POLITICS

How Rupert Was Warned About Bell Pottinger: 'They're Behind It.'

The Guptas' London PR firm is well-known for mastery of 'all sorts of dark arts'.

25/01/2017 15:41 SAST | Updated 26/01/2017 12:45 SAST

At the end of November 2016 Johann Rupert, the chairperson of the investment company Remgro and Swiss luxury-goods trader Richemont, received a message from within the bowels of the ruling political elite: they're coming from you.

"The Guptas have hired Bell Pottinger to push the 'state capture' story onto you. They'll earn R24 million, plus expenses, for their work. It will be paid by an intermediary [a known Gupta associate]," the text message read.

Rupert, son of the industrialist and founder of Rembrandt, Anton Rupert, has spoken out against state capture and called on President Jacob Zuma to resign 'for the sake of our children'.

"It seems to also be slightly personal, about Edward Zuma and the cigarette trade. They also believe you are funding Maria [Ramos, Absa chief executive], Trevor [former minister of finance and married to Ramos], Pravin [Gordhan, minister of finance] and [Mcebisi] Jonas [deputy minister of finance].

"Apparently Zuma is on the front-foot against Thuli and massive cabinet changes coming. Bell Pottinger [are the] brains behind the attack on you 100%."

The Bell Pottinger website.

Less than two weeks later, Rupert let rip at Remgro's annual general meeting, railing against the London-based public relations firm and pinning on Bell Pottinger the concerted effort on social and other media to discredit him.

He told his shareholders that Richemont had a contract with Bell Pottinger to manage its public relations affairs for almost 18 years. "And while they were working for us, they started working for the Guptas. The very same person ... their total task was to deflect attention [from allegations around state capture and the Guptas' involvement] ... guess who was the target? A client of theirs: me!"

Rupert has now effectively been cast as the counterweight to the Guptas and state capture, an example of how state capture allegedly worked under apartheid

He subsequently cancelled Richemont's contract with Bell Pottinger (despite that claim on their website that a proverbial Chinese wall exists between teams representing clients with opposing interests), while the firm was still managing communication for the Guptas' company, Oakbay Investments.

Rupert, son of the industrialist and founder of Rembrandt, Anton Rupert, has spoken out against state capture and called on President Jacob Zuma to resign "for the sake of our children". For that he has drawn ire from many quarters, particularly those that view him as the embodiment of "white monopoly capital", a term that paints big business as exploitative capitalists and unrepentant beneficiaries of apartheid.

Rupert has now effectively been cast as the counterweight to the Guptas and state capture, an example of how state capture allegedly worked under apartheid. This charge is being led by a collective of Twitter users called #PaidTwitter, who promote the hashtag #WMC, or "white monopoly capital".

In these cases, state capture and transformation of the economy, both legitimate concerns, are now being hijacked for political expediency.

And Rupert believes Bell Pottinger is behind it all.

Tim Bell, one of the firm's founders, was the brain behind Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives' assault on Labour in the late 1970's, with a famous poster proclaiming 'Labour isn't working' while depicting a line of unemployed jobseekers.

The company was contracted by Oakbay in March last year to manage the fallout when reports about the Gupta family and their purported influence over Zuma and his government emerged. Three senior members of the African National Congress (ANC), including Jonas, claimed the Guptas either offered them ministerial positions or interfered with their work. And all this was revealed while former public protector Thuli Madonsela was busy investigating them for her "State of Capture" report.

Bell Pottinger is no stranger to clients with public relations challenges and questionable mores.

The firm helped devise a strategy for former president F.W. de Klerk when the National Party planned its election campaign in 1994. It polished the American occupation force in Iraq and the controversial arms dealer BAE Systems, spun for Rebekah Brooks, the infamous British newspaper editor who authorised telephone hacks, represented Asma al-Assad, wife of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, advocated for the foundation of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chile dictator, and helped murder convicted Oscar Pistorius secure teary-eyed interviews.

Tim Bell, one of the firm's founders, was the brain behind Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives' assault on Labour in the late 1970's, with a famous poster proclaiming "Labour isn't working" while depicting a line of unemployed jobseekers.

