactics used by its white-led apartheid era predecessors.


Ron Nixon is a Washington Correspondent for the New York Times. He is a visiting associate in the Department of Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, where he teaches investigative reporting and data journalism.


Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War is available to buy here

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