The South African information space: a legacy of disinformation from apartheid to 2020

Apartheid-era propaganda fomented media distrust, and more than 25 years into democracy, South Africa still struggles with the legacy

(Source: @awildknight/DFRLab via pixabay)

Since the end of apartheid, the South African media space has changed dramatically, but the legacy of the apartheid government’s influence over the news still lives on. Although the state no longer has the legal authority to censor information or label propaganda as news, democracy brought with it a skepticism of the press that is still pervasive more than 25 years after apartheid ended.

For politicians, playing on this lack of trust in the media is beneficial. During apartheid, the South African government machine churned out disinformation and propaganda at a rapid pace. In an attempt to make the racist state more palatable to local and international audiences, propaganda extolling the virtues of the state and the police force were spread within the South Africa and abroad. Similarly, disinformation and lies about anti-apartheid activists and anti-apartheid organizations were propagated in local and international media as a means of dissuading protest against the state.

The use of newspapers and radio stations as a weapon in the state’s ideological war forced South Africans to question the information they were presented as news. Although the media space has changed since the end of apartheid, the history of skepticism has remained.

It is easy to label information that does not benefit a political agenda as elitist propaganda, pushed by remnants of the apartheid government’s covert propaganda machine known as the Strategic Communication (“Stratcom”) department. Although Stratcom was disbanded when apartheid ended, the department’s legacy has continued well into democracy. This legacy has manifested itself, in part, in the form of charges that journalists and civil society members are part of ongoing Stratcom activites, despite the fact that the department was shut down decades ago.

The DFRLab looked at this legacy of Stratcom to understand how political actors in South Africa play on the country’s history of disinformation and propaganda to sow media distrust among the public.

Apartheid’s strategic communications department

As a covert group, Stratcom worked to discredit revolutionary leaders using local and international media. It supplemented these efforts with campaigns to destroy the reputation of the African National Congress (ANC), the main opposition to apartheid, and sow dissent within its ranks. A former Stratcom agent described the department’s role as “the dissemination of negative propaganda or disinformation against its enemies or perceived enemies.”

According to former Stratcom boss Vic McPherson, as the National Party’s hold over South Africa started to diminish, the department launched a series of disinformation campaigns, using the media to spread false information about opposition to the apartheid regime. One of the primary targets of the State’s propaganda machine was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, apartheid activist and second wife of the country’s first post-apartheid president Nelson Mandela, who McPherson claimed was used as a means to discredit the ANC.

McPherson and his Stratcom agents wrote letters to media organizations, covertly placing them into letter boxes and on doorsteps in the dead of night. Many of the pieces written by McPherson and his team appeared on the front pages of leading South African newspapers under pseudonyms or the bylines of journalists secretly working for Stratcom.

But Stratcom’s influence was not relegated solely to local news. In 1990, high-profile U.S. magazine Vanity Fair published an article titled “How bad is Winnie Mandela?” The article was originally written by Stratcom agent Paul Erasmus but published under a different byline.

At home, Stratcom embedded their own journalists in newsrooms or hired established journalists to write newspaper articles depicting the South African Police in a positive light, while simultaneously painting anti-apartheid activists as terrorists. The government censored negative commentary, so critiques of the apartheid state in mainstream media were few and far between.

The legacy of Stratcom: media distrust

Determining the level of trust the South African public places in national media is particularly difficult, as many polls and reports depend on online surveys. With nearly 40 percent of the population offline, statistics on the country’s trust in media favor the opinions of those who have greater access to information and network resources.

Despite these limitations, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that just over 40 percent of South Africans trust institutions such as media and nongovernmental organizations, making South Africa the fourth-least trusting country in the Edelman survey. Similarly, a 2019 Ipsos poll found that South Africans trust radio and television news the most, while online news scored a trust rating of just 26 percent.

In April 2018, following the death of Madikizela-Mandela, national news broadcaster eNCA showed the award-winning documentary Winnie across the country, bringing media distrust into the spotlight. In the film, McPherson stated that 40 journalists had worked as his contacts during apartheid. Although the former Stratcom head had previously revealed it at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one aspect of his interview drew renewed attention: in the film, he referenced his former Stratcom media contacts, who, he alleged, still worked as journalists in prominent local media.

Directly after the Winnie documentary aired on national television, tweets demanding the #Stratcom40 reveal themselves cropped up on South African Twitter. The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) requested that citizens not speculate or make allegations against journalists without proof that they had worked for apartheid forces.

Regardless, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the third largest political party in the country, threatened to reveal the names of alleged Stratcom journalists if they did not “confess” or if SANEF did not condemn them.

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, spokesperson for the EFF, threatened to reveal the names of alleged Stratcom journalists if they did not “confess.” No names were revealed, and, following a January 25 court order, the tweet and statement were taken down. (Source: @MbuyiseniNdlozi/ archive)

The EFF did not reveal any names other than those mentioned in then-spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi’s statement. The two journalists named in the statement, however — Thandeka Gqubule and Anton Harber — had already been mentioned in a published Huffington Post interview with Madikizela-Mandela, an interview that was later retracted and for which the publication apologized to the journalists for “publishing untested allegations.”

