The Propaganda War

Review of None But Ourselves: Masses vs. Media in the Making of Zimbabwe by Julie Frederikse. Penguin Books. 368 pages, $16.95.

None But Ourselves is in some ways more like a documentary film than a book, but there is more in it than any one film could contain. A mosaic of voices and images, it creates an exhaustive and fascinating picture of the tumultuous few years in which Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. It is at the same time an oral history, a scrapbook, a portrait gallery and a kind of prophecy for Zimbabwe's neighbor to the south. The story it relates is how the war for Zimbabwe's independence was fought, not in the bush but in the minds of the people. Between its covers are cartoons, T-shirts, children's drawings, headlines and classified ads, reward posters, film stills and bumper stickers. Song lyrics, press releases, stand-up comedy routines, and personal letters are quoted, even children's textbooks: "Write down five reasons for the Matabele war." Most important, though, are the excerpts from many hours of taped interviews with Zimbabweans from every point on the political spectrum, from Johan Meiring of the Psychological Operations Unit to Eddison Zvobgo, now Zimbabwe's Minister of Justice.

The Rhodesian regime, with its supporters, devoted enormous resources to the task of imposing its views on its own people and on the world. Many of the documents that detailed this effort were destroyed when independence came. As an ex-Rhodesian soldier said, "A lot of stuff went up in smoke in this country in early 1980." But enough was left to supply this book with the handiwork of politicians, ad-writers, editorialists, and others. Items range from the embarrassing racist "humor" of Wrex Tarr to flyers with photos of dead guerrillas, which the Rhodesian military saw fit to distribute in the guerrillas' home villages. (The bodies themselves were sometimes displayed.) We see the process by which facts were evaded, distorted, turned on their heads or sometimes simply suppressed. One stunning in-house memorandum warned all employees of the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation never to mention certain organizations including ZAPU, ZANU, or the African National Council -- as well as any member of these groups or "any reference that might serve to identify" them. Ignore the opposition and maybe it will go away.

But what is most remarkable about the propaganda blitz mounted by the regime was how poorly aimed it was. Those who decided to forge messages from "spirit mediums" never stopped to think that genuine mediums did not compose their messages on typewriters. Those who produced the notorious "hyena" film failed to realize that the sight of leashed hyenas eating the brains of dead guerrillas would not win the people to the government's side. Ordinary blacks turned to other sources of information and instruction, until it seemed that the official propaganda served mainly to delude the officials themselves as to the true state of the country.

As the struggle continued, black Rhodesians tuned in to the Voice of Zimbabwe from Mozambique rather than to the RBC. Their favorite singers, like Thomas Mapfumo, were advertised and enjoyed underground. In villages bludgeoned by military intimidation and crude anti-Communist propaganda during the day, pungwes were held at night -- political education sessions that won the people to the side of liberation. Newspapers like the Catholic daily Moto were able -- at least for a time -- to counter the version of events presented in the government press.

Almost until the end, the Rhodesian authorities failed to realize how effectively such methods had raised political awareness throughout the countryside. "I'm going to sell the Bishop like the Americans sold Coca-Cola," said one promoter of the country's "compromise" Prime Minister. But despite the help of Rhodesia's biggest ad agency, the not-so-subtle support of the white establishment, the three helicopters Bishop Muzorewa used to airdrop his party's flyers, and a massive four-day rally complete with rock bands, movies, and free food -- Muzorewa did not win. Despite a smear campaign against Robert Mugabe, including a forged issue of Moto and claims that he would abolish Christmas, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party did win -- and overwhelmingly.

The lesson for South Africa's white regime should be clear enough, but there is little sign that they have learned it. Since the overzealous propaganda campaigns that contributed to Prime Minister Vorster's downfall, South Africa has continued to beam propaganda broadcasts internally and worldwide -- including the US -- and into Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Smoke from burning documents will someday no doubt hang over government offices in Pretoria, but inevitably enough will be left behind so that another book as damaging as this one can be written.

Published in IDAF News Notes, April 1985.