The Chris Kabwato Column | In a digital age, Vene’s mediocre Rhodie-style propagandists have lost their megaphones

(pic: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

It has been a tumultuous few weeks for our information czars. When you have a gift and a curse like Sir Maybach there is never a boring day for those who scour for news. The Sir is a nightmare for a communications machine that lacks coordination. He is, however, the perfect gift for those who have no power except an X account and data. Those who seek something called A-C-C-O-U-N-T-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y. It is not a principle and practice that the owners of the teapot-shaped ‘kandry’ are familiar with, hence the mishmash of messages from all sorts of corners.

First, a toast to the social pests

There are some people you would rather have in your team if you were going to a competition. Or even to war. There is the Advocate who left Parliament and daily brings her prosecutorial razor to our poor, floundering Permanent Secretary. The less said about the senior one to the PS – the better. Both have been fetched repeatedly by the Advocate that it felt like we were sitting in a court of law. On the sidelines, the week ended with another pest, Jah Solo, being blocked by Mr Pull-the-Head – the culmination of bringing receipts to folks so inebriated with power that they cannot believe there could be such pushback.

But let’s focus on the role of the Advocate, who the PS and the Vene battalion cannot accuse of anything that sticks because she comes from a family of insiders. She does not need the motivation of $10 per day to tweet like the hungry battalion that shoots haphazard, vulgar tweets. This being an expression of her individual agency, the Advocate has the stamina for the long haul. She has relentlessly asked the hard questions and exposed the contradictions in the statements of those tasked to handle government communication.

But how did we arrive at this situation where social media becomes a tool for demanding accountability of once comfortable and pompous civil servants-cum-party-apparatchiks?

Once upon a propaganda

Once upon a time, there was a man called Pieter Kenyon Fleming-Voltelyn van der Byl – better known by the initials P.K. He was appointed deputy information minister by Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith in 1965 and later became a minister. He was Johnso before Johnso. A farmer and MP for the Hartley constituency in those days of the Rhodesian Front, P.K. van der Byl took to his job of censoring news internally and of projecting a great Rhodesia to the outside world with the passion of a zealot. He fought with the editors of the Rhodesia Herald who would display empty spaces in the newspapers if articles had been censored by P.K. van der Byl. He also orchestrated the deportation of foreign correspondents and academics that he deemed hostile to the Rhodesian regime. At that time, the Ministry of Information was bundled with immigration and tourism, the better to decide on permits (work, visit etc). Sounds familiar? Not content with that, he engineered the takeover of Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation and made it a mouthpiece for right-wing supremacists. In 1978 two black people, Washington Sansole and Reverend Charles Manyoba, were appointed to the RBC’s Board of Governors. They did not last long. Their statement on resigning was telling: “We honestly believed that we could effect change. We are advised that our belief is misplaced.”

From 1974 to 1979, P.K. was both foreign affairs and defence minister. He instigated the Nyadzonia massacre on 9 August 1976 and claimed the 1,000 people killed were mostly ‘terrorists’. It was a blunder for Rhodesia in international propaganda and also in relation to Apartheid South Africa which had not been informed of the raid. South Africa reacted by withdrawing its military equipment and other supplies.

Internally, his propaganda worked with the claustrophobic and under-siege Rhodies who felt that Britain had stabbed them in the back, and that they had no choice but to declare unilateral independence. The white folk were angry that much of the Western world did not recognise their little “sea of civilisation” in the heart of the dark continent.

Unfortunately for the cigar-chomping, coiffured, dandy and anglophile P.K. van Byl, his propaganda did not work with the black people. Right until Independence Day in 1980, the dude was plotting how to stop Robert Mugabe from ascending to power. Ian Smith and General Peter Wells told the Dutch boy that the ship had sailed. P.K. grudgingly accepted and after 1987 when the 20 seats reserved for whites were abolished, he went back to South Africa where he was born.

Nathaniel Manheru loses his megaphone

Once upon a time in Zimbabwe, it was a tradition for your old man to send you to buy the newspaper. You ran to fetch it and then walked back slowly paging through looking for that which you liked. Andy Capp cartoon? Hagar the Horrible? Sam Munyavi’s column? No Holds Barred with Gono Goto? Or maybe just gaze at the big photo on the sports pages where Moses Chunga could be battling with Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo? The ritual of the newspaper brought us urbanites into a similar world. Same with radio and television. We belonged to something.

When our Man in Nairobi took over propaganda was ramped up. We had not much choice but to read the acres of verbiage as therein lay some nuggets of what the regime was thinking. But he was not done. There were the incessant jingles, the galas, the music band and the albums. The man was on a mission. P.K. van der Byl reborn for a different cause and constituency.

But something in the bigger world was shifting. The mobile phone was getting smarter, and it met with its cousins – the internet, social media and messaging apps. The audience had moved from the centre. It was now fragmented. More importantly, they could now talk back. It was not TV that spoke in one direction or radio where they could sift call-in. My X account, my data, my opinion.

So here we are, tussling with Stalinists who type press releases, print, take photos of same and then distribute some skewed images as official communication. Unable to centralise responses to a ‘crisis’, a thousand tweets come from all directions. Claims of hacking. Claims of fake circulars. It is comic. It is tragic. It is breathtaking mediocrity.

I can’t wait to see what other charade awaits us in the coming days.