How South Africa's Racist Government Waged a Propaganda War in the UK

A look at the shadowy operation that lobbied in the UK for South Africa's apartheid government.

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Aug 18 2016, 6:10pm

A bayside sign post indicates a "White Area" during apartheid in South Africa, June 23, 1976. Picture by AP/ Press Association Images

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Shortly before the end of the apartheid government, an organization calling itself the International Association for Co-operation and Development in Southern Africa—or Acoda, after the French version of its name—began holding a series of European conferences and seminars on investment in southern Africa, and particularly South Africa.

Acoda was especially active in the United Kingdom, where it quickly established a high-profile presence in the British parliament, sponsoring trips to southern Africa for MPs, arranging seminars, and hosting expensive dinners. Several Conservative MPs joined Acoda's international advisory board, including John Biffen, who served as leader of the House of Commons from 1982 to 1987; Baroness Diana Elles, a former vice president of the European Parliament and British representative to the United Nations; and Professor Jack Spence, director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

In 1990, Baroness Elles was one of three members of the group who made a widely publicized trip to southern Africa to discuss economic investment in the region. While on the visit, the members called on the international community to drop sanctions against the South African government.

Baroness Elles told reporters that Acoda in Europe would help change the attitudes of European policymakers toward South Africa.

"There will definitely be a forward movement in the direction of a better understanding and an agreement with South Africa," she said.

Group members denied rumors that Acoda was part of a secret diplomatic initiative by Pretoria. When questioned about a possible connection to the apartheid regime, British Conservative MPs Biffen and Raison said they did not know of any links. "I was not aware of Acoda having any covert ambitions," Biffen told British newspapers.

Even today, few people who were listed as members of the group seemed to know much about its origins.

Professor Jack Spence, who has since retired from Chatham House, said he didn't know who had started the group and assumed that it was formed to deal with the economic development of post-apartheid South Africa. Spence said he couldn't remember who had invited him to join the advisory board.

As far as funding was concerned, Spence said, "I assumed that it was funded by the EU since it was based in Brussels."

But records released by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission show that the group was part of a last-ditch clandestine effort funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the apartheid government to position itself in the post-apartheid era.

The South African government documents show that the purpose of the group was to build support for overturning sanctions legislation in various countries by organizing fact-finding visits to South Africa by prominent Europeans, American businessmen, and members of the US Congress and UK parliament.

At the center of the Acoda project was Sean Leary, a former South African diplomat who masterminded Pretoria's international propaganda campaign to discredit the South West Africa People's Organization, or Swapo, in Namibia.

In London, Acoda shared the same offices in Westminster that housed Strategy Network International (SNI), a public relations firm set up by Cleary, and paid through his company, Transcontinental Consultancy, which was funded by the apartheid South African government.

The same office also housed the International Freedom Foundation, the global front group that had been set up by other South African operatives to discredit Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.

In an interview, former SNI lobbyist Steven Govier, who now runs a crime-prevention program in London, said the group was part of a global lobbying effort that also involved parallel operations in France, Germany, and the US. All of the firms were paid about $650,000 annually.

An anti-apartheid bus in London in 1989. Photo by R Barraez D'Lucca

Acoda was one of many South African white-minority government-sponsored front groups in the United Kingdom that for decades tried selling the idea of apartheid to the world.

Unlike in the United States, which requires public relations firms representing foreign interests to register with the US Department of Justice, the United Kingdom has no such system. So getting a precise amount of how much was spent in the UK is nearly impossible. Still, a review of records from archives in South Africa shows that, for decades, the South African government spent millions to brandish the country's image and stall sanctions.

They were successful, to a degree. Despite the international condemnation of the apartheid government and the imposition of sanctions by most countries, the Conservative government, led by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, didn't impose sanctions until it was forced to when US Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986.

Not only did she see South Africa as a strategic Cold War ally, but Britain was the biggest foreign investor in, and principal trading partner with, the country. Thatcher opposed sanctions, saying they would cause more harm for blacks than whites and were unlikely to pressure the government in Pretoria to change its racial policy. "So far as Britain is concerned, we believe that sanctions would only harden attitudes rather than promote progress," Thatcher said.

Although Thatcher said she believed the policy of racial separation was "unacceptable" and called for the release of Nelson Mandela, she nevertheless affirmed the UK's support for the South African government.

Thatcher and her government considered the ANC a "terrorist organization" and on numerous occasions sought to draw a link between the ANC and the Soviet Union. During one press conference, Thatcher told reporters that there was considerable Soviet influence throughout Africa and "a considerable number of the ANC leaders are communists."

