How to sweeten the taste of apartheid

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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

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