Final Word

Is SABC propaganda making Motsoeneng a modern day pope?


Much is being said and written about how SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng is turning the public broadcaster into an ANC propaganda platform.

Motsoeneng might just be following a tradition that dates back almost four centuries to the final days of the Holy Roman Empire, especially since the ANC and its leader in chief, President Jacob Zuma, love to cast the role and ‘mission’ of the party in religious-sounding terminology – something that some communications experts would describe as propagandistic in itself. 

The word ‘propaganda’ has its roots in the Modern Latin word ‘propagare’, meaning to spread or to propagate. ‘Propaganda’, as we know the term today, derived from the name of an organisational or administrative body established by the Roman Catholic Church in 1622, the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide – the Congregation for Propagating the Faith.

Ostensibly the purpose of this ‘congregation’ was to propagate the Catholic faith in non-Catholic countries and supervise foreign missions established for that purpose.

But, considering the full historical context in which it was established by Pope Gregory XV, it would be a mistake to think that the purpose was purely the spreading of the Gospel. 

It happened shortly after the start of the Thirty Years’ War, which would last until 1648 and was an attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II of Bohemia, to curtail the religious activities of his subjects, sparking rebellion among Protestants in most of Europe.

The war ended in a total redrawing of the political – and religious – map of Europe under the Peace of Westphalia, replacing the Roman Empire with a group of sovereign states, after two centuries of hostilities between Catholics and Protestants.

Although the establishment of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide cannot be separated from this broader battle, it was not until 1790 that the term ‘propaganda’ was first used to describe any movement aimed at propagating a particular practice or ideology, including those of a secular nature.

Political use

It is also towards the end of the 18th century that the word entered the English language from the Italian word ‘propaganda’. By the mid-19th century it entered the political sphere and began taking on a pejorative connotation.

Today it is mostly associated with a manipulative and jingoistic approach to communicating information, and in modern times often with war. The most common definition usually goes something like this: “Propaganda is information that is not impartial and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (perhaps lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented.”

Gabriel Tarde’s Laws of Imitation (1890) and Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1897) became two of the first codifications of propaganda techniques.

Propaganda became a strong feature of World War I when US president Woodrow Wilson used the Creel Commission to sway popular opinion in favour of entering the war on the side of the United Kingdom.  

Journalist Walter Lippman, who wrote Public Opinion in 1922, and psychologist Edward L. Bernays (a nephew of Sigmund Freud), who did extensive research on the subject of propaganda, were both members of the commission. Their works are said to have heavily influenced Adolf Hitler’s own Mein Kampf.

Impressed by the power of Allied propaganda during World War I, he regarded it as a primary cause of the collapse of morale on the German home front and in its navy in 1918.

When he came to power in 1933 he placed the infamous Joseph Goebbels in charge of Germany’s Propagandaministerium (ministry of propaganda).

During the Cold War propaganda also became an important weapon of both the West, led by the US and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s official government station, Radio Moscow, broadcast ‘white’ propaganda, while Radio Peace and Freedom broadcast ‘grey’ propaganda. Both sides also broadcast ‘black’ propaganda programs in periods of special crisis.

In the US, National Public Radio and Voice of America (established in 1942) fulfilled pretty much the same role.

Final word

In present day South Africa it would seem that the SABC’s COO is determined to fold both “white” and “grey” propaganda into one on behalf of the government of the day. But signs are mounting that the situation is becoming embarrassing for the ANC and Mr Motsoeneng is unlikely to last as long as Goebbels did.  


by Piet Coetzer

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