Fake news: The past and the present


"There is nothing new under the sun," is a saying rooted in the Christian Bible. This is also true of a phenomenon many may think is a product of the last few years: Fake or false news.

I just read a reference to false news in a 1941 judgment of the South African Supreme Court. Here's the background:

Hendrik Verwoerd was the editor of the newspaper Die Transvaler before he entered active politics.

In 1937 Verwoerd wrote in an editorial on "the Jewish problem" that there should be a quota of at most 5% Jews in business and industry in South Africa.

In 1941 The Star accused him of being pro-Hitler and that he was twisting the news of the war to make Germany look good. Verwoerd sued the paper for defamation, demanding fifteen thousand pound in damages.

Judge Phillip Millin dismissed his claim with costs and declared: "There have been proved two very grave cases of the publication of false news in reckless disregard of whether it was true or false; six cases, in the whole less serious, but still clear cases of falsification, where news, originally correctly reported, was falsely restated for the purpose of editorial comment; and two cases in which news was falsified by means of misleading headlines. On the evidence, he, Dr Verwoerd, is not entitled to complain. He did support Nazi propaganda, he did make his paper a tool of the Nazis in South Africa, and he knew it."

I read the judgment in a new book on Verwoerd's murderer, called The Man Who Killed Apartheid – The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas, by Harris Dousemetzis.

The book of 450 pages was researched meticulously with sources provided for almost all statements. The author follows Tsafendas' life from his childhood in Mozambique right through until he became a parliamentary messenger and stabbed Verwoerd to death in his bench in parliament on 6 September 1966.

READ: New book sheds light on Verwoerd's assassin

Dousemetzis's evidence is overwhelming: Tsafendas was everything but mentally deranged. He was a committed communist and political activist since his teenage years. He was fired from his job in Mozambique for this and for campaigning for independence from Portugal. He even fought with the communist forces against the Greek regime after World War II.

He talked about killing Verwoerd for years and he did the deed because he hated apartheid and believed his death would deal that ideology a heavy blow.

Until I read the book, I firmly believed that Tsafendas was a madman with no political motive. That was what the police said then and the court and official inquiries agreed.

It is now crystal clear that the apartheid government did not want it to be known that its beloved premier was killed by an anti-apartheid activist, and wanted to save its crack police force from extreme embarrassment for allowing someone with a long history of communist activism into the country and employed in parliament.

It was all false news. The Dousemetzis book is important because it corrects history.

READ: The man who assassinated Verwoerd was not mad

On Sunday I read the religion reporter Neels Jackson's explanations that the vow made by the Voortrekkers before the battle of Blood River in 1838 never contained a command that the day be celebrated as a Sabbath by all Afrikaners in perpetuity.

The Day of the Vow has for many decades been a day for rallying people behind Afrikaner nationalism and is still celebrated as a Sabbath by many right wingers.

But it was fake news, used to whip up emotions.

Another example of fake news in our past that springs to my mind relates to Vrye Weekblad's exposé of the police death squad based at Vlakplaas. A former Vlakplaas commander, Dirk Coetzee, had spilled the beans to us and we whisked him out of the country.

A week after the story broke, the newspaper Rapport reported on its front page that Coetzee was in a diabetic fog, struggling for his life on a farm in the north of the country. The aim was to discredit him. It was complete fake news, and even after Coetzee phoned them from London to prove that he was of sound mind and body and not in South Africa, the paper refused to correct it.

Apartheid South Africa's wars in Angola and Namibia were riddled with fake news.

The history of the ANC and the struggle against apartheid has its own share of instances where the truth was bent and twisted to glorify the liberation movement and hide abuses.

Fake news. We should never stop sniffing it out and exposing it, whether it manifests now or in our history.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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