Operation Blackwash

2013-08-25 14:00

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For nearly five decades, the apartheid government spent millions of dollars on a propaganda war to win the hearts and minds of black America

The South African government devoted few resources to influencing America’s black community during the 1950s and 1960s.

Black-American efforts to get the various presidential administrations to impose sanctions had largely fallen on deaf ears and the grass-roots movement pushing for sanctions and divestment had stalled.

The Soweto Uprising of 1976 would change that. On the morning of June 16, students from numerous schools in Soweto began to protest in the streets of the township in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in local schools.

After the bad publicity of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, apartheid South Africa consolidated its image by generating spin from inside the US. Picture: Bongani Mnguni

As the crowd grew bigger, police claimed that some of the children had thrown rocks at them. The police fired into the crowd, killing nearly 200, including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. The image of Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, a fellow student, as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, ran alongside became the iconic picture of the uprisings.

Images of the shootings were played repeatedly on American television and would galvanise opposition to the South African government and its race-based policies. Black leaders in particular began to push the Jimmy Carter administration. Blacks formed a sizable part of the electorate and were critical to the president’s first election campaign and hopes of a second term. Carter voted for UN arms sanctions against South Africa and even discussed economic sanctions, but never implemented them.

In Pretoria, the government needed to counter the perception that South Africa was a racist society and blunt the calls for increased sanctions, which had escalated after the shootings. Shortly before the Soweto Uprising the government had hired the New York public relations firm Sydney S Baron. Baron wasn’t the first firm hired by the government, but it would be the most influential and play a key role in trying to change public opinion, especially among American blacks, in the 1970s.

The Soweto Uprising of 1976 was an indication to the rest of the world that all was not well in SA. Picture: Bongani Mnguni

Shortly after taking on South Africa as a client, the firm hired Robert T Hatcher, a black American, as its vice-president of international operations and the face of the campaign to discourage divestment and sanctions. Hatcher was also to play a key role in the campaign to win over blacks.

In his book The Real Information Scandal, Eschel Rhoodie, former secretary of South Africa’s department of information, which oversaw the country’s global public relations and lobbying operations, said one of the main reasons Baron was hired to represent the country in the US was because of “Hatcher, a Negro”, who had “invaluable political contacts”.

Hatcher, a former journalist, had made history over a decade earlier when he was hired as the first black White House staff member, serving as a deputy press aide to President John F Kennedy. The appointment made Hatcher a household name among blacks and one of the most high-profile black Americans in the world. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Hatcher worked briefly for President Lyndon Johnson.

Given his stature in the black community as a history-making White House staffer, the South African government hoped Hatcher’s skin colour would help deflect criticism and refute claims that the country was run by a racist government that denied black citizens basic rights. The message from Hatcher was that the government was slowly making changes.

As lead man on the South African account, Hatcher helped organise a conference at which black businesses were encouraged to invest in South Africa. The conference was paid for by the South African department of information.

His job also included setting up trips to South Africa for black American legislators and journalists so they could see conditions for themselves, although those who went say their movements were controlled and they were not allowed to visit places on their own.

Only those journalists who could be counted on to write positively about South Africa were invited. Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter Les Payne, a black American who worked for New York Newsday, recalls Hatcher trying to block him from going. When attempts to prevent him failed, Hatcher flew with him to the country and tried to restrict his movements to areas approved by the South African government.

Hatcher was sent as spokesperson to several black events, including a conference of 100 Black Men, a civic organisation he had co-founded in 1963 to help young black men. His appearance at the group’s 1976 conference drew heckling from most of the audience and a small crowd carrying signs protested outside the event, with many questioning how a black man could lobby for South Africa.

Hatcher also made a number of press appearances on behalf of the South African government, including numerous bookings on morning-news programmes on national television.

His signature moment came in June 1976 on NBC’s Today show when he debated George Houser, a white anti-apartheid activist, who had founded the American Committee on Africa, an organisation that pushed for sanctions against South Africa.

Houser said violence in South Africa was escalating because of the government’s continuing exclusion of blacks. “The government gives no intention of changing the pass laws which regulate black migratory labour. There are no political rights for blacks, no parties, no organisation,” Houser said during the interview.

Hatcher, who appeared on the show to defend the South African government, disagreed. He said violence in South Africa was waning because the government was committed to changing apartheid laws and allowing blacks greater participation in politics and business.

“Before accepting the South African account I wanted to see the situation myself, and it was encouraging,” said Hatcher, who had recently made a trip to South Africa.

He told the television audience that he wanted to save “black South Africans from the George Housers of the world”, implying that Houser was one of many white liberals who thought they knew what was best for blacks.

A stunned Houser replied: “To see a black man defending South Africa for money is not unlike seeing a Jew hired by the Nazis.”

» This is an edited extract from Operation Blackwash: Apartheid South Africa’s 46-Year Propaganda War on Black America, published by MampoerShorts. To read the full version, go to www.mampoer.co.za

» Nixon is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times who specialises in investigative reporting and data journalism

» MampoerShorts are minibooks in digital format. Short enough to read in a sitting, long enough to tell the whole story. Long enough to satisfy, short enough to grip your attention

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