The African-Americans who worked for apartheid.
Having suffered a form of apartheid themselves in the USA and known how dehumanising it was, you would think that all African-Americans would hate the apartheid regime in South Africa. But no, some of them were wooed by dirty lucre and became agents of apartheid in the US. All of this has been uncovered in a fascinating new book, Operation Blackwash, written by Ron Nixon, an African-American journalist at The New York Times.
Published by Mampoer Books of South Africa, Nixon's book details how the apartheid state invested more than $100m over 50 years in an attempt to convince Americans that South Africa was not a racist state that practised an inhuman system of racial segregation. Digging his way through once secret government files in South Africa and the US, Nixon discovered that the apartheid state had hundreds of influential African-Americans on its payroll and that it paid them to wage a propaganda war on its behalf in the US between 1940 and 1990. With millions of dollars at its disposal, South Africa's Ministry of Information was able to tempt African-Americans who had worked for the US government, top public relations firms, and powerful Washington lobbying firms to put aside their principles and work for the apartheid regime. By employing African-Americans to lobby for it, the apartheid government believed it could convince Americans, particularly black Americans, that it could not possibly be racist, as Jesse Jackson and other anti-apartheid activists said they were.
"They knew that white lobbyists talking to African-Americans was not going to work," says Nixon. "So they needed black people talking to black people."
Among the African-Americans who acted as agents for the apartheid state was William Keyes, a black conservative who had worked for the Reagan administration, and Rev Gilbert Caldwell, who had marched with Martin Luther King in the 1960s. But years later he became a conservative who believed Mandela would, if he ever became president, seize American companies in South Africa and hand the country over to the communists in the Soviet Union. The chief task of the African-American agents was to discourage the US Congress from imposing economic sanctions on South Africa. Pretoria knew that sanctions would cripple the apartheid economy and would lead eventually to the toppling of the apartheid state.
To stop this, Pretoria ordered its American agents to set up anti-sanctions organisations like Operation Heartbreak and the Wake Up America Coalition. The agents were also to finance conferences encouraging African-American businessmen to do business in South Africa's segregated Bantustans. The agents were pressed to use their influence to get black newspapers to run articles presenting the apartheid state in a positive light. "The problem with that was, some of these black people were sounding just like the white lobbyists," says author Nixon, laughing at how the apartheid state's propaganda plans backfired.
Black dolls for Congressmen
Though their activities bore little fruit, the African-American agents persisted. The Rev. Kenneth Frazier, a Methodist minister, an avowed anti-communist, and friend of the apartheid regime, is remembered for staging an impressive but fruitless anti-sanctions stunt. He arranged for dozens of black schoolchildren to accompany him to the US Capitol in Washington with black dolls they were to deliver to US lawmakers. The dolls were, of course, meant to represent suffering black South African children, hungry, and homeless as a result of sanctions.
"We are here in the interest of millions of suffering South African children who are already the poorest and most helpless and the most vulnerable in South Africa," Rev Caldwell said on the steps outside the US Congress. His protest came to nothing, and he and his organisation soon disappeared from public view.
The best known of the African-Americans who did apartheid's dirty work in the US was Andrew T. Hatcher, a former White House official who had worked for President John F. Kennedy. He was hired by the apartheid government to be its chief public relations person and spokesman in the US in 1976, shortly after South African police shot and killed nearly 1,000 African schoolchildren in Soweto. Pleasing his South African paymasters, Hatcher shockingly dismissed the slaughter in Soweto as "simply a passing moment".
The apartheid government was similarly dismissive of Hatcher. His boss, Eschel Rhoodie, the South African information minister, condescendingly described Hatcher as the "Negro" who had "invaluable political contacts". And truth be said, Hatcher certainly had invaluable political contacts. Sixteen years before this, in 1960, Hatcher had made his name, and earned the regard of many African-Americans, when he was chosen by President Kennedy to become the first black person to hold the important post of deputy press secretary in the White House. Now here was Hatcher, 16 years later, acting as the spokesman for the racist apartheid regime. And he worked hard for his blood money. He went on US television to debate with a white anti-apartheid activist and to try and put a positive spin of his recent visit to South Africa. "I'm not here defending apartheid," Hatcher said, unconvincingly. "What I went there to do was to find out if I, in good conscience, could represent the Republic of South Africa." It was not a convincing performance. Hatcher looked nervous and uncomfortable throughout. "I came away feeling" said Hatcher, shifting in his chair, "that I could continue to help American companies expand their investments there."
