Various journalists have worked themselves up into a lather about the supposed arrival of a "post-fact" or "post-fact" era heralded by the British decision to quit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. The implication is that neither of these calamities would have happened had millions of British and American voters not been duped by supposedly fake news.
Here in South Africa, various journalists and politicians have unearthed a "black ops" campaign run by the African National Congress (ANC) to spread fake news about opposition parties in the nationwide municipal elections in August last year.
There is, however, nothing new about the manipulation of news or other kinds of information for propaganda or other purposes, whether in South Africa or anywhere else. Nor are politicians the only people who do this. Plenty of people have for years been manipulating data to promote the idea of man-made "climate change".
The ANC and its allies in the South African Communist Party (SACP) have long been expert practitioners of the arts of disinformation and propaganda. Writing on this website recently, James Myburgh showed how Nelson Mandela's famous "I am prepared to die" speech in the Rivonia trial in 1964 was "an extraordinary feat of political misdirection". In that statement, and on numerous other occasions, the ANC and its SACP allies consistently denied the influential role that communists played in the ANC, not least in the decision to turn to "armed struggle" and launch Umkhonto we Sizwe.
According to Myburgh, Mandela's statement "for decades diverted the attention of Western academics, journalists, and authors away from the SACP's hugely influential role" in the strategies and thinking of the ANC. But thanks to Myburgh and others who have been delving into the memoirs and archives of various "old comrades", the truth is now finally being published. Myburgh commends the "openness" of these old comrades for helping to clear up the "fog of misinformation that had settled over our understanding of the ANC and SACP in the early 1960s".
He adds, "Afrikaner nationalist and liberal concerns over the extent of communist penetration of the ANC were, in hindsight, certainly not hallucinogenic." Moreover, "if anyone is left looking gullible and ridiculous by these revelations it is the ANC's Western liberal supporters and apologists."
The ANC's brilliant use of misinformation, and its ability to hoodwink gullible people, continued long after the period Myburgh discusses. Mandela and his followers fooled most of the media and most foreign governments into believing that FW de Klerk and a "third force" supposedly under his control were responsible for orchestrating all the violence which the ANC, the SACP, and Umkhonto themselves instigated when they launched the "people's war" in the mid-1980s.
Even today, when the ANC's reputation has been tarnished by the pervasive incompetence and corruption of the Jacob Zuma era, there is still a powerful view in influential circles that the ANC is somehow a liberal civil rights organisation that has temporarily gone off the rails. There is little attempt to analyse the role of the SACP in shaping policy. Nor is much attention paid to the National Democratic Revolution, even though this is the one set of policies that has outlived all the others. Business leaders for their part seem mesmerised at their supposed new togetherness with the ANC at Davos and elsewhere.
But perhaps the ANC's most enduring propaganda feat has been to portray itself as committed to "non-racism". Despite the increasingly punitive racial legislation it has been piling upon the Statute Book, its claim to be "non-racist" continues to be taken at face value. Outrage at insulting remarks by hapless people such as Penny Sparrow provides a useful smokescreen for the implementation of racial policies that will prove as destructive as those of the previous government.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, will be published by Jonathan Ball in March.