Despite longtime support from Britain, the apartheid government first began its image-washing in the country in the 1970s as international pressure intensified.

One of the first projects was the Club of Ten.

The organization was supposed to be a group of British, South African, and American businessmen concerned about the biased treatment of the apartheid government in the media. But despite its name, the club was really the work of just one man, Gerald Sparrow, a 76-year-old former British judge on the International Court of Bangkok. Sparrow had first traveled to South Africa to write a book on tourism during a six-week trip sponsored by the South African Tourist Corporation and the government-owned South African Airlines.

Sparrow's Club of Ten viciously attacked critics of the apartheid regime. When the Guardian published a series of articles about the low wages earned by blacks in South Africa, the group took out ads in the Daily Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian itself, asking why the paper hadn't done the same for workers paid by British companies in India, Hong Kong, Ceylon, or other countries in Africa. Other advertisements by the club warned about Communist activity in Africa and the strategic importance of South Africa.

A sign from apartheid-era South Africa

The club also took out full-page advertisements in papers elsewhere, including the New York Times and the Washington Post in the US, the Montreal Star in Canada and major papers in West Germany, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand. The advertisements ran to as much as $16,000 in some papers. In one year alone, the club would spend about $100,000 on the political ads.

Press attention did, however, force the British Foreign Office to request a list of the group's members. Sparrow provided them with ten names, including those of Luyt, a South African fertilizer millionaire, and Lampas Nichas, a Greek immigrant to South Africa who had made a fortune selling potatoes.

Nichas even traveled to Britain on August 22, 1974, to present a R50,000 check to Sparrow at the Royal Horse Guards Hotel as proof that wealthy South Africans were behind the venture and not the government, although the money he used was supplied by the South African Department of Information.

Years later, a frustrated Gerald Sparrow resigned from the Club of Ten after a disagreement and wrote a book detailing the South African government's role in funding the group.

The book, The Ad Astra Connection, gave a detailed account of the government's attempts to buy positive publicity by placing advertisements in newspapers around the world and attacking the government's opponents. The book didn't provide the necessary documentation to back up Sparrow's allegations, but the disclosure was nevertheless damaging.

In addition to the various front groups like the Club of Ten, the South African government also beefed up its direct lobbying and spying operations in the UK in the 1970s.

In London, two MPs in the ruling Labour Party were put on the South African government's payroll. Documents do not say who the MPs were. Their job was to lobby for South Africa in the House of Commons and spy on anti-apartheid groups in the United Kingdom. Information from the two MPs was used to launch "disinformation and disruptive" campaigns against anti-apartheid groups in Britain and Holland, including creating fake mail petitions and canceling meetings, all to cause confusion among the activists.

South African agents targeted leaders of the Liberal Party. Pete Hain, a leading participant in the campaign to stop tours of the UK by all-white South African sports teams, was one of the main targets of the South African smear campaign. In 1974, a photograph of Hain circulated tying him to a bombing in South Africa. The picture, which featured a dead baby, bore the caption "A Victim of Liberal Terrorism."

A pamphlet entitled the Hidden Face of the Liberal Party was also widely circulated in an attempt to smear the party's leaders. Election documents later showed that a number of copies of the pamphlet had been entered on the expenses of Harold Gurden, a member of the Conservative Party and avid supporter of the South African government.

In a second covert offensive in Britain, called "Operation Bowler," money was funneled through a Conservative MP for the purpose of bringing British MPs to South Africa. None of the MPs knew that the money was coming from the South African government.

The South African business community also lent its considerable might to the British charm offensive.

The South Africa Foundation, a group set up in 1960 after the Sharpeville shootings, where 69 blacks were killed marching on a police station, had more than 200 members representing some of the largest companies in South Africa, including members from companies in the US, the UK, and other places in Europe with South African interests. The foundation had access to large amounts of money to help promote the country.

In Britain, the foundation teamed with the United Kingdom-South Africa Trade Association to promote trade and investment in South Africa and opposition to sanctions. It regularly sponsored trips for British politicians, journalists, and businessmen, so they could "see the country for themselves."

Well into the 1980s and 90s, even as the system of apartheid was crumbling, the South African government continued to create and fund sanction-busting groups with seemingly little connection to the white-led regime.

In addition to Acoda, one of the most prominent of these front groups was the International Freedom Foundation.

