Nothing new about "fake news", as Cyril Ramaphosa well knows

John Kane-Berman says the ANC and SACP were past masters at art of disinformation

It is amazing as well as amusing that so many journalists have got themselves so worked up about "fake news" and disinformation peddled by various newspapers and clandestine agencies seeking to discredit Cyril Ramaphosa for allegedly having extramarital affairs. Were they all born yesterday?

Fake news was supposedly invented by the likes of Donald Trump, the British public relations firm Bell Pottinger, and everyone in the United Kingdom campaigning for that country to quit the European Union. In fact, of course, fake news, lies, propaganda, and disinformation are as old as the hills.

The only new thing is the technology: e-mailing, along with Twitter and other tools such as Facebook, have enabled everyone to join the propaganda war that was previously the monopoly of those controlling or capturing newspapers, printing presses, radio, and television. Also, propaganda can now be spread across the globe in an instant.

Few organisations have deployed disinformation with as much success as the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). All that has now happened is that these tools are being wielded not against these organisations' political opponents in other parties, but within the ANC by one faction against another.  

The same applies to assassinations, as this column pointed out on 21 August: the ANC and the SACP, along with Umkhonto we Sizwe, went around assassinating policemen, local councillors, and political rivals in their quest for power. Now the erstwhile assassins, or their political offspring, have turned on one another.

As the ANC and its allies recognised, however, political violence on its own would never get them into power. Even more important was to exploit violence for propaganda purposes. As Raymond Suttner of the SACP wrote, "We need to take more determined steps to win the propaganda war as to the meaning and causes of the violence." Joseph Goebbels would have approved: he once wrote that "the intellectual conduct of the war" was no less important than the shooting war.

Although the ANC under Nelson Mandela's leadership had adopted revolutionary violence in the form of a "people's war", it duped most of the media and most of the world into casting all the blame on a supposed "third force" which included the police, the National Party government, and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Organisations playing a role in this disinformation campaign included Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and a local ANC front styling itself the "Human Rights Commission" - their antics all exposed by the Institute of Race Relations 25 years ago.

But by far the most spectacular disinformation coup of the ANC and its allies was in convincing the local and foreign media, foreign diplomats in Pretoria and their governments, the United Nations, the South African Council of Churches, "slideaway" South African liberals, and many others, that FW de Klerk had orchestrated the Boipatong massacre in June 1992. "We charge [him] with direct complicity," declared Mr Ramaphosa.

Ignoring three sets of alternative findings – by a judge in a criminal trial, by a British policing expert brought in by the Goldstone Commission, and by its own amnesty committee – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) under the chairmanship of Desmond Tutu pronounced that the police had planned and helped to execute the massacre. It is not surprising that the TRC said this. In addition to "factual or forensic truth" it deployed three other kinds: "personal and narrative truth", "social or dialogue truth", and "healing and restorative truth".  

An organisation charged with discovering the truth about political violence thus played fast and loose with the very concept. Beside the TRC and the ANC, Bell Pottinger and the Guptas are amateurs. 

As for Mr Ramaphosa, he has likened the disinformation campaign against him to the "stratcom techniques of the apartheid era". There may indeed be similarities. But the really successful disinformation campaign in South African history is the one the ANC waged with the help of useful idiots and captured organisations when he was its powerful secretary general.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.