The US Based Council on Foreign Relations reports that Russia’s “Internet Research Agency (IRA), an online ‘troll farm’ [works lock-step with its sister company the Wagner Group]… to inflame political divisions in the United States… ‘phony election monitoring’ in several African nations [and] co-opting Pan-Africanist movements to promulgate anti-French and anti-Western messages.”
South Africa’s recently reinvigorated alliance with Russia and an impending possible visit of Vladimir Putin to the rainbow nation begs the question of whether we are at the receiving end of the sort of propaganda Russian proxies use in other parts of the world.
Over the last few years, I have conducted in-depth research in Moldova and the former Yugoslavia on political messaging and, judging from what I saw there, in all likelihood, South Africa is already on Russia’s influence battlefield.
While the ANC’s stance on Ukraine might lead some to think an infowars campaign would be aimed at propping up the ANC, the playbook used by Russia’s allies in Europe implies a more sophisticated strategy.
The approach deployed in infowars campaigns in Europe are fundamentally anti-intellectual, internationally sceptical and populist at heart.
The method is to build alliances with local elites who are either threatened by transparency and accountability or hold historical grievances because they have lost out in the increasing influence of international norms. The sophistication Russia uses is not to drum up nakedly partisan rhetoric.
Nor does Russia make the mistake of fabricating evidence to support its propaganda itself.
Instead, infowars will use South Africa’s own watchdog and civil society institutions as well as that of international donors to provide the evidence. This evidence when repackaged or nuanced in the appropriate way becomes propaganda.
Here the playbook is as simple as it is effective. And as easy to identify as it is hard to neutralise. First, summon evidence that the state, its intellectual and technocratic allies, and a naïve trust in the global order, harm average South Africans.
The source of these stories could be found in Daily Maverick itself. For example, the inability to bring the Guptas back is evidence that the global order is a myth. This is not a failure of the ANC. With the right emphasis the Guptas’ jet-setting is proof that when push comes to shove, South Africa will be screwed by richer countries whenever it suits them.
The success of this sort of propaganda is that it converts efforts to reform and fix the country into proof that intellectuals, technocrats, and foreigners are the enemy of the people.
The ammunition used is the myriad of reports that emphasise how ordinary South Africans cannot trust institutions. Reports on corruption, manipulations of the justice system, incompetence in government institutions like Home Affairs are all weapons. They reinforce the fundamental propaganda objective which is to confirm that our common-sense distrust of experts, internationals and technocrats is correct after all.
The prize is that sowing distrust means the electorate has no other pathway for change than to rally behind the big men in politics.
This propaganda becomes most potent when mapped onto historical grievances and threats against elites, thus building an alliance of elites who see the benefit of the propaganda because it sustains the status quo.
In South Africa, we saw this in play with the arrest of Jacob Zuma. The propaganda trick here was to convince ordinary South Africans the arrest was an abuse of power by the state… what the government was really doing was trying to squash the Zulus, the royal families and by extension the whole traditional leadership system that is existentially threatened by internationals, intellectuals and technocrats demanding accountability.
Similarly, this alliance is easily broadened to any elites within the ANC and outside that have built their wealth out of ill-gotten gains.
On the issue of ill-gotten gains, this is not just about corruption. It is about systems that have enriched a few while the majority have been impoverished. Like in Russia and other former communist countries, the structural change that succeeded apartheid resulted in obscene transfers of wealth to politically connected cadres.
Make no mistake, in the eyes of the average South African, Cyril Ramaphosa’s rags-to-riches story, while not illegal, is just using political connections to get rich; it is no different to what royal families did generations ago in South Africa nor colonial mining and trade magnates who transformed political connections into literal nation-states.
Let us not forget Cecil John Rhodes using his political connections to secure his control of what became Zimbabwe and Zambia.
If this sounds familiar, it should because it is the same tool Russia and its allies used in the UK with Brexit and that was used to empower Donald Trump. It is a tool that was honed in Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova by building support for Russian annexation of territory: in these cases, it was the former engineering and managerial classes who were shamed and impoverished in transitioning to market economies in such a way that deindustrialised these countries and transformed these former family men into losers.
And in fact, it is a tool used in South Africa by political strategists across the party landscape too. It is the same tool Israel uses against its critics; it is the same tool Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta used to drum up support for his resistance to the International Criminal Court.
Another potent tool is voicing the resentment embedded in rural-urban divides and specifically related to the obscene wealth being accumulated by urban intellectuals who thrive in the digital economy. Of course, this messaging works wonders too, because it exposes every parent’s fear that their children are online and exploited sexually by adept urban predators hunting in the digital world.
In South Africa, the US and Russia alike, rural communities are bubbling with stories of teenage girls being lured into sexual compromise by seedy men in the cities. And then, here, the propaganda war wins yet again. Because as we know, the police and government cannot be relied on to save these girls: the only solution being a return to traditional family values and yes, the patriarchy, too.
The infowars in South Africa will likely follow this playbook as in fact it probably already does.
Russia wins not by supporting the ANC directly. Russia wins by discrediting intellectuals, technocrats, the international order, and confidence in the global economy. Russia wins because the erosion of trust and accountability allows the big men of politics to make back-room deals unfettered.
And make no mistake, this propaganda is already here. DM