The white anti-apartheid activist, George Hauser, struck back saying: "A black man defending South Africa for money is not unlike seeing a Jew hired by the Nazis." Not long after this, Hatcher was heckled at a meeting of the civic group 100 Black Men, an organisation he had helped to found. He was denounced, too, in a black newspaper as "South Africa's Black Andy." It was quite a comedown for a man who only a few years before had used his post as a White House press secretary to push President Kennedy, some said, in the right direction on civil rights. But in the years since he worked in the White House, Hatcher had fallen on tough economic times and he was willing to do just about anything for a dollar.
William Keyes takes over
Realising that defending apartheid was the biggest mistake of his life, Hatcher quit his post as chief spokesman for the racist regime in 1977, barely 12 months after he first took the job. Hatcher was gone. But other African-Americans stepped up to take his place. The lobbyist William Keyes, who claimed to have worked as an advisor for the Reagan administration, did his best to discredit Mandela and the ANC.
"It's important that we recognise in the US the reality of the ANC as a terrorist outlaw organisation which has perpetrated violence primarily against innocent black people," Keyes said in a 1985 interview. He was denounced by the African-American Randall Robinson, one of the leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement in the US. "It's this kind of thing that is a shock to your system, to see a black American lobbying for the South African government," a stunned Robinson told the Washington Post.
Another of the apartheid agents was Jay Parker, but he was a strange choice to influence African-Americans. It was not long since Parker, a conservative black Republican, had angered many African-Americans by leading a campaign to stop a national holiday being dedicated to Martin Luther King. But the father of them all was Max Yergan. Long before Jay Parker, William Keyes, and Andrew Hatcher were put on the apartheid payroll in the 1970s and 1980s, Yergan was chosen in the 1940s by the apartheid state to put a positive spin on its policies. As the first African-American hired to do this job in the US, Yergan took to his task with passion, pleasing his apartheid masters and outraging African-Americans and others.
In 1953, Yergan wrote an article for an American magazine defending apartheid. "Any person in Europe or America who levels criticism against
white South Africa has to ask himself what would he do under similar circumstances," Yergan wrote, claiming bizarrely that the white minority in South Africa had good reason to be afraid of the black majority. "The white population there is dominated by fear--fear of this immediately more numerous non-white population." So happy was the apartheid state with Yergan that Pretoria granted him "honorary white" status.
Strangely, Yergan had first gone to South Africa in the 1920s as a Baptist missionary. But, frustrated at the discrimination he saw there, he joined an anti-colonialist group when he returned home to the US in the 1930s. But he soon abandoned his progressive views and embraced apartheid after he had a falling-out with anti-colonialist activists.
Yergan celebrated apartheid
Yergan stayed an employee of the apartheid state till his death in 1975, being used to try to influence black organisations and black politicians, and in South Africa where he encouraged blacks to accept apartheid's "separate development" policies.
In 1964, brought to South Africa to present Pretoria's point of view to Africans, Yergan gave a speech celebrating apartheid, claiming it showed "honesty, courage and boldness." He was denounced in Africa and America. "Apartheid gives Negros dignity, sociologist says", read a New York Times headline. Yergan, a perverse pioneer, died in 1975 without changing the hearts and minds of African-Americans on apartheid.
So, what happened to the other African-Americans on the apartheid payroll? The public relations man Jay Parker was unrepentant. In his 2009 biography, Courage to put my country above color, Parker said he had no regrets. Another apartheid agent, the Rev Gilbert Caldwell seemed regretful at some of his activities. "I would really like to think," he told author Ron Nixon, "I was trying to do the right thing."
Nixon, who dug through once secret archives to detail the links between the apartheid state and its African-American agents, believes that most of the agents participated in the propaganda war because of money and not because they were true believers.
Nixon also hopes those who read his book will realise that just because people have the same skin colour does not mean they will necessarily share the same political outlook even on a heinous regime as apartheid South Africa. "There is this romantic view that we are all the same colour and that we should have solidarity," Nixon says. "Obviously, that is not the case."
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|Title Annotation:||COVER STORY: South Africa|
|Author:||Goffe, Leslie Gordon|
|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2014|
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