By Ronald Suresh Roberts
This essay abbreviates my reminder, more fully presented in The Thinker 75 (January 2017), that the Democratic Alliance pioneered the ongoing “Breitbartization of public discourse” as what it called a “special project” between 2000 and 2008.
The DA’s leader, Tony Leon, embarked on the manufacture of a post-truth era by resisting the Truth and Reconciliation discourse in 1998, when he told the Boston Globe’s Ben Bradlee, Jr. that “99 percent of whites in South Africa have ‘truth fatigue,’ and would like to just get on with it.” Next, came the “Fight B[l]ack” slogan, under which Leon united the white right, Trump-style, to become Leader of the Opposition shortly after the 1999 election. Then, immediately upon re-entering parliament, Leon established a covert “special project” headed by parliamentary researcher James Myburgh and DA Parliamentary Counsellor, Nick Clelland, who is today Leon’s business partner at Resolve Communications, a competitor of the defunct Bell Pottinger.
The purpose of this “special project” (the DA’s own name for it), which was exposed in 2005-2006, was to capture the mainstream media “as a vehicle” (Business Day editor Peter Bruce’s own phrase), systematically to flood media letter-pages with fake letters from fake people bearing fake facts, and so to abuse and contain the pre-Polokwane ANC.
Fully a decade earlier, mere months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Leon and his then advisor, Advocate David Unterhalter (recently appointed Judge of the Gauteng High Court), predicted, that their own white support base “will carry a disproportionately large weight” because it was “well educated, skilled and relatively well off” and so could “press the interests of a liberal [sic] order” upon the ANC (Business Day, 27 June 1990).
I directly experienced this machinery of white media capture beginning in November 2000, after the Financial Mail published an article by Ferial Haffajee, in which Leon announced his “transformative roots”. I naturally asked: “What Transformative Roots, Tony?” (FM, 24 November 2000). I summarised Leon’s 1970s writings in Paratus, the official journal of the apartheid South African Defence Force. Covering the SADF torture barracks at Voortrekkerhooghte, where chemical castration of gay servicemen was undertaken, plus “ordinary” forms of torture, Leon highlighted “pleasant gardens, “well-stocked library” and “innovations” like soccer, volleyball and baseball. In other articles, Leon glorified the SADF airships that had engaged in Angola and Namibia, celebrated the fake “independence” of Transkei, and so on (“It’s all lies not history”, Sowetan 28 November 2000).
Instead of transparent liberal debate, Leon’s parliamentary researchers covertly filled the FM letters page with fake facts and xenophobic poison, sent from invented email addresses, associated with non-existent human beings. I learnt this only six years later, when I was approached by an ex-employee of the Democratic Alliance who had since moved to IDASA, and had there developed pangs of conscience concerning his own DA past (today he is a policy analyst in Washington DC). He confessed that he had helped target me as part of the DA’s broad-ranging “special operation” team run from Tony Leon’s parliamentary office by Clelland, Ryan Coetzee and James Myburgh. As part of this taxpayer-salaried DA team, my informant personally assumed the fake name “Sheila Woods” and phony email address firstname.lastname@example.org (Here was a white man impersonating “Sheila” white woman and xenophobically attacking a black man, long before Marius Roodt impersonated Shelly Garland). In “her” published letter, “Sheila” found it “shocking your magazine sees fit to print such bile under the pretence of political commentary”, adding that “Roberts would do well to take his rabid ranting back to Trinidad and Tobago.” This echoed Ryan Coetzee xenophobic comment made personally to me, in the public gallery of Parliament, as documented in Khalo Matabane’s film, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005): “Go back to Jamaica [sic: Trinidad].” Fake “Sheila” also maligned Thabo Mbeki, “who blooded his political mind during the torture and imprisonment of ANC dissidents at the notorious ANC prison camp, Quatro”. Sheila worked in open plan parliamentary office with the other DA taxpayer-funded fake letter-writers, systematically targeting opponents.
