New Internationalist

More Dirty Tricks

Issue 87

Public opinion is still apartheid’s biggest enemy in the West. Connie Mulder’s Department of Information spent more than $100 million in the 1970s trying to undermine foreign critics and manipulate public feeling in South Africa’s favour. Hugh Lewin recalls the ‘dirty tricks’ of the Muldergate scandal and suggests that the South African government still has a lot to hide.

The two information kits look identical. Each comes in a smart presentation box, complete with maps, charts and an extensive set of striking photographs - a compact package, ideal for mounting as an exhibition in a classroom or at a lecture or meeting.

The first is a kit prepared by the London-based International Defence and Aid Fund, whose publications have long been doing useful work on the antiapartheid circuit. The exhibition - Southern Africa, the Imprisoned Society - has been around for several years and sells for $16. ‘This exhibition,’ says the Introduction, ‘portrays the lives, the hopes and the struggles of the prisoners of apartheid’.

The second kit is new, and issued free - by the Director of Information at the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square, London.

The South Africa House kit is a clever crib of the Defence and Aid package. It matches the general subject headings and includes a far higher proportion of African, Coloured and Indian faces than is usual in propaganda material from South Africa House. Connoisseurs of South African advertisements in overseas newspapers will recognise the much-used picture of black and white cyclists holding hands at the end of a race in the once-only ‘South African Games’ - now given the caption: ‘Comradeship’.

The South African House kit is a clear indication that the information activities of the South African Government are alive and kicking - and this nearly a year after the most shattering event of Muldergate, the resignation by the South African President John Vorster in June 1979. Not only alive, but the propaganda machine is using much the same sort of ‘dirty tricks’ which came to be associated with Muldergate.

It is worth looking back at the main elements of the ‘Information scandal’ and its current myths.

What we know about Muldergate came largely from Eschel Rhoodie, the former secretary of the Information Department headed by Connie Mulder, Cabinet Minister and, until well into late 1978, the man most likely to succeed John Vorster as Prime Minister. Even after he had been pipped by P.W. Botha, following Vorster’s surprise resignation in September 1978, Mulder remained a potent figure as head of the Information Department.

Yet within six months, Mulder had been forced to resign from the Cabinet, then from Parliament, and finally from the National Party. Rhoodie had fled the country and, by June 1979, Vorster had stepped down from the country’s highest office dragging with him Brigadier Hendrik van den Bergh, head of the security bureau - BOSS.

The immediate cause of their communal downfall has been given as the founding of The Citizen, an English-medium newspaper with markedly right-wing views which started in the early 70s. Mulder had denied in the House of Assembly that his department had anything to do with The Citizen. Like Nixon, he fell when proved a liar - by Judge Anton Mostert, a one-man commission of inquiry set up to investigate irregularities exposed by other English-medium newspapers. Mostert disclosed that The Citizen was a Department of Information project, secretly financed by the government. Mostert was sacked for his rebellion but his disclosures set off a flood which forced Botha, playing Mr. Clean, to appoint another commission of inquiry.

This Erasmus commission initially exonerated Vorster but in June last year reported that he had been party to The Citizen cover-up and, as Prime Minister at the time, should bear the responsibility. He resigned in disgrace.

It was at this stage that Rhoodie began his major disclosures of information about the Information Department. Hiding in France, he leaked parts of several tapes, ostensibly to reveal enough dirt about people in high places to buy his own security. By the time he was extradited to Johannesburg and sentenced in October last year to six years’ imprisonment on fraud charges, a fair amount had emerged of the activities of Rhoodie’s department. He was clearly a very busy man, entrusted by Vorster in early 1972 with a secret budget of some $100 million to buy South Africa a good name abroad. Rhoodie’s own exuberance and fondness for the good life allowed him to exceed his brief in some particulars - such as funding pleasure trips to the Seychelles, watching a whole week of Wimbledon, or buying a luxury flat in Plettenberg Bay - for which he is now enjoying the rehabilitatory delights of Pretoria Prison.

But what is peculiar about the Muldergate affair is the emptiness of the shock-horror public reaction to the disclosures. Rhoodie had been told to run a propaganda machine and he did so, with fair effectiveness, until exposed by his excesses. In a world of the CIA and the Lockheed scandal there could be no great surprise that a South African propaganda department tried to buy opinion, whether by free jaunts for journalists and politicians, or trying to buy overseas newspapers like the Washington Star.

Even on the ‘dirty tricks’ front, nobody could have been particularly surprised to learn that Rhoodie ‘intervened’ in the US elections in 1976 with funds to help unseat Senator John Tunney, a critic of US aid to South Africa, or that he contributed to the successful campaign to unseat Senator Dickie Clark, one of SouthAfrica’s most influential critics in 1978. Not quite cricket perhaps, but in terms of international political practice, hardly unusual.

Which is why Erasmus could note with a degree of relief that the Muldergate affair had ‘little or transitory effect on South Africa’s image abroad’. Erasmus also noted that South Africa’s ‘credibility and prestige’ could soon be ‘redressed’.

South Africa House’s latest information kit demonstrates precisely what Erasmus meant - and it is, for instance, a very open secret that in the run-up to the recent Zimbabwe elections a considerable amount of South African money passed to Muzorewa to boost his campaign against the men the government hates the most: Mugabe and Nkomo.

What has been conveniently forgotten about Muldergate is Rhoodie’s admission that between 160 and 180 secret projects were set up - and of these only 60 at most have been revealed. That’s where the real cover-up over Muldergate contines to take place - and it emphasises the reality concerning South Africa’s information services: that they are essentially only a part of the overall strategy, and that involves the defence of the status quo in the most serious way possible.

Rhoodie in Francewas saidto be more fearful of being ‘hit’ by Israeli security men - to ensure he protected secrets of South African-Israeli nuclear arrangements - than of returning for trial to Pretoria. Certainly his silence in court about most of his former work suggests the gravity of the untold secrets. Even Vorster and van den Bergh did not attempt to clear their own tarnished images by revealing all.

Power is now firmly in the hands of Botha, who for twelve years was Minister of Defence in charge of the armed forces, a portfolio he has kept since becoming Prime Minister. And what he and General Magnus Malan, the Chief of Defence Staff, have done since Vorster’s fall is to establish all power, including security, under the supervision of the military. BOSS has been downgraded into an ‘institute of security’, now headed by a 31-year old university lecturer with no police background.

Mulder himself, having survived a halfhearted attempt to make him give evidence to the Erasmus Commission, has returned to politics heading a party challenging Botha from the right. The unanswered question remains. Why has Mulder, after the bitterness of the scandal that disgraced him, not felt inclined to put the finger on Botha? And what persuaded Rhoodie to stay silent even while he was made the fall guy for them all?

There must have been a pay-off - and what it was, and the answers to the questions, lie somewhere in the untold murk of Muldergate. They are likely to involve matters of strategic importance which, in the age of an independent Zimbabwe, assume an importance sufficient to bring into line all white South Africans intent on self-preservation.

Hugh Lewin is a South African writer who was arrested for being a member of an underground organisation involved in sabotage. 'Bandiet - Seven Years in a South African Prison' is an account of his experiences published by Penguin books. He is currently a journalist with a London newspaper, The Guardian.

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