The group had first made its presence known in 1988, when anti-apartheid organizers in London staged a concert at Wembley Stadium to honor the imprisoned Nelson Mandela on his 70th birthday. During the concert, the IFF circulated flyers and fake programs that claimed the money being raised at the event would fund black terrorists in South Africa.

Ostensibly, it was just another think tank set up to provide policymakers with research and policy positions from a conservative perspective.

But behind-the-scenes, the foundation served another purpose: It was a front organization for the South African government, bankrolled as a last-gasp attempt to prolong its existence, according to investigations by Newsday and the Observer in London.

Later reports by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission would validate the investigations of the two newspapers.

More than half of the IFF's funds came from a secret South African military account, according to TRC documents. Its entire annual budget for the years 1991 and 1992 exceeded about $750,000. After Mandela had been let out of prison and the ANC was no longer banned, in late September of 1991, the South African minister of finance agreed to a one-off payment of about $520,000 to the IFF, approved by the minister of defense, "to enable the country to withdraw from the enterprise."

The IFF had been founded in 1986, against the backdrop of increasing international pressure on Western governments to take action against the apartheid government. The approach taken was that the foundation could not be used to defend the system of apartheid. Instead, it would focus on trying to discredit the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement by linking them to Communism.

An anti-apartheid protest outside South Africa House in London, in 1989. Photo by R Barraez D'Lucca

Several leading Conservative politicians in Britain were involved in the foundation's work on behalf of the South African government.

One of those was David Hoile, who was listed as a co-founder of the IFF's UK office. As vice chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students, the student organization of the British Conservative Party, during the 1980s Hoile had once worn a "Hang Nelson Mandela" badge. When the Guardian newspaper in 2001 published an investigation detailing Hoile's involvement in the anti-Mandela student campaign, he demanded that the publication retract its story.

The South African–born Hoile wrote a book, Understanding Sanctions, which was published by the IFF UK's office in 1988. In it, Hoile called sanctions against South Africa immoral and argued that they would have little effect on the South African economy. The book was one of a series published by the IFF that would question the use of sanctions to end apartheid.

Marc Gordon, a Conservative activist who worked with Hoile, was also involved in the IFF. Gordon gained notoriety when he led an IFF campaign against the anti-poverty charity Oxfam, accusing the group of using its tax-exempt status for political purposes because of its criticism of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. As a result of Gordon's efforts, Oxfam was censured by the British Charities Commission, which said the group had "prosecuted their campaign with too much vigor."

Other prominent MPs involved in the IFF included Sir George Gardiner, a right-wing politician who was a bitter critic of the ANC and an opponent of economic sanctions against South Africa. Gardiner served on the IFF's advisory board and was also a leading member of the Monday Club, which had long ties to South Africa. Gardiner's zealous support of the South African government earned him the nickname "Botha boy" from Labour Party opponents.

Another MP involved in the IFF was Andrew Hunter, a Conservative MP. Like Gardiner, Hunter had a long history of relations with South Africa and was an advocate for the recognition of the Bophuthatswana homeland. Financial disclosure documents from the British parliament show that Hunter made numerous trips to South Africa paid for by that country's government.

Hunter produced reports for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that sought to establish links between the ANC and the IRA—a subject he wrote about for IFF publications—and the ANC's support for "terrorist" operations in South Africa. This information reinforced Thatcher's belief that the ANC was a "terrorist group" and a front for communists.

Despite the disclosure of documents from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many of those involved in the IFF, to this day, continue to deny that it was a front for the apartheid government.

The former president of the IFF, Jack Abramoff, a disgraced lobbyist who served 43 months in prison in one of the biggest lobbying scandals in US history, told me that to the best of his knowledge the South African government never funded the IFF, despite media reports and documents from the TRC exposing the organization's link to Pretoria.

"We, and certainly I, never lobbied for the apartheid government," he said. "That is just not true. I never had anything to do with the government and anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth."

Ken Silverstein, a US-based reporter who has written extensively about Abramoff, disputed the former lobbyist's denials.

"According to my source, Abramoff was briefed by South African representatives about the nature and importance of the foundation's work," Silverstein said. "Yes, some people were duped by the IFF, but Jack was not one of them. As chairman [of the IFF], he understood where the money was coming from. He knew exactly who he was playing with."

Ron Nixon is the Washington correspondent for the New York Times. His book, Selling Apartheid: South Africa's Global Propaganda War, is published this week Pluto Press.

Follow Ron Nixon on Twitter.

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