How to sweeten the taste of apartheid
Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War by Ron Nixon Jacana Media 288 pages R250
In April 1960, a month after Sharpeville, NBC broadcast a television series called the ‘Winds of Change’ about South Africa’s racial policies, which referred in critical terms to the ‘terror and bloodshed’ of Sharpeville. Eric Louw was incensed. He dispatched the South African ambassador in Washington, Wentzel du Plessis, to meet with Caltex, a division of the American oil giant Texaco with significant investments in South Africa and a major advertiser for National Broadcasting Company (NBC), to see if the company might exert some pressure on the television network.
But the government knew that it needed to do more than try to strong-arm its American counterpart. It needed a more subtle approach to try to repair its image. Consequently, it turned to one of America’s premier image-makers at the time for help. It hired the Hamilton Wright Organization, a New York public relations firm with experience representing unpopular foreign countries, to launch a major campaign that would create a more favourable image for the South African government both within the US and globally. The Hamilton Wright Organization has been called the first international public relations firm. It represented a host of foreign governments, including communist China.
To burnish South Africa’s image, the firm produced articles and took photos featuring smiling black Africans that were widely distributed through several newspaper syndicates, including the United Press International News Service, which were sent to 1 300 newspapers in the US and another 1 000 abroad. It also distributed articles written by writers on its payroll or friendly reporters through the Associated Press, which served 1 400 US papers and another 1 500 internationally. It produced photo essays in magazines such as National Geographic, Life and Look, which drew attention to the scenic beauty of South Africa. It commissioned friendly articles about South Africa from journalists who were taken on trips to the country paid for by the firm with funds from the South African government, mostly from the Department of Information, which had been set up in 1962 as a separate agency from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
More importantly, the firm produced newsreels and short films that were shown in American movie theatres as well as on television.
These high-quality movies, which were narrated by André Baruch, a famous radio talkshow host and narrator who worked for two major television networks, NBC and American Broadcasting Company (ABC), were shot in both black-and-white and colour. They were released through all the major Hollywood production companies, including 20th Century Fox, Universal, MGM, Paramount and Warner Brothers, and seen by more than 200 million people worldwide. The films were also distributed through production companies in Spain, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Hamilton Wright Snr, the firm’s president, told the South African government that despite the costs, an extensive international propaganda campaign was needed. “When you are in the front lines you must use heavy artillery and lots of it,” he wrote to officials at the Department of Information.
Almost no one realised that seemingly harmless films on South African gold or diamond mining or wildlife were propaganda paid for by the apartheid government. Hamilton Wright wanted to keep it that way. The firm took pains to list itself as the producers of all the films, articles or photos that it distributed to media organisations, not the South African government, even though US law required that political propaganda be labelled as such.
In a letter of 2 May 1962 to a US television station, Wright admitted that he had ‘deliberately left off’ the fact that a film called South Africa Today was paid for by the South African Information Service.
Writing in November 1961 to Piet Meiring, director of the Information Service, Hamilton Wright Snr boasted about the firm’s ability to achieve the government’s political goals without being overtly political: “What most of this work proves – beyond doubt – is the value of positive non-political propaganda to create an effect essentially political. Political propaganda as such would have been largely ineffective. But institutional publicity – touching on South Africa’s general life, economic, social and cultural accomplishments, tourist attractions, sports, festivals, etc. – can tend to soften hard political attitudes, make for good feeling, and tend to correct misinformation about the country.”
But South Africa’s lobbying efforts were dealt a serious blow in 1963 when Senator James Fulbright opened a series of congressional hearings into the activities of American lobbying and public relations firms that represented foreign governments, and called the Hamilton Wright Organization to appear before it. Fulbright was particularly concerned about contracts the firm had with the South African government to promote propaganda campaigns that were largely hidden from the American public.
This is an unedited extract from the book