“It was brilliant, in a sick way”

By Liora Israelsohn

The Propaganda of South African Apartheid

Apartheid South Africa meant separate development. Between 1948 and 1994, it meant black South Africans didn’t have the vote, they had to live in self-contained areas and had strict laws surrounding what they could and couldn’t do. They had separate busses, separate toilets, and separate schools. Essentially, black South Africans were second class citizens.

Ian Marks (52) grew up, as a white male, in apartheid South Africa. Now a media expert and policy advisor for Jemena, a national energy company, Ian blames the lack of independent media for the success of propaganda in South Africa.

“It was all state controlled. We only got TV in about 1976, which was quite late compared to most countries, and our radio was controlled by the government. There were no legal private radio stations, just the SABC.”

There were private newspapers but they were often censored by the government. “If they didn’t like a story, it’d be a big black page”, says Ian, “some days the whole front page was black and you couldn’t read what was underneath.” The news was very strongly weighted towards saying that apartheid was in the best interest of the whole population and that “the black people were just generally troublemakers, particularly the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party.” For many years, newspapers were banned from showing photos of Mandela and other ANC leaders, and in some cases, weren’t even allowed to use their names.

When South Africa eventually got TV, there were programs aired about how wonderful the government was and how happy the black people were, says Ian. “Even programs that supposedly had nothing to do with the government, such as a documentary about farming or Kruger Park, had propaganda inserted about the black people being happy and content. It was brilliant, in a sick way”, says Ian.

Every black person who did anything slightly slightly troublesome was portrayed as a terrorist. There was fake news about who caused bomb blasts in shopping malls. “They were blamed on the ANC, but years later we found out they were planted by the government.”

But the strongest propaganda was in the public education system.

“When we learned history, it was all through the eyes of the white South Africans,” says Ian. “When you got to 15 or 16, you went on a school camp which was really a way to try and brainwash you”. The camps, called Veldskool (which means field school) employed counsellors to run political discussions with these high school students. “They were there to brainwash you,” he says, “and most of the time it worked.”

At 18, all South African men were required to do two years of national service. Essentially, national service meant “fighting the communist threat”, as black people had become synonymous with the communists through the media. Many of Ian’s friends tried to defer this by going to university first, but eventually, they were all conscripted.

Some people did try to speak out against apartheid or national service, but Ian says these “trouble makers” would often “disappear”. “Sometimes they came back, but they never spoke about what happened to them,” he says of people in his community. “That fueled the fear”.

Ian believes that one of the reasons apartheid fell apart was because air travel became cheaper, people started travelling more, and “the world started opening up in the 90s.” “The Berlin Wall fell and we got more news sources. Every time someone came back from travelling they told how people spoke about South Africa.”

Though he admits that the propaganda in Apartheid South Africa was extremely effective at the time, he says it wouldn’t be so easy to keep control now. “It’s a lot more difficult because there’s international news, google and social media. Back then, they arrested journalists if they didn’t like the truth, now there are just too many sources.”