The years 1976–1978 constituted a fundamental crisis for National Party rule. Apart from the worsening situation beyond the northern borders, there was the uprising in Soweto that spread throughout the country. Unlike at the time of the 1960 Sharpeville uprising, South Africans now had television and the images on the screen left little doubt about black hatred for the white system of rule. Especially disconcerting was the fact that black youths appeared to be much angrier and disaffected than their parents.
A second shock for the Nationalist elite was the publication in 1978 of two books on the Afrikaner Broederbond, one of which included an almost complete list of the secret organisation’s members. It listed 13 262 members in 914 divisions. The organisation’s influence, always overrated by scholars, was already on the wane, and the publication of members’ lists removed the aura of secrecy (see The Broederbond – Talk shop or all-powerfull?). Still, in a society that had become modern, secular and increasingly committed to transparency, the Bond was seen as outdated.
Yet another blow hit the Nationalist leadership in 1978, when the so-called ‘Information Scandal’ broke. The growing international rejection of apartheid had created something similar to a persecution complex among members of the government, who tended to see the world as divided between ‘friends of South Africa’ and its enemies.
South Africa still followed the conventional route to influence opinion, to the increasing irritation of Eschel Rhoodie, a brash and ambitious administrative head of the Department of Information. He felt that the greatest threat to the state was the growth of the anti-apartheid lobby in the West where a divestment campaign was rapidly gaining support, especially in universities and churches. To change the negative perceptions of South Africa, the country had to embark on an unconventional propaganda war with large financial resources.
From the start he had the backing of Connie Mulder, Minister of Information and heir-apparent of Vorster, and Hendrik van den Bergh, the head of the Bureau for State Security (Boss). Early in 1974 Vorster and Nic Diederichs, the Minister of Finance, promised to give financial and tacit support. Over the next five years, as numerous secret projects were launched, a history of sleaze, corruption, violation of exchange control regulations, murder and lies in Parliament accumulated. Since one of the thorns in the government’s side was the English press, one of the main projects was to found a sympathetic newspaper.
To launch The Citizen, the Department of Information employed secret state funds, using Afrikaner fertiliser tycoon Louis Luyt as its front. Its circulation figures were falsified from the start. Luyt, in turn, unsuccessfully tried to buy one of the two English newspaper chains.
Through other fronts the Department attempted to buy The Washington Star, the French journal L’Equipe, and a British investors’ journal. A fictitious club of businessmen, called the Club of Ten, placed advertisements in overseas publications.
Things turned deadly serious in late 1977 when Robert Smit, an Afrikaans-speaking National Party candidate for the upcoming election, and his wife were murdered in what looked like a deed perpetrated by hired killers. As a government official Smit had previously attended meetings of the International Monetary Fund. When the Information Scandal burst it was widely speculated that Smit had been on the point of revealing the currency control violations. No one was ever arrested for the murders.