Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once described writers as “the engineers of the human soul”. The phrase was apparently first coined by Russian novelist Yuri Olesha and subsequently used by Stalin.
During a meeting with writers in preparation for the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers, he said “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks”. Stalin believed that literature was a powerful political tool and was willing to execute writers whose works were deemed traitorous to the Soviet Union.
Stalin was not alone in his views on the importance of books in propaganda. A CIA chief of covert action during the Cold War era once commented that “books differ from all other propaganda media primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of a single medium”. He said books were “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda”.
In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler argued that all propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. He said effective propaganda appeals “to the feelings of the public rather than to their reasoning ability”; relies on “stereotyped formulas,” repeated over and over again, to drum ideas into the minds of the masses; and uses simple “love or hate, right or wrong” formulations to assail the enemy while making “intentionally biased and one-sided” arguments.
The subject of literature, books in particular, and establishment media as tools of propaganda could not be more relevant in South Africa today where the public clamours for scandal and the media is obsessed with ratings, clicks and agenda setting.
The collaboration of book publishers and media outlets in promoting misleading or biased political views about an issue or those they view as corrupt while maintaining an absolute silence about those deemed saints, has reached insane levels.
Let’s take this past weekend for example where the Sunday Times allowed Pieter-Louis Myburgh to write a hard news story about his own book on the front page. The book about Secretary General of the ANC, Ace Magashule, is described by the author as “sensational” in unravelling Magashule’s web of state of capture. A newspaper which seeks to present truth to its readers would have assigned a journalist to critique allegations contained in the book, tested them against information in the public domain and given readers an unbiased view of Magashule’s tenure as premier.
The story on Myburgh’s book was also carried by City Press and Rapport with no names assigned to their authors. This suggests all three stories may have been written by Myburgh himself.
On the other hand, whistleblower Mike Hampton published a book about the DA’s rampant corruption in Knysna in a book “Same Shit, Different Government” which was gagged by former DA-mayor Esme Edge. There’s no doubt that Hampton himself timed the book to try and sway voters’ views on the DA ahead of elections. But that establishment media have completely ignored the book and the gagging order speaks volumes about the conspiracy of silence among them.
This is not the first time the Sunday Times has given an author front page to write a hard news story on their book. Jaques Pauw was given the same privilege. The President’s Keepers was published shortly before the ANC National Elective Conference at Nasrec in 2017. It was miraculously leaked on WhatsApp making it available for free to an audience who may not have been able to buy it. Comrades on Cyril Ramaphosa’s slate were photocopying the book and distributing it in branches and meetings. The publishers and author feigned ignorance that the e-book was leaked but it may have compelled readers that NDZ and by her association to Zuma and Guptas, was not to be trusted in the land’s highest office.
In the past ten years in particular, books on allegations of President Jacob Zuma’s corruption have flooded the market place ahead of national elections or the ANC elective conferences. Whether they hold water-tight facts is of little relevance, what matters is that they are released ahead of a major election which may sway a reader’s attitude and vote.
Every angle to the story of the “corrupt” Zuma has been tackled – from his association with the Gupta family to biographies and plays on his rape accuser – nothing has been left untouched. A collaboration between book publishers, the media and NGOs have worked tirelessly to push the former president out of office. As we now know, he eventually resigned last year but he did so leaving those on his slate in cabinet. Ramaphosa did not get a strong lead at the Nasrec conference and had no real power against the faction that represented his rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ).
Many have continuously said the attack on Zuma was not about him personally but a campaign to erode the ANC and ultimately a return of white power, with a powerless Black man at its helm. With the litany of corruption charges it faces, the ANC government has given opponents ammunition for the attacks. The flaws in Zuma’s administration are also not in dispute.
But Zuma now lurks in the background and cannot be a direct target ahead of these elections. However his associates are still around and remain in top positions in both the ANC and cabinet. And as has been predictable over the past ten years, a book was bound to emerge. And this time it is about the Secretary General of the ANC, Ace Magashule.
It may well be that Myburgh’s book contains damning facts about Magashule but what remains is that the timing of its publication and these three newspapers giving it front page coverage cannot go unchallenged. It talks to the issue of the collusion between newspapers and book publishers and their role in presenting a particular political viewpoint. Ultimately this is another attempt at influencing who governs.
The ANC and MKVA have come out guns blazing calling the publication of the book and newspaper articles “fake news stories” timed “barely a month ahead of elections”. It’s not clear whether Magashule was given a right-of-reply ahead of the publication of the book and if he was, why he didn’t attend to the claims. There were media reports yesterday that he would seek legal action against its publication. As in the case of the President’s Keepers where the state security agency instructed the publishers to stop and desist from further publication of the book, the horse has bolted.