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The Broken Peal Of Bell Pottinger

13/04/2017 04:00 SAST | Updated 14/04/2017 10:53 SAST

"White monopoly capital" is today a framing narrative in South Africa. It is fuelled by an army of TwitterBots and unscrupulous PR professionals, and rolls the clock back on a poor, young democracy struggling with racial tensions. It communicates the idea that the nation's endemic joblessness and poverty results from the continued economic manipulation of those made wealthy by apartheid's unjust laws. Rich whites prevent the economic freedom of poor blacks by trying to corrupt those in leadership.

The simple phrase was allegedly selected by London-based PR firm Bell Pottinger to shift public attention from their client, the Gupta family, to the tinderbox topic of South Africa's racial inequality. To do so they linked the former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's State Capture Report, an independent document focusing on state corruption mentioning the Gupta family 355 times, to another long-standing client of theirs, Anton Rupert.

A #RacialDivide Twitter campaign, really?

Yes, despite Bell Pottinger having recently dropped the Gupta account it is worth asking why they took it up in the first place. In this campaign Bell Pottinger suggest that a rich white man was trying to corrupt the leadership of the liberation movement, and so attempt to clear the infamous Gupta family, suggests Rupert.

However they also kick-started a propaganda campaign which tried to turn back the clock on public sentiment in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu's aptly-named "rainbow nation", to a time when it was black and white. An anonymous and unverified report into Bell Pottinger's campaign on behalf of the Gupta family published on The Citizen news website makes for uneasy reading, as does the detailed reporting on the TwitterBot army by the Daily Maverick which, in part, worked to divide the opposition to Jacob Zuma along racial lines.

Why try turn the rainbow nation black and white?

What I would like to understand is what motivates senior management at Bell Pottinger – allegedly Victoria Geoghegan and James Henderson in particular – to, firstly, exacerbate race-baiting in a violent nation where the Gini co-efficient is worse than 17th Century France, and where the economic fault lines are still racially skewed. This actively creates an even more violent society, especially at a time when it is difficult to separate fact from false news.

And secondly, to actively dilute and reverse the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who walked out of prison 27 years later and forgave his jailors, uniting a divided country by his magnanimous presidency. Perhaps, Bell Pottinger staff, you could ask London-based South Africans if this is similar to Neville Chamberlain's take, that this is a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom you know nothing?

Or if, like the recent tragedies in Westminster and elsewhere in Europe, the close quarters of the global village we live in does not leave room for one corner of it to incite hatred against the other. You'll have an opportunity on at your offices on Saturday morning, 15 April 2017. At the time of writing this approved protest action has not been called off.