COLUMN | When countries lie: governments and propaganda

(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

By Chris Kabwato

I have a relative who does not know that some family members call him “Watermelon” behind his back. It is not a flattering name, but I suppose nothing hurts when you do not know it. Watermelon is a conspiracy theorist par excellence, and he is also susceptible to all sorts of scams. One year he visited us in Mutare and said that the old charcoal-fired pressing iron (aini yemarasha) was in demand in Harare.

“The metal for that iron is unique and people are paying top dollar for it,” announced Mr Melon, with a straight face.

I could see one family member’s eyes popping. They were always ready to maximise on a money-making opportunity. But there was one slight problem. We no longer had our old iron. We had upgraded in the days when electricity was all around you like oxygen. There were sighs of despair at this missed chance for a quick buck.

The new old language around information

These days if you want donor money you have to master the language and meaning of disinformation, misinformation and mal-information. Like all donor fads, it all sounds like something new but the only new thing is that we now have the internet (and its applications) and the mobile phone – two serious technologies in the rapid spread of information.

Whilst Watermelon’s lies did not result in the loss of life, it has not always been like that.

United Fruit and the creation of a banana republic

Once upon a time, there were masters of propaganda who were backed by the state. Let us go down into history and hear the story of a man who could proclaim himself the progenitor of public relations as a discipline – Edward L. Bernays. The year is 1948 and an American company called United Fruit appoints Bernays as director of public relations. The appointment is because United Fruit has a little bit of a reputation problem in a small South American country called Guatemala. United Fruit at that time is the biggest exporter of bananas into the United States of America. When you are not just a banana company but also own vast tracts of land and control a country’s rail and port infrastructure, you want to ensure that the political establishment is aligned with your exploitative and highly profitable business. Natives – especially the indigenous people – are dispensable.

When a new democratically elected government came into power in Guatemala, Edward Bernays and United Fruit initiated a major public relations campaign to convince the American people and the US government that Colonel Jacobo Arbenz intended to make his country a Soviet “satellite”. The real issue was that Colonel Arbenz’s government intended to expropriate some of the unused land owned by United Fruit and redistribute it to the local peasants. In 1954 the campaign resulted in a coup in which Arbenz was replaced by a military junta led by Col Carlos Castillo Armas.

Guatemala has never recovered from that setback to its democratisation project.

The propaganda amateurs

When you look at how other countries brand themselves with a deep understanding of their strategic imperatives, you cannot help but shake your head when confronted by our government amateurs and their rambling narratives.

Our rather brick-headed civil servants in the Republic of the Teapot and their mouthpieces masquerading as public media believe that they can spin away any challenge that society is facing by blaming the “foreign enemy.” When the fuel shortage began to bite in earnest in the 1998-99 period, one daily newspaper would shamelessly state that then British Prime Minister Tony Blair was stopping a fuel-laden ship from docking at the Beira port. But that lack of sophistication was just a teaser of what was to come, when the Wandering Professor took over the reins. Crude. Incessant. Arrogant. He was lauded for “witticisms” and “clap backs.” His successors have been even cruder with the dullness of a bar of green soap. Their hegemony is only sustained by threats, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and extra-judicial killings. Their ideas cannot sustain them without the apparatus of fear.

Joseph Stalin and the disappearing act

Before the internet, there was Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, a Soviet revolutionary and politician who was the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1924 until he died in 1953. As one article pointed out: “Stalin didn’t have Photoshop—but that didn’t keep him from wiping the traces of his enemies from the history books.” Take one example; dude fell out with his close buddy called Nikolai Yezhov who had been his butcher boy in the sense of arresting and executing Stalin’s enemies on trumped-up charges. Once Stalin had dispatched with Yezhov, he had his team at the equivalent of our Department of Information erase traces of the ‘traitor’ from all photographs, as if he had never existed.

Stalin could try and sustain his lies because once upon a time you could cut off a whole society from the world. Then satellite, the internet and the mobile happened. Our Stalinists in Zimbabwe despair that nearly everyone in the city and the peri-urban areas has access to one or other foreign television channel. Subalterns, they fight back surreptitiously on WhatsApp sharing satirical jokes and clips on their old and fatigued scarfed leadership. The people know that Mother Nature’s wheel turns inexorably, even if takes so long.

They also know that a free and fair election that allows everyone to vote, including citizens living outside the country, would deliver a different result. No propaganda can convince them otherwise.