Bell Pottinger abides by strict professional ethics. Its source was not the Gupta family and Bell Pottinger has never met with or spoken to Minister Zwane or any of his advisorsStatement by Bell Pottinger

Ever since taking up the Gupta contract, they have been extremely active, arranging interviews, contacting journalists and inserting themselves in between Oakbay and the Guptas, and the media.

The most famous intervention was when 702 journalist Stephen Grootes was invited to interview patriarch Atul Gupta at the family's Saxonwold mansion in Feburary 2016. The interview was subject to a non-disclosure agreement and Bell Pottinger controlled its editing and release. The full conversation was never published and the firm ignored queries by Grootes about its plans for it.

In July, Bell Pottinger contacted Fin24, News24's business site, saying it was in possession of the findings of an interministerial committee recommending a commission of inquiry into the country's banks — two months before the findings became public. It told Fin24's reporter he should speak directly to mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane and provided his contact details. (Zwane, who led the charge against the banks after they cut ties with Oakbay, has been linked to Gupta scandals before.)

When Zwane announced the inquiry — it was later denounced by Cabinet — Bell Pottinger refused to say who its source was. "Bell Pottinger abides by strict professional ethics. Its source was not the Gupta family and Bell Pottinger has never met with or spoken to Minister Zwane or any of his advisors," it said in a statement to Business Day.

HuffPost SA understands that they have contacted a journalist, who prefers not to be named, as recently as last week, and provided him with "suggested lines of questioning" when speaking to Gert van der Merwe, Oakbay's lawyer, even though the lawyer's number is available and he deals with the media all the time.

Bell Pottinger's affable and smooth executives apparently work very hard to try to influence journalists' views, asking friendly-chatty questions and saying things like "I'm very interested to hear your views on this" or "What's your take on this?" according to a journalist.

Although there have been reports that Bell Pottinger was going to let the contract with Oakbay lapse in December, after the company itself received bad press for its involvement with the Guptas, the company still manages Oakbay's affairs.

A 2011 exposè in Britain's Independent newspaper quoted Bell Pottinger executives bragging about their mastery of "all sorts of dark arts" and their influence over governments, including the British government.

It has also denied Rupert's accusations, with executive Victoria Geoghegan telling Business Day in December its contract with Oakbay is limited to external communication and corporate reputation management: "It does not involve any of the activities that Remgro's chairman suggests."

The firm told the same newspaper in September it did not "seek" the information about the interministerial commission, "but was made aware of it", although by whom is a mystery.

"Bell Pottinger has encountered widespread sympathy for the way Oakbay has been treated ... It is no secret that Bell Pottinger has advised Oakbay Investments on its corporate communications since March this year. Bell Pottinger abides by strict professional ethics," it said in a statement.

The company might say it sticks to its own rules and ethical standards, but its widely known that it isn't averse to creative PR practices. A 2011 exposé in Britain's Independent newspaper quoted Bell Pottinger executives bragging about their mastery of "all sorts of dark arts" and their influence over governments, including the British government.

And, it seems, they are now very influential in the South African polity.

Bell Pottinger's full response on their relationship with the Guptas and Rupert's comments

Following a competitive tendering process with other global agencies, Bell Pottinger was appointed by Oakbay Investments to assist the company with its external communications and corporate reputation.

At the time, there was little understanding of Oakbay's business operations and the company was facing a constant stream of politically driven attacks. A widely-held perception was that the company gained over 90% of its revenue from state contracts when instead the truth was only 8.9% and its two largest divisions – which contribute over 88% of revenue - have no government business at all.

Our role has been to: build relationships with journalists who report on Oakbay, correct misperceptions where they exist and communicate Oakbay's belief that its competitive, disruptive, job-creating philosophy is what South Africa needs if transformation is to be achieved.

Naturally, we did see Mr. Rupert's comments at the Remgro AGM in December regarding Bell Pottinger's alleged activities. There is no truth in those comments at all (Bell Pottinger's emphasis - Editor). Our role is to correct misperceptions and misrepresentations of Oakbay. We are not engaged in attacking anyone, least of all Mr Rupert. We have no problem with Mr Rupert or any of his companies – and have stated so publicly before.