Moscow's not-so-hidden hand meddles in US politics - will it try to sway voters here too?

30 December 2018 - 00:00

There are things that the Russian state knows about your leaders that you, the ordinary South African, should know too - but don't.
For example, in November the deputy president, David Mabuza, travelled to Russia for medical attention. This was his fourth trip for treatment in that country. What ails our dear leader, you may ask. He won't tell you or me. Is there something embarrassing about the illness? If there is, then could it be that someone in Russia might threaten him with disclosure - and get state secrets out of him?
Mabuza did not start the Russia medical trend. Former president Jacob Zuma reportedly told an ANC national executive committee meeting that he had been poisoned three times and had received treatment in Russia. He told a meeting in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, in 2017 that he was poisoned for fighting for radical economic transformation.
Again, the question is: did the Russians have compromising information about the president? Is there a reason he was so keen on the financially ruinous nuclear build programme? We don't know.
These questions are necessary because more and more information is emerging about how Russia used various methods to influence the 2016 presidential elections in the US and perhaps install a preferred candidate in the White House.
As we prepare to usher in the new year, I am quite interested to know who is going to elect SA's new leaders in our 2019 elections. Will it be you, dear voter, or will you wittingly or unwittingly be influenced by Russia or some other foreign force?
Just last week new details emerged that Russia's elaborate influence campaign on social media in the US presidential elections made an extraordinary effort to target African Americans, to divide them and to sway their voting preferences.
Newspaper reports say Russia used "an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of activity on Instagram that rivalled or exceeded its posts on Facebook, according to a report produced for the US Senate Intelligence Committee".
The New York Times said that "creating accounts designed to pass as belonging to Americans, the [Russian] Internet Research Agency spread its messages not only via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which have drawn the most attention, but also on YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+, among other platforms."
You would think that with such exposure, the attempts to influence elections would stop. They didn't. Dan Coats, the US director of national intelligence, said last week that Russian operations meant to polarise US voters continued during the midterm elections in November.
"Russia, and other foreign countries, including China and Iran, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the US to promote their strategic interests," Coats said.
We have seen this before here at home. The terminology and idea of "radical economic transformation" was manufactured for the Gupta family and their poodle, Zuma, by the British dirty tricks firm Bell Pottinger.
The firm's Victoria Geoghegan, at the direction of Zuma's son Duduzane, worked assiduously to stir racial hatred and build support for Zuma and friends. They used organisations such as Black First Land First to sow hatred - and in large part they succeeded. The language of Geoghegan and her colleagues now underpins much of the language of hate that is directed at journalists and activists in SA.
In the run-up to the ANC's conference last December, the Twitter bots that had been part of the Gupta machinery reared their ugly heads again. This time many of them were putting out negative stories about Cyril Ramaphosa and his team while burnishing the images of those who trumpeted Zuma's preferred candidates for ANC leadership. At the core of the messages was hate and division of our country and people.
They weren't just on Twitter. WhatsApp was particularly volatile, with thousands of made-up stories, scandals and doctored images shared hundreds and thousands of times. Facebook became such a pivotal part of the campaign that many journalists joined the platform merely to stay informed - of the fake news that was being spread by political players.
It is becoming harder for ordinary folk to differentiate between authentic digital news sources - curated by editors - and the fake news generated by influence factories such as those in Moscow and the likes of Bell Pottinger.
It does not help when political players refer to the media as "enemies of the people", as US President Donald Trump has done, or who likens journalists to apartheid-era Stratcom operatives, as Julius Malema has done.
There is no doubt in my mind that there will be attempts to influence the elections in SA in 2019. I am even more convinced that there are ongoing attempts to influence the direction of the ANC and its policies.
The next big election in South Africa will be in 2022, though. That's the ANC leadership election. Will our dear friend Mabuza raise his hand and try for the top job? Will his friends in Moscow encourage him to go for it?
• Malala is a political commentator and analyst

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.