Meanwhile, in the same issue of the Financial Mail Leon’s parliamentary counsellor, Nick Clelland, drew on the racist repertoire of the pro-slavery Americans, and now Charlottsville Nazis, for the headline “A Carpetbagger with an Agenda” (for the unambiguously racist backstory of the term “Carpetbagger” see Fit to Govern, p.294-97). Among other “alternative facts”, Clelland graced me with a “mail order Oxford degree”. Both Balliol College, Oxford and Minister of Education, Kader Asmal, corrected this defamation. Fake attacks on black credentials are standard procedure among illiberals, before and after my own case (See, “Top Black At Wits Resigns”, 29 March 1996 Times Higher Education, on the smearing of William Makgoba by Wits illiberals).
I complained to Bruce of this fraudulent abuse of truth, parliamentary funds and readers, prompting his eventual condemnation of “the DA’s Department of Lies”: “What kind of people would so need to abuse the existence of a free press as to have to lie to editors and readers? . . .You have to ask whether the DA leadership (Leon particularly; he is obsessed with Roberts) really ever thought it would not get found out.” (Bruce, Business Day, 29 May 2006).
The next step is pure Netflix: the DA’s responded to Bruce on 30 May 2006 through Leon’s speech-writer, Joel Pollack, who is today a Senior Editor at Breitbart, having previously served as Breitbart’s Editor-in-Chief, as its in-house lawyer and also as a failed anti-Obama “tea-party” candidate in the 2010 U.S. Congressional elections. During the defining incident of the 2016 U.S. election campaign, where Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields was allegedly physically assaulted by Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, it was Pollack who personally ordered Breitbart reporters to stop defending Fields: “In war, we wait for orders that are based on a careful plan. So wait.” (Buzzfeed, 12March 2016). An ardent champion of Israeli aggression, Pollack is the author of The Kasrils Affair: Jews and Minority Politics in the New South Africa (2009).
Pollack, fake news from Leon’s DA and not yet Trump’s America, offered Business Day readers the further lie that I had written speeches for President Mbeki, plus an explicit manifesto for the HuffPo Shelly Garland fraud to come: “In a political climate such as ours, where expressing a dissenting opinion earns you a label like ‘coconut’ or ‘racist’ from the ruling party, pseudonyms may even become a necessary part of the open contestation of ideas.” Bruce retorted that this was “deceitful” and “cowardly” as “people should take responsibility for what they say and not hide behind false identities.”
Bruce’s rhetoric was however undermined by the lack of accountability that ensued. In 2018 Leon and Clelland explicitly trade media influence for profit, while Leon enjoys a Business Day column. The website of “Resolve Communications”, where Clelland is Chief Executive Officer while Leon is Executive Chairperson, openly claims to “influence government policy at all levels to align with your business needs.” Under their self-described “Agitator Model” the duo offer their “proprietary communications model for your business”. They place clients “at the center [Leon’s own American spelling] of campaigns designed to demonstrate . . . credibility and market leadership and – importantly – we take those campaigns to the objective news sections of the mainstream media – where their competitors couldn’t even dream of appearing”. (Italics added). What deluded readers take for “objective news” in the “mainstream media” is fake news, captured by Leon and Clelland, for monied clients.
Leon abused his Business Day column as recently as 1 February 2016 under the headline “Mbeki’s Race Rage” to insulted the entire “intelligentsia” who “in the apt words of Politicsweb editor James Myburgh [have] ‘descended into what can only be described as an era of racial madness’”. Myburgh, who had personally headed what Bruce himself had condemned as ‘The DA’s Department of Lies” during the information war against Thabo Mbeki, is cited by Leon as an ostensibly objective “editor”, with no disclosure of conflict of interest, prior lies, past abuses.
The true hinterland of such white lies is in pseudo-respectable South Africa, among those whom the pre-Polokwane ANC (citing Ngugi wa Thiongo) called the “laureates of the neo-colonial establishment”. Prominent here is Edwin Cameron, who weaponised the HIV/AIDS issue with fake news on Mbeki’s views. Cameron has now explicitly voiced the white pride ideology that underlay his propaganda. Speaking in 2014, Cameron equated gay pride and white pride:
“I’m a proudly gay man. . . . It’s part of my constitutive humanity. It’s part of what makes me human. My gayness is as much part of me as being white is. And why am I proud? It’s ’cause I’m proud to be white. Not because it’s better than being black, but just because that’s me. I think that’s fine. And so with my gayness. It’s perfectly fine to be gay.”
