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South Africa: Leaks and deepfakes shaping the race for ANC presidency

By Anna Maree
Posted on Friday, 16 April 2021 18:54

Students protest in Johannesburg
Ace Magashule, the secretary general of South Africa's ruling African National Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 11, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

In South Africa, manipulated audio recordings have been leaked from recent meetings of the governing African National Congress’s (ANC) leaders, raising the temperature ahead of the party’s elective conference next year.

“Whoever is doing it, it was very professionally done,” said ANC deputy secretary general Jesse Duarte in a radio interview with Eyewitness News on the leaked recordings on Thursday 15 April. “It was cut and spliced very carefully to give a particular impression of a very sober conversation in the meeting of the officials of the ANC.”

One of the leaks contained a purported recording of Duarte’s input at a meeting between the ANC’s top six officials and former president Jacob Zuma at the end of last month. The party is trying to persuade Zuma to testify in front of the commission of inquiry into the large-scale corruption during his tenure, dubbed “state capture”, but he continues to refuse.

The leaks surfaced this week on ANC WhatsApp groups and in tweets.

On whose side?

In the recording, Duarte appears to sympathise with Zuma and to express doubts about the impartiality of South Africa’s judiciary – generally considered a solid institution. She claimed these were decontextualised in the leaked recording.

She blamed party secretary general Ace Magashule’s supporters for leaking the clip to create the impression that Zuma – and by extension Magashule – has majority support in the party’s top leadership, and that President Cyril Ramaphosa has been isolated.

Duarte has generally not nailed her colours to the mast, and although she appears to veer towards the Zuma camp, her relationship with Magashule is strained due to personal differences over his leadership style. Magashule has not reacted to the claims that the leaks come from his camp.

Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption stance has alienated a number of corruption-accused leaders in the ANC, including Magashule, who has been ordered by the party’s 80-strong national executive committee to step aside from his position by the end of this month. He has thus far defied this order.

Magashule has been charged with various counts of corruption and fraud with relation to a 2014 Free State government tender while he was premier.

There is speculation that Magashule wants to run for ANC president next year in a bid to cut short Ramaphosa’s presidency of the country. His first term ends in 2024. It is, however, not customary for ANC leaders to openly admit to leadership ambitions.

Lots of leaks

In the past two weeks, two other audio clips from meetings were leaked:

  • One of Ramaphosa telling Zuma he did not support his ousting from the country’s presidency in 2018;
  • Another of Magashule contradicting fellow party leaders about the terms on which he should step down. The aim was to depict Magashule as a victim.

Neither leader has commented on these leaks, but there have been calls by Ramaphosa’s supporters to “discipline” those responsible.

History repeats

It is not the first time that apparent manipulated information has featured in the party’s internal battles. Hoax emails purported to have been between ANC leaders supporting former president Thabo Mbeki surfaced soon after Mbeki dismissed Zuma as deputy president in 2005.

The emails, created by intelligence officials sympathetic to Zuma, were meant to create the impression that there was a plot by the establishment and big business to remove Zuma from the political scene.

Zuma was voted ANC president in 2007 despite corruption charges related to South Africa’s multimillion-rand arms deal. These were subsequently dropped when he became the country’s president two years later – and reinstated again after he was ousted in 2018.

Many of his supporters still believe in the narrative created by the hoax emails. It is still being peddled, now aided by social media.

Post-truth South Africa

That murkiness is what made Zuma the president of the ANC. Fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes fact. [It’s about] playing that game. -William Gumede, of Wits School of Governance

“In the last few years, there has been talk about post-truth, but it was already present in the ANC when it was in exile and operating underground,” says William Gumede, associate professor at the Wits School of Governance, with reference to the party’s anti-apartheid struggle before 1994.

“Underground movements specifically revel in that kind of selective leaking.” This, he says, is usually aimed at confusing the enemy, but they serve a different purpose in the ANC now.

“The selective leaking and the selective public statements really are to try steer the debate within the ANC and amongst the ANC support base,” he says. “You must think of these players as having been schooled in the communist-bloc-type of propaganda to selectively leak things, to steer a public debate, to give disinformation in a way that benefits them.”

He says the aim was to confuse. “That murkiness is what made Zuma the president of the ANC. Fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes fact. [It’s about] playing that game.”

Gumede says it’s about influencing ANC branch members, since they are the ones responsible for voting for the ANC president. “Rank-and-file ANC members are not people who read very widely. They won’t read different sources to get different information,” he says.

Deep threats

New and easily accessible technologies could make the manipulation of information easier and more potent, warns University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Tshilidzi Marwala.

Marwala, an engineer and computer scientist, says generalised adversarial networks software could fairly easily be used to create ‘deepfakes’, even “pictures of people who never existed”.

He says that during Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin’s time, the images of people were physically removed from pictures when they didn’t suit his narrative. New technologies can do something similar but on a much more sophisticated level.

“But the idea of altering voices is actually quite new,” he says. “You won’t be able to tell what is real and what is fake.” This is also true for fake videos, on which the images of people can be manipulated and made to say anything, like real-life puppets.

“Politicians are now using it to influence an electoral process or to put a prominent person in a compromised position,” he says, adding that such methods have already been used in India. The expertise for sophisticated cyber manipulation also exists in South Africa, he says.

“The future of our democracy is being threatened by these technologies. There is no doubt about that, and there’s quite a great deal of work being done to combat this.”

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