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Zuma's Birthday Present: No More Fake News Courtesy of Bell Pottinger

Bell Pottinger's attempts on behalf of Zuma and the Guptas to hijack debates around racism failed miserably, writes Verashni Pillay.

12/04/2017 17:59 SAST | Updated 13/04/2017 09:23 SAST

As supporters of Jacob Zuma gathered at Freedom Square in Kliptown, Soweto, on Wednesday afternoon there was a nasty surprise to kick them off.

The Financial Times in London reported that a PR company that has rapidly become a household name in South Africa, Bell Pottinger, had just terminated its agreement with the Guptas' Oakbay Investments.

The vehicle hosts companies spanning from ICT and media to mining and engineering. And nearly every one of them have landed in the news for their incredible good luck at landing government contracts and business. Think of The New Age newspaper with its multi-million rand breakfast sponsorships from state entities. Or Tegeta mining with its jealousy-inducing deal with Eskom that essentially served to fund the business, previous public protector Thuli Madonsela found. Or VR Laser's joint venture with state arms company Denel in Asia.

You get the picture: the list goes on. So when SA's top banks stopped doing business with Oakbay, exposing their business, and former finance minister Pravin Gordhan refused to intervene in the matter, it was only a matter of time before he got the chop.

Naturally, South Africa being a rather rowdy and argumentative country, all this did not go unnoticed. The public pressure on the Guptas has mounted for years with the family often seeming taken aback at the sheer outrage directed their way for their dubious dealings. In India, the country from which the family hails, wide-scale and institutionalised corruption has been part of life for decades. It was almost as if the brothers from Saharanpur didn't quite expect South Africans to be quite so touchy about their still young democracy and its level of accountability.

Cue the hiring of Bell Pottinger, the financial public relations firm that has gained notoriety for representing some of the most dubious of clients, including dictators.

As we've written previously, 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.

Their influence was quickly felt, albeit always with that "allegedly" disclaimer. The legitimate discussions on social media and among South Africa's black intelligentsia about the stubborn lack of transformation in our nation was suddenly hijacked. All at once it seems like everyone at once started talking about "white monopoly capital" with the Guptas and Zuma cast in the role of victims.

A document started doing the rounds in newsrooms, apparently compiled with the assistance of former Bell Pottinger employees, alleging that the firm played a major role in portraying the Gupta family as victims of a conspiracy that involves "white monopoly capital". A report in the Sunday Times in March dived into the details.

Dozens of Twitter accounts and blogs appeared that seemed to push the same message: accusations against white business heavyweights like Johann Rupert or Gordhan himself, often with photoshopped evidence and fake news articles. Attacks on journalists with bad photoshopped attempts of their faces on dogs, and for the women, strippers too. Tasteful. Hundreds of other twitter accounts that were otherwise empty would retweet the news.

Marianne Thamm wrote for the Daily Maverick:

Over on Twitter an idiot wind blew for a short while as predictable accounts retweeted a graphic of a laughing Finance Minster Pravin Gordhan surrounded by the logos of several JSE-listed companies in which he reportedly held shares (all declared and all legal but why let that get in the way of a good narrative about the capture of the state by White Minority Capital).

More or less at the same time, Mosebenzi Zwane, Des Van Rooyen, Kebby Maphatsoe, Jessie Duarte and the ANC Women's League all stumbled into the spotlight, attacking Gordhan and sucking up to the Guptas and the Hawks who had and have been behaving like President Zuma's private army.

But something happened. Their attempts to influence the news and public narrative didn't go down quite as hoped. South Africans are possibly way too cynical for that. A Twitter account sending out an obvious pro-Gupta tweet would more often than not be greeted with: "So how much did Bell Pottinger pay you for that one?"

Those public voices so clearly but yes, still allegedly, involved in the fight got increasingly hysterical on their blogs site, in interviews and panel debates, forcing the debate away from state capture and towards race and transformation. But fewer people have listened.

Bell Pottinger has lost a number of clients after its engagement with the Guptas, such as Investec and Richemont.

We previously reported how, 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.

He cut ties with Bell Pottinger -– who had worked with Richemont for 18 years -- shortly afterwards.

Their attempts to hijack legitimate discussions around race have merely been read as exploitative of genuine concerns. And their name, ironically, has been smeared even as they worked hard to smear others. The best line in the company's statement on Wednesday read that it was ending the relationship after becoming "the target of a politically driven smear campaign in South Africa over the last few months, with a number of totally false and damaging accusations levelled at it".

Well isn't that funny?

Meanwhile Zuma and his firm defenders continued his birthday rally in Soweto while north in Pretoria at the seat of government tens of thousands of supporters from various opposition parties stood more united that they've ever been, demanding that the man from Nkandla step down.

So goodbye for now, Bell Pottinger. In this country, the wool is not so easily pulled over our eyes. Long may it remain that way.