12/04/2017 16:45 SAST | Updated 12/04/2017 17:39 SAST

PR Giant Bell Pottinger Dumps Gupta-Owned Oakbay Investments

Bell Pottinger said it had become a target of "totally false" claims it was running a smear campaign to support the Guptas and President Jacob Zuma.

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Ajay Gupta (R) and his younger brother Atul Gupta (L).

PR agency Bell Pottinger has cut links with the Gupta-owned company Oakbay Investments, citing "false" accusations of its activity in South Africa, the UK-based Financial Times reported.

Bell Pottinger, a leading global financial public relations company with several big names as its clients, said 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".

According to the Financial Times, Oakbay Investments, the holding company of the Guptas' mining-to-media conglomerate, agreed the termination of the contract just over a week ago.

The resignation followed claims that Bell Pottinger was stoking racial tensions in media campaigns to support President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.

Bell Pottinger said in a statement: "It has been alleged that whilst we were contracted to Oakbay we were primarily working for the Gupta family with the full approval and involvement of President Zuma. This is completely not the case."

The ending of the contract follows allegations that the PR agency assisted the Gupta family change the narrative that they had "captured" President Jacob Zuma for corrupt purposes.

After his sacking Gordhan told the Financial Times, in a reference to the Guptas, that there had been a campaign "to malign me personally, but more importantly the Treasury, and to pass around disinformation of all sorts".

A report in the Sunday Times in March revealed that a document that appears to have been compiled with the assistance of Bell Pottinger employees, alleges that the firm played a major role in portraying the Gupta family as victims of a conspiracy that involves "white monopoly capital". The report details how the Guptas and President Zuma called on Bell Pottinger to win back support following a public outcry with the sacking of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene.

In 2016 Johann Rupert, a South African business tycoon and chairman of South Africa-based company Remgro and Swiss-based company Richemont, cut ties with Bell Pottinger -- who had worked with Richemont for 18 years -- because he claimed they began attacking him as part of their strategy to help the Guptas.

Fin 24 reported that Rupert said to shareholders at Remgro's AGM in 2016: "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!"

In October 2016, ahead of Nhlanhla Nene's removal as finance minister, the then deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas alleged that Ajay Gupta had offered him R600,000 in cash in a plastic bag at his family home and promised a further R600 million to be paid in installments, if he agreed to take up the position as finance minister and to "work with" them.

Other notable events last year was the blacklisting of the Guptas' bank accounts by five top banks in South Africa, as well as the Public Protector's criticism of their modus operandi in its State of Capture report, detailing their relationship with the presidency.

Though Bell Pottinger is considered a global leading PR agency boasting clients like Lord Bell of Belgravia and the late Margaret Thatcher, according to UK-based publication The Guardian: "Bell Pottinger and their critics often overstate the firm's power."

In April 2013, PR Week reported that the firm had "annual revenues [in] the mid/high £30m mark" -- high for a company with 250 employees, but modest compared with other rightwing media players such as Rupert Murdoch".