South Africa’s ruling party tried to launch a 50 million rand ($3,7 million) on a fake news campaign to spread positive spin and troll the opposition ahead of the 2016 local government election, in which the African National Congress suffered unprecedented losses.
Publicist Sihle Bolani blew the lid on the covert campaign when she took the ANC to court on Jan. 24 for failing to pay her for the ultimately unsuccessful campaign.
Bolani told the amaBhungane investigative journalism unit that when she and her team first met with the ANC in April 2016, it was made clear to her that any work done by the “War Room,” later known as the “Media Advisory Team,” should not be traced back to the ANC. Shaka Sisulu, the grandson of ANC icon Walter Sisulu, was a go-between.
The “War Room” eventually collapsed after funding never materialized and Bolani says the ANC still owes her 2.2 million rand (nearly $164,000). She was told all the campaign money ended up going to T-shirts, the ANC’s tried and tested electioneering strategy. Only when Bolani filed court papers did the ANC offer to pay her, albeit in installments of 100,000 rand a month ($7,449), which would have taken just under two years to pay up.
For the few months it operated, the so-called ‘War Room’ would mainly focus on digital media (even though Bolani says the ANC failed to provide wifi or even phones). The ANC has been mercilessly teased on Twitter so Bolani’s team recruited around 200 social media “influencers” to tweet in the ANC’s favor. If that didn’t work, they would plant callers on talk radio.
The alternative campaign managed to launch a website, the New South African, that covered the ANC’s successes in local government while highlighting the failures of opposition parties. That website has since been removed.
The team was also tasked with creating fake election posters of a gun-toting Julius Malema and hang them in Johannesburg’s affluent mainly white suburbs, but few except Malema’s party seemed to notice.
The ANC has denied Bolani’s claims, saying it is “committed to running a clean campaign.” The party’s track record also meant that it did not need to stoop “clandestine ‘black ops to woo voters,” the statement said. Sisulu too, has dismissed the very story as “fake news” in a tweet.
The ANC might have won the election, but lost cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria to the opposition it tried to undermine.