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Bell Pottinger Too Busy for South Africa

The PR firm did not respond to questions despite increasing anger among South Africans.

07/07/2017 17:41 SAST | Updated 07/07/2017 17:42 SAST
Mujahid Safodien / AFP / Getty Images
South Africans from various political and civil society groups marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on April 7 2017 to protest against the South African president and demand his resignation.

Embattled PR firm and Gupta spinner Bell Pottinger is seemingly too busy to respond to the outrage it has caused in South Africa.

HuffPost SA called the firm's head office in London 27 times on Friday and was given the runaround with company officials saying chief executive James Henderson was in back-to-back meetings and might only respond within a week or two.

It also seems that the firm has been inundated with queries.

A recorded message playing while on hold said the company was "experiencing heavy traffic on the lines". Once through, a receptionist said the firm had "been extremely busy this morning [Friday] with other journalists".

Henderson, who penned a letter of apology to South Africa on Thursday, was in the middle of a "very busy schedule".

In the 13 instances that calls to Bell Pottinger's offices were answered, HuffPost SA was referred to a media liaison officer who identified himself only as Oliver and a woman named Amanda, who introduced herself as Henderson's personal assistant.

Oliver, who maintained a calm demeanor, said queries should be sent via email and that "he was in no position to answer or comment" because it was out of his jurisdiction.

When HuffPost SA emphasised the magnitude of the issue, Oliver said that Henderson "has a busy schedule" and that it was "very unlikely to get a word from him".

"The investigation is still going on, there is only an interim finding ... there is nothing more that can be said," Oliver said when pressed for answers.

He said Henderson may respond next week or the week after.

Amanda said she could not guarantee a response from Henderson.

"He's actually unavailable at the moment but I'm going to pass your details on to him and he will contact you as soon as he is available. He's actually in meetings at the moment," Amanda said.

When asked when Henderson might respond, Amanda said she "was pretty sure" he would.

"I would like to say hopefully today, but I can't guarantee it. He's back to back. All I can tell you is within the next two minutes, he will have your information in his inbox. I'm pretty sure he will get back to you," Amanda said.

The UK-based company on Thursday apologised for the impact of the work they had done for Gupta-owned firm Oakbay Investments. The company said a review conducted by an independent international law firm, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, revealed that a social media campaign for the Guptas highlighted "the issue of economic emancipation" in a way that the PR firm now sees to be "inappropriate and offensive".

Leaked emails from within the Gupta empire suggest Bell Pottinger helped the MK Military Veterans Association and the African National Congress Youth League in their campaigns to discredit anti-Zuma press and campaigns and Gupta critics.

Bell Pottinger is also accused of using social media to propagate the ideology of white monopoly capital as a diversion from scandals surrounding the Gupta family.

The apology caused a backlash from opposition parties and civil society organisations.

The head of department for research and policy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Jan Hofmeyr, said the damage that has been done is far greater than Bell Pottinger's capacity to offer compensation.

Hofmeyr said the PR firm "undoubtedly" contributed to the "derailment of the national discourse around development and redress at the policy level.

"At a time when we need decisive action to address the country's economic decline and social polarisation, the fruit of its [the campaign's] work resulted in a costly distraction among those tasked with this responsibility," Hofmeyr said.

"While there is little doubt about the damaging impact of monopolies in our economy, and the concentration of their ownership in white hands, the opportunistic framing of the Bell Pottinger campaign and the crudeness with which it focused on personalities made it clear that its focus on white monopoly capital was not intent on creating a better life for the marginalised in society, but to fragment opposition to a dominant faction within the ruling party.

"An apology would not remedy the situation, but the upside to this may be that South Africans may become more discerning and vigilant about the interests and sources behind reporting. The reality is that, even with Bell Pottinger exposed, South Africans continue to be fed with PR campaigns of powerful interests clad as news stories."