On the morning of June 8, 1988, dozens of children from Washington DC schools spread out across the well-manicured lawns of the US Capitol. Holding hands, the pupils walked one by one into the domed building. This was no ordinary field trip.
The children weren’t there just for a civic lesson; they were also there to deliver a message.
Each child carried a small black doll to hand to the lawmakers.
Each doll represented a child who would be harmed by the sanctions that Congress had imposed on South Africa two years earlier in protest against the country’s apartheid government. The message behind the dolls’ part of a lobbying campaign called Operation Heartbreak was simple: sanctions against South Africa would do more harm than good.
The organiser of the event was the Reverend Kenneth Frazier, a former Methodist minister and failed congressional candidate, as well as the leader of the group behind Operation Heartbreak, which called itself the Wake Up America Coalition. Despite his opposition to a policy meant to weaken South Africa’s white-dominated government, Frazier was also black.
Operation Heartbreak and the Wake Up America Coalition would vanish as quickly as they had sprung up.
Within weeks, the House of Representatives would pass a tougher sanctions act, and apartheid would finally be dismantled in 1994.
Years later, the event would be revealed as part of an elaborate campaign aimed at turning an unlikely coalition of black Americans against further US sanctions against South Africa.
In part, that meant isolating African Americans from prominent African opponents of apartheid, like Nelson Mandela and the ANC.
With plans hatched by officials in Pretoria and aided by an army of lobbyists in Washington, the apartheid government waged a relentless campaign for the hearts and minds of the black American community by appealing to the economic suffering of fellow blacks in South Africa – the very victims of apartheid.
As Donald Johnson, a California political organiser hired by the South African government, put it, “black Americans can work it better than anyone”.
The US campaign targeting black Americans was part of a larger and longer propaganda push by the apartheid regime to improve its image.
The South African government and its allies made similar moves in Britain, France, Germany and Australia. Official estimates from the former South African Department of Information put annual spending on the campaign at about $100 million a year (in 1980s dollars).
An investigation into secret funding projects by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the 1990s estimated that the amount spent on these projects was R2.75 billion between 1978 and 1994. But even the TRC admitted that this figure probably underestimated the total sum spent by various departments.
The true amount may never be known because dozens of records of secret projects were destroyed by officials in the 1970s and before the handover to the ANC-led government in 1994. Even official records about the sums of money expended by US lobbyists hired by the South African government, which are housed at the US Justice Department, vastly underestimate the amount spent because they were self-reported.
Foreign lobbyists rarely had their records examined unless there was a complaint. Moreover, at one point, US officials stopped collecting records on the amount spent by the agencies of the apartheid government because they were given diplomatic status and not required to report their spending.
The South African propaganda campaign devised to sell racial separation was a vast machine. As with Nazi propaganda, art, politics and sport were all used to promote the regime’s message and ideology.
But the South African campaign, which began shortly after the National Party took power in 1948, was much broader in scope and took advantage of technologies not available to the Nazis, raising the propaganda effort to unprecedented levels.
This campaign would not reach its zenith until Eschel Rhoodie, an ambitious former journalist and government press officer, became secretary for information in the early 1970s. Before then, Rhoodie had published a book, The Paper Curtain, in which he outlined the need for a special programme that would use hundreds of millions of dollars and unconventional methods in a global information war to counter the regime’s critics and what Pretoria considered the
“hate South Africa campaign”.
From its origins as an ideological manifesto appearing in a small book, the campaign would grow into a worldwide media and lobbying operation run with military precision. A large focus of the campaign was on the US because, as Rhoodie wrote: “America dominates Western thought as far as Africa is concerned.”
James Sanders has described Rhoodie as the Joseph Goebbels of the apartheid government and The Paper Curtain as the Mein Kampf of the propaganda campaign. Not even the exposure of the secret programme by South African journalists in the late 1970s, and the ensuing scandal that brought down a prime minister and a high-ranking cabinet member and sent Rhoodie on the run before his eventual arrest and trial, would stop the campaign.
In fact, it would expand and morph into a much larger and subtler operation, hidden behind front groups and individuals with seemingly little connection to Pretoria. It would end in the early 1990s, only after domestic problems caused the government to focus its energies on issues at home.
* This is an extract from Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War by Ron Nixon and published by Jacana Media at a recommended retail price of R250.
** Nixon is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times