07/07/2017 14:24 SAST | Updated 07/07/2017 14:25 SAST

How Bell Pottinger's Gupta Campaign Damaged South Africa

Experts say the campaign latched itself onto racial tension in the country.

AFP via Getty Images

The actions of UK-based PR company and Gupta spin doctors, Bell Pottinger, have devastated progress for South Africa's efforts in post-democratic race relations.

This according to experts in various fields who said the company strategically used racial tension in South Africa as a platform to push an economic and political agenda.

Bell Pottinger has been accused of using black-ops social media campaigns to distract away from scandals surrounding the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma. One of these campaigns is the ideology surrounding white monopoly capital.

Leaked emails from within the Gupta empire suggest Bell Pottinger also 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.

The firm, after ending its dealings with the Gupta's Oakbay Investments in April, released an apology for its actions, saying rogue members in the firm launched the campaigns without management's knowledge.

UKZN media expert Jean-Phillipe Wade said social and digital media are not regulated, so anybody can create information -- which is an avenue that can be easily exploited.

"Bell Pottinger essentially launched an ideological campaign in a space where media criminals are able to flourish. This campaign was not by a desperate individual with an extremist ideology; it was a professionally-instituted dirty campaign," Wade said.

Wade said Bell Pottinger's actions undermines democracy.

"If democracy depends on a powerful free press and a flow of information, then this was an attack on democracy in the pursuit of political and economic interests, using slogans like white monopoly capital as a phrase designed to divert attention away from the Gupta mafia."

He said Bell Pottinger's "underhanded tactics", which used the language of liberation for self-gain, undermines South Africa's faith in information.

Speaking to Fin24 on Thursday, Brand Reputation expert Solly Moeng said Bell Pottinger "have to call back their dogs".

"This was really going to push South Africans to the edge ... Racism is a weak point for South Africans, it's the one point that could ignite South Africa. And Bell Pottinger should know that ...This is an abuse of our weaknesses in our country," Moeng told Fin24.

"They cannot claim that they didn't know where this campaign was going. We need to ask them what was the exact nature of their brief: for the sake of whom? Who is going to benefit from this? The timing of all these things matter. We can't, on the basis of this very superfluous apology, move on."

But Institute for Race Relations chief operating officer Gwen Ngwenya said the results of the PR firm's campaign is indicative of the problems South Africans still face.

"Bell Pottinger created a campaign that would speak to its audience, meaning the conditions in SA were ripe for this kind of narrative. The audience has a great deal of introspection to do; why did we take up the mantra with such voluntary fervour? If 'white monopoly capital' captures the imagination it is because the term says crisply what many have been thinking," Ngwenya said.

"Whether it is true or not is another matter, but the phrase was oxygen to a burning ember. Bell Pottinger did not create the fire they just gave it what it needed to burn more brightly."

Ngwenya said there is a danger in South Africa to use race to serve political interests.

"There is an ANC interested in sowing racial divisions to divert from policy failure in the economy. And the DA has made it paramount to win over the 'black vote', whichever way you slice it, we've sunk deeper into a racial malaise," Ngwenya said.

"Who owes South Africans a duty of care? A UK PR company or the elected governing party? Those in the ANC who propagated the term [white monopoly capital], and those who continue to use it must account for its credibility. We're seeking accountability from the wrong source. Or perhaps we latch onto a Bell Pottinger apology because we know we'll never get it from those who should really apologise."