While the UK-based public relations firm is no stranger to South Africa, its current reputational damage, arising from the #GuptaLeaks, has forced it to terminate its lucrative contract with the Gupta family. The firm has also issued an ‘unreserved’ apology, which by all accounts, has gone down like a lead balloon.

The fortunes of the Guptas are inimically linked to those of President Zuma in the literal and figurative sense. The disclosure by the former Deputy Minister of Finance, Mcebisi Jonas, that he was offered a giant bribe to betray his boss, Pravin Gordhan, saw the beginning of an unravelling.

The well-heeled Gupta family, through its Oakbay firm, roped in the services of Bell Pottinger in a “fightback” operation, to repair and even, by some accounts, to upgrade the image of the family. This lucrative contract for Bell Pottinger raked in about R1.5 million a month for the company in addition to incidentals, including a fee of R5.5 million for a weekend’s work to lend support to the ANC and the MK Veterans. This matter of money was addressed in an article by BizNews (11 July 2017), “Ultimately this bill is being footed by the South African taxpayer, as the Guptas have undertaken a wide-ranging strategy – including pulling the levers of political power – to siphon funds from state entities”.

The strategy and tactics of the Bell Pottinger campaign was an overt one, to exploit the fault lines in the country. These tactics are best summed up in a media statement released by the Save South Africa Campaign on 6 July 2017 stating that, “Bell Pottinger – acting in partnership with its client – sowed racial mistrust, hate and race-baiting, and divided society. Through its work, this British company has further polarised South African society and left deep scars in our social fabric”.

The crafting of narratives like white monopoly capital, radical economic transformation and the imperative for a diminished role for the South African Reserve Bank and Treasury in favour of a State Bank, has naught to do with a regard for South Africans and the future of the country and everything to do with deflecting attention away from the pressing issues of corruption and state capture.

Revelations by amaBhungane – and other investigative journalists – have been key in disclosing leak after leak, exposing the tactics, players and means used by Bell Pottinger to divert and recast the South African narrative. Allegations of the use of front organisations, including Andile Mngxitama and his Black First Land First, Mzwanele (Jimmy) Manyi and his Decolonisation Foundation, Twitter bots spreading fake news, and of course optimal use of mainstream media, in the form of the Gupta-owned ANN7 news channel and its daily The New Age, were the means to spread the word about white monopoly capital.

The net effect of the Bell Pottinger intervention in South Africa is purposefully summed up by Mariann Thamm in her piece, Analysis: Bell Pottinger has taught us what to treasure in the long, painful haul back to freedom (Daily Maverick, 10 July 2017). She sums up the sentiments of most South Africans that, “many, many lives were lost on the road to securing this fragile and flawed democracy we currently enjoy but are in danger of losing to a kleptocratic class linked to the current leadership of the ANC and who have no respect for the law, or the history, or the goals of the liberation struggle. South Africans do not want to relive the trauma of the past. We must deal with the structural inequality and an economy that does not work for the country’s black majority, but we have a pragmatic understanding that this will not be accomplished through a civil war, through the provocation of unrest and hatred”.

The imperative for South Africa to work for all its citizens is not in dispute. A robust economy, a functioning and competitive public education system, a responsive public health sector and responsive local government are all common aspirations. Equally, we share concerns around state capture, dismantling of State-Owned Enterprises, impact of violent crime and the ever-growing pool of NEETS or young people “Not in Education, Employment or Training”.

That damage was and has been done by the Zuma/Gupta/Bell Pottinger cabal, is not in dispute. The floundering economy, downgrades by rating agencies and an increase in racial tension are ample proof of the setbacks suffered.

In the face of the Bell Pottinger onslaught, South Africans proved their collective resilience in resisting being misled and misdirected. This sentiment led the company to abandon its client and attempt to salvage its reputation by issuing an apology, after a few other big companies pulled their business away from it, of course.

The hard question is that of engaging the fault lines that Bell Pottinger so easily exploited. Their modus operandi was abhorrent and manipulative but cannot nullify the serious issues that the country must confront if we want to avoid new fires on many other fronts. Professor Steven Friedman best sums it up, “those who believe SA needs these conversations will need to make it clear that they reject the behaviour that makes the discussion more difficult, but that we need it to begin despite Bell Pottinger and the bullies” (Business Day, 12 July 2017).

South Africans have been at the edge of the precipice before – we pulled back. We need to do this again and reshape the future we want. Finding the reset button is currently elusive but the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate.

By Ms Zohra Dawood: Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity

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