This is moral and political idiocy. The refusal to apologise for being gay is appropriate, given the subordination and stigma that have victimised LGBT identity through hetero-normative histories. But unapologetic pride of whiteness, which by definition victimises blacks and blackness, is grotesquely misplaced. Cameron cannot see what gay icon James Baldwin meant when said in The Price of the Ticket: “As long as you think you’re white, there is no hope for you. As long as you think you’re white, I’m going to be forced to think I’m black”. Nor does Cameron comprehend lesbian icon Susan Sontag’s comment that “the white race is the cancer of human history”. Cameron’s dis-analogy between gayness and whiteness illustrates what Leon termed “truth fatigue.”
Every day brings white lies told without consequence, even as the critique of Mbeki’s AIDS policy formulation process between 1996 and 2007 has factually unravelled over the last decade, even more drastically than it already had when I published Fit to Govern (2007). Contrast the self-congratulatory headline that the former AIDS-drug lobbyist, Mark Heywood, offered in the Daily Maverick for 15 August 2017 (“Fighting for truth, fighting against lies”) against the casual lie that Heywood’s Treatment Action Campaign comrade, Nathan Geffen produced there mere weeks earlier (18 July 2017). Geffen wrote: “During the Mbeki era [Andile] Mngxitama attacked HIV scientists, which suited Mbeki’s Aids denialist agenda.” Geffen’s evidence? A Sowetan piece by Mngxitama dated 27 July 2010!
Actually, Mngxitama has always been a vociferous Mbeki critic, a mimic of TAC “direct action” tactics, who emerged in 2005 as the TAC’s stable-mate within the Western-funded NGO sector. Mngxitama even managed to insinuate the “denialism” narrative into Mbeki’s celebration of South Africa’s 2007 Rugby World Cup win: “Who would have thought rugby would unite a sad, crime-ridden country, ravaged by HIV/AIDS, and battered by poverty?” (Weekender, 17 May 2008). But the TAC in 2017 effortlessly lies, to disavow its own anti-Mbeki ally turned fascistic factory fault, and audaciously to taint Mbeki’s legacy by this non-existent association!
Such desperation signals that the pre-Polokwane ANC is actually winning the hegemonic “war of position”, even if the actually existing ANC administration is too distracted and corrupted to press these discursive gains into practice. Leon suddenly praises Franz Fanon’s “eerily prophetic” warnings about black middle class corruption (Business Day, 18 August 2017). He presumably detects similar prophecy in Mbeki’s NIEP Oliver Tambo Lecture (11 August 2000), which so agitated illiberal native assistants with its indictment of “the Caliban native petit bourgeoisie, with the native intelligentsia in its midst, that, in pursuit of well-being that has no object beyond itself, commits itself to be the footlickers of those that will secure the personal well-being of its members.”
Hence the self-styled best are simultaneously the worst and they are, in both guises, passionately confused about “Mbeki nostalgia”, while also lacking all conviction, even upon that very subject: “Nostalgia for Thabo Mbeki on twitter is disturbing: amnesia, I thought, afflicts only older non-twitter generations . . . not so” (Eusebius McKaiser, 2012); “I miss Thabo Mbeki and Ronald Suresh Roberts. Unless you save a screen grab . . . I will deny this tomorrow” (McKaiser, 2015); “Frankly, those who romanticise Mbeki do so ONLY because Zuma is their yardstick. If Zuma were not as ruinous, you wouldn’t misremember Mbeki” (McKaiser again, 2017). McKaiser misremembers his very self.
Those who tend to misquote Acton’s dictum that power “tends to corrupt” ought rather to read George Bernard Shaw: “Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into power, corrupt power”— rather as Leon converted his own young parliamentary researchers into “post-truth” mercenaries.