After being accused of working for Stratcom without evidence, however, Gqubule and Harber took the EFF to court and, over a year later, a high court ruled that the EFF had to retract the statement and apologize. The apology was posted the following day.

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ official Twitter account posted a court-ordered apology to two journalists after alleging they were Stratcom agents. The apology was posted to Twitter at 3:00 a.m. (Source: @EFFSouthAfrica/archive)

Using media distrust for political gain

By resurrecting the term “Stratcom” and applying it as a trope of disinformation in defiance of truth, it is easy for political actors and government officials to label information as “fake news” and to use fake accusations of being modern-day Stratcom agents as a means of delegitimizing the information itself. Nearly 26 years into South Africa’s democracy, distrust in the media is frequently promoted by both sides of the political spectrum, in an attempt to discredit “negative press.”

Ahead of the May 9, 2019, elections, the ANC went on the defensive after two national newspapers, Sunday Times and City Press, ran front-page stories based on claims that the party’s spokesperson, Ace Magashule, was involved in grand corruption. The claims were based off of information revealed in a book, released days beforehand, entitled Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of State Capture by journalist Pieter-Louise Myburgh. The ANC statement described the book as “a typical Stratcom style fake-news book.”

The official Twitter account of the ruling party Tweeted a statement calling two national newspapers “fake news.” (Source: @MYANCarchive)

In a similar incident, Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, also used the country’s distrust in the media to push a political agenda. On March 26, 2019, just days before the ANC denounced national newspapers as “fake news,” Malema had told his Twitter followers not to believe anything they saw in the news. He alleged that journalists who used to work for Stratcom would write old propaganda about the party in order to damage its reputation right before the elections.

Julius Malema tells his supporters not to believe any news about his party ahead of South Africa’s national elections, as it is allegedly propaganda made up by Stratcom to discredit his party. (Source: @Julius_S_Malema/archive)

In May 2019, Helen Zille, at the time Premiere of the Western Cape and member of the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance or DA, said on Twitter: “The media is so wholly unreliable, I don’t believe a word they say.”

Helen Zille’s tweet regarding the reliability of the media. (Source: @helenzille/archive)

Politicians denouncing media is not an uncommon phenomenon in democratic South Africa, nor is the declaration of “fake news” only uttered by one side of the political spectrum. The ANC, the EFF, and the DA have all similarly denounced the media.

Stratcom techniques in the 21st century

While sowing dissent and distrust among the ANC by spreading disinformation, Stratcom agents also worked to promote the apartheid regime by spreading positive information about the South African Police and the apartheid government.

The most recent and prominent example of a group employing similar techniques in democratic South Africa involved an international spin doctor, high-ranking government officials, and a single family who have secured their place in South Africa’s history books: the Guptas.

A family of Indian nationals who immigrated to South Africa as apartheid ended, the Guptas were exposed as puppet masters of the South African state apparatus after whistleblowers revealed what came to be known as the #GuptaLeaks. As allegations against the family came to light, the Guptas used a British PR company named Bell Pottinger to incite racial tensions on social media in an attempt to deflect allegations of corrupting and manipulating high-ranked government officials, including then-President Jacob Zuma, who eventually resigned in February 2018 over allegations of corruption. The Gupta family, which had stakes in both print and television media, used an army of Twitter bots, nicknamed the GuptaBots, to amplify disinformation and incite racial arguments on social media.

Bell Pottinger and the Guptas used a dirty PR campaign to spread the idea that an oligopoly of white elites in business, government, and media, referred to as “white monopoly capital,” were victimizing the Guptas. By race-baiting the country, the Gupta family hoped to remain out of the spotlight on corruption and discredit any allegations against the family as propaganda made-up by white monopoly capital. The campaign quickly found traction on social media, and as of February 13 the hashtag #wmc is still active on Twitter, showing just how far-reaching the idea was.

A Brandwatch analysis showing the number of times #wmc was mentioned on Twitter from January 1–22, 2020. (Source: @awildknight/DFRLab via Brandwatch)

In the 21st century, the Gupta family did with social media what Stratcom achieved using secret handwritten letters to newspaper editors. The techniques are, perhaps, somewhat easier to use today. There is no longer a need to drop off information covertly on someone’s doorstep in the middle of the night when hiring a group of people to disseminate information online under anonymous, and sometimes automated, accounts can just as easily get the job done.

The future of South Africa’s information environment

South African media has a difficult job ahead of it: report on a country wracked with corruption and political infighting, while also battling against politicians who play on old fears of Stratcom and propaganda for political gain. The shouts of “fake news” often engulf the measured discussion of facts.

Although the EFF apology was lackluster, the lesson it conveyed was significant: when challenged, disinformation can potentially be publicly and prominently retracted. Whether an apology and a retraction issued a year and a half after the information was originally spread had much impact is debatable, but in the absence of formal policy on disinformation, it is a step in the right direction.

There is still a long way to go, as taking political parties to court every time they spread disinformation is not a viable solution. The ruling was nevertheless a win, however, for South Africans battling against the ghosts of Stratcom and the very real ghouls still spreading disinformation online.


Tessa Knight is a Research Assistant, Southern Africa, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in South Africa.

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