First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
My close friends, quiet people who just wanted to live and let others live, changed – sometimes overnight. Peaceful men suddenly wanted to fight. The usually soft-spoken humans filled the tenuous void with shouts of anger and intolerance. In cities, towns and villages across the land, suddenly unhappy residents gathered to lay the blame for all ills that were ailing them on someone else, someone on the other side, a faceless “enemy” that was hellbent on destruction.
Fear and uncertainty were omnipresent and overpowering. Mothers cradled their children, racked with deep anxiety, afraid of the years that were to come. “How will we all go through this?” they asked, uncertain of what to do, and when.
No one knew what was to come. Everyone knew they were afraid. And all knew it was the other side’s fault.
The year was 1991, and although every word you have read so far could have been applied to South Africa, it is Yugoslavia to which I am referring.
The crisis started with the ascension to power of Serbian populist president Slobodan Milošević in 1987, and the subsequent takeover of most other Yugoslavian republics by the Milošević-like characters whose main platform was that only they could protect their people from the Serbian strongman.
My generation was badly hit by the chaos we grew up to be part of. Lives were ruined. Careers disappeared into the ether.
It is what it is, we try to console ourselves these days. At least we’re still alive, a luxury that way too many of our age could not afford. But, even from this perspective, it burns when we think about populists who brazenly and cynically destroyed so many lives through malice, stupidity and callousness.
In 1987, one of the first things that Milošević did was to take over Serbian TV and radio, with daily newspapers next, then finalised the move by taking over the political and news magazines. In the days of the final breakdown of the federation, the first casualty was communication with other republics, especially Croatia, whose then new nationalist-populist president, Franjo Tudjman, was best described as bizzaro-Milošević.
State media propaganda was brutal, on all sides, and in the manner that only the populists can do – through othering of the opponents with whom their audience had no way of communicating. We were being prepared for war, without knowing it.
And war we had. Not one, not two, but three.
The decade of the 1990s was to host countless massacres and war crimes, millions displaced and exiled, tens of millions of lives prevented from being lived in peace and fulfilment. Economies were shattered. Some people recovered. Some never will.
All of that calamity was brought on by populism, perhaps humanity’s most dangerous political invention. It’s difficult to fully and precisely determine, but is recognisable once you look at it. In the old days, it was popular strongmen such as Argentina’s Juan Perón, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Louisiana governor Huey Long. In today’s world, it is the vile and cowardly “leaders” such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. We have a South African member of this high-performance club in the EFF’s Julius Malema. Each has their own flavour, but they are joined at the hip by stoking and invoking the lowest and most hateful in their followers. Every single one of them has the potential to permanently change the face of their nations and alter the future into something much closer to the fate suffered by Yugoslavia.
What is truly chilling is the propaganda arsenal the populists were handed by modern technology. In the old days, it was not easy. There was no internet or social media. Today, the price of propaganda has plummeted and anyone with enough skill, some money and plenty of zeal can wreak havoc.
In these pandemic days, people are afraid for their lives, their families’ safety and their livelihoods. The majority of them are sitting ducks for the new generation of the disciples of Joseph Goebbels. They don’t need to own newspapers and TV/radio stations any more, though some still use them as part of their overall attack. All they need to know is how to exploit people’s fears, weaknesses and insecurities. They can use Twitter and Facebook from anywhere and it will cost them next to nothing. They will convince us that it is the foreigners’ fault our economies are in free fall. They will “prove” that vaccines do not work. They will make you “understand” that your newspaper is run by “lizard people”, even though you know many of them personally.
You might think I’m pushing this too far. How about this, then: in 1991, many Yugoslavian parents were convinced by the propaganda machinery that the parents on the “other side” did not love their children any more. Can you imagine anything as vile as that? Sting sang about it in his seminal 1985 song, Russians: “I hope the Russians love their children too.”
Propaganda in itself is a powerful thing. Evil propaganda is more powerful than nuclear weapons. In populists’ hands, it has a chance of destroying our humanity. And they can afford it for less than a pair of Louis Vuitton shoes.
Think of it next time you see a tweet from Julius Malema, Duduzile Zuma and uLerato_pillay, and a thousand others pushing you to hate those standing in their way. We see you. DM168
Branko Brkic is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Daily Maverick.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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