POLITICS

Did Bell Pottinger Help Get Rid Of Pravin Gordhan?

The PR company’s notorious black ops may have prepared the ground for the former finance minister's axing.

05/06/2017 15:29 SAST | Updated 06/06/2017 09:59 SAST

Was former finance minister Pravin Gordhan felled by Bell Pottinger's fake news campaign? As the details of the British public relations firm's propaganda campaign for the Gupta family explodes across South Africa, attention is turning to whether the campaign succeeded in getting Gordhan axed.

Two sets of social media data analysis obtained by HuffPost South Africa reveal the repeated use of hashtag #Pravinmustgo (Pravin must go) and other iterations. The first set of data shows that 183,620 tweets from 32,180 unique users were used to tweet various versions of the campaign to lay the ground for Gordhan's axing.

Bell Pottinger is well known for its black ops campaigns: the spreading of information of which authorship is hidden and which is designed to achieved a business or political end.

The second set of research shows there were 89,832 mentions from 229 authors of the same theme. "As is apparent, much of the conversation is around criticism of Pravin Gordhan and targets his removal", one data scientist said.

The data scientists provided the information on condition of anonymity.

Bell Pottinger is well known for its black ops campaigns: the spreading of information of which authorship is hidden and which is designed to achieved a business or political end.

In 2016, investigations revealed the company's estimated $500-million campaign for the Pentagon in Iraq. This included the creation of fake videos and other forms of propaganda to assist the US military and also to smoke out al Qaeda operatives.

"Bell Pottinger produced reams of material for the Pentagon, some of it going far beyond standard communications work," wrote journalists from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism.

A year after Bell Pottinger was contracted by the Gupta's holding company, Oakbay, Gordhan was axed. While there was an outcry, it was not of the same tempo that saw President Jacob Zuma rescind his appointment of Des van Rooyen as finance minister in December 2015. The propaganda campaign prepared the markets, which did not collapse into free fall because regular leaks throughout 2016, whispering that Gordhan would be axed, saw market analysts price in the political risk.

Other fake information related to Gordhan's non-existent shareholdings and family wealth emerged on social media as Oakbay upped the volume on its efforts to lobby Gordhan to pressure the banks and other financial sector companies to reinstate their banking and stock exchange sponsorship facilities.

The big four banks and bourse sponsors dropped the Gupta family like hotcakes as evidence emerged of its dodgy business dealings during 2015.

Bell Pottinger's lead in South Africa, Victoria Geoghegan was briefed by Duduzane Zuma to devise a campaign about "economic emancipation".

Those dealings are now bouncing across the internet courtesy of the investigative journalism website amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick's new investigative unit, Scorpio. Both units have accessed and are reporting on a trove of emails linked to the Gupta family and its business empire which they call #GuptaLeaks.

This week, Bell Pottinger's creation of a massive propaganda campaign emerged as part of the leaks.

Bell Pottinger's lead in South Africa, Victoria Geoghegan, was briefed by Duduzane Zuma to devise a campaign about "economic emancipation".

The emails reveal that a Bell Pottinger team drew up the campaign for the Guptas, monitored the media, prepared speaking notes for its captured political allies and attempted to launder Oakbay's reputation. In July last year, Bell Pottinger executive Nick Lambert noted approvingly that the ANC Youth League president, Collen Maine, had picked up their speaking notes on "white monopoly capital" and that he had name-checked the billionaire Johann Rupert, as well as the mining magnate Oppenheimer family.

Analysts say the campaign against white monopoly capital was created as the counter-spin to growing allegations of state capture which gained ground early in 2016, when the former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas revealed Ajay Gupta had offered him bags of cash and a pledged payment of R600-million. Data analysts show that bombarding messages linking Gordhan to white monopoly capital worked successfully to taint his name. The theme of a racially unchanged economy "fell like a burning log in a dry forest," said one.

While the #GuptaLeaks emails related to Bell Pottinger do not reveal their black ops or fake news campaign, a 21-page document titled "Bell Pottinger PR support for the Gupta family" -- first revealed by the Sunday Times--– complements the new information contained in the emails.

Written on information from company insiders, the document states: "Bell Pottinger have sought to divert public outcry towards the Gupta family and refocus attention upon other examples of state interference and capture, notably by 'white capital'. With a heavy focus upon the use of social media, a series of fake bloggers, commentators and Twitter users have been launched in an effort to manipulate public opinion."

The document traces out a master plan to create foundations and organisations to push out a regular flood of information. These organisations include Andile Mngxitama's Black First Land First, and Mzwanele Manyi's Decolonisation Foundation. Manyi denies that he has received funding.

Mngxitama appears in the emails asking former Oakbay chief executive Nazeem Howa for funding -- he has denied being part of the propaganda drive.

The blogs started as part of the Bell Pottinger campaign are reported in the document to include Black Opinion (Mngxitama's blog with other contributors) as well as Uncensored Opinion, a blog written by former Sunday Times columnist and PR practitioner Pinky Khoabane.

These organisations and foundations fronted the campaign against Gordhan and Jonas. The email stash also shows that Bell Pottinger wrote a press release in the name of a Gupta business associate, Hamza Faarooqui, alleging that he had bribed Jonas.

The leaked emails reveal that the Bell Pottinger team monitored Twitter and Instagram carefully and considered social media to be key to its campaign.

In 2011, Bell Pottinger executives were caught on camera boasting about how they could influence politicians on behalf of clients -- in that case, the British Prime Minister David Cameron. Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia co-founder, accused Bell Pottinger of being "ethically blind". This was after the company was outed for editing Wikipedia profiles of its clients to sanitise their reputations.

In February this year, South African luxury goods billionaire Johann Rupert parted ways with Bell Pottinger, accusing them of making him the centrepiece of their anti white monopoly capital campaign, and also of maliciously altering his Wikipedia profile.

Bell Pottinger did not respond to four requests for comment from HuffPost SA.