South Africans are seething with anger at British PR firm Bell Pottinger for the part that the firm played in creating a racially divisive narrative on behalf of our president and the Gupta family, with whom the president allegedly has a corrupt relationship. This article is about South Africans' reactions to Bell Pottinger's role in recent social and political events.
Coincidentally, as I was writing this article, Bell Pottinger released an official apology for their role in what we will discuss below. Good on them for apologising (as any PR company worth its salt would know to do, given the scale of the counter-reaction by average South Africans) but the damage they have wrought cannot be easily undone. South Africa's political environment is irrevocably changed thanks to their actions. Let's delve into those actions and South Africans' response in more detail...
Bell Pottinger was brought in to reframe the narrative of state capture by shifting focus from the president and his allies to specifically white South African captains of industry. This article described how the campaign was formulated and it touches on some of the groups involved, including the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and the MK Veterans Association. In addition, you can read this anonymous report detailing their alleged strategy in more detail. It was shared by the South African Communist Party (SACP), one of the ANC's own alliance partners, which gives you an idea of how deep the divisions have become within the Tripartite Alliance.
Leaked #GuptaEmails show that the Gupta family footed the bill for Bell Pottinger's services, which came to a cool GBP100,000 a month (excluding incidental expenses such as a R5,500,000 weekend visit to Johannesburg for a strategy meeting). They also show that the president's son, Duduzane Zuma, worked directly with them to define the narrative (see here, here and here). The end result was the resurrection and repurposing of a concept that was little-known outside of certain ANC and communist/socialist circles during the struggle, referred to as white monopoly capital.
The spectre of white monopoly capital was used to define an alternative focal point in our national debate; one that takes attention away from the accusations of state capture made against our president and his allies. In this regard, the white monopoly capital narrative has been particularly effective at shifting attention away from Bell Pottinger's (now former) clients. It has also been very successful at re-racialising the South African national discourse, informing debates at the highest political level as we saw this past week at the ANC National Policy Conference, where the existence and definition of white monopoly capital were key topics of intense argument (see, for example, here, here, here, here and here).
Bell Pottinger's campaign has stolen our country's ability to constructively address these issues and has brought our damaged society's darkest feelings and emotions to the surface. This is why South Africans are angry.
South Africans are justifiably furious at the role that one well-paid firm has played in returning our country's discourse to a place that we thought we had long left behind. Few deny that we need to have frank discussions about the race-based stratification of our economy and society. However, the crass way in which their campaign reintroduced the concept as a political rhetorical device to shield the allegedly corrupt has meant that it is now much more difficult for our country to navigate this complex debate with any kind of authenticity or nuance.
By converting a highly charged, complex issue into a cheap political tool, Bell Pottinger's campaign has stolen our country's ability to constructively address these issues and has brought our damaged society's darkest feelings and emotions to the surface. This is why South Africans are angry. This anger has even lead to Bell Pottinger being reported to its industry body, the British Public Relations and Communications Association, for stirring racial tension in South Africa, while civil activist organisation Outa has similarly announced its intention to take them to task.
I've been collecting tweets that mention Bell Pottinger or the Gupta-owned Oakbay account lead, Victoria Geoghegan, for about three weeks now (June 13 to July 5). In that time, I collected more than 34,000 tweets. The irony of a PR agency being at the centre of such a massive PR storm is lost on few, I think. Let's see what people have to say about them:
Firstly, below are the daily volumes that I've collected so far. As we can see, thousands of tweets have been generated in the past few weeks, which is likely what motivated the company to apologise. This wasn't just going to go away.
Daily tweet volumes mentioning Bell Pottinger or Victoria Geoghegan between June 13 and July 5 2017.
These tweets are being generated by a variety of communities in South Africa. The kind of sentiment and comments coming out of most communities is overwhelmingly negative with the exception of the usual Radical Economic Transformers (RET) community, which introduced the topic of white monopoly capital to our discourse in the first place, so no surprises there.
Interaction network showing the communities discussing Bell Pottinger. Users are connected together when they retweet or @mention each other and the Louvain Modularity algorithm is used to identify communities in different colours.
Certain tweets went "viral" and were popular across most of the communities, so rather than isolate the top tweets within each community, let us just look at the top 10 most popular ones overall, which are generally scathing of Bell Pottinger's actions and involvement:
So Bell Pottinger not only drafted press statements for the ANCYL, it also did so for MKMVA. Talk about taking instructions from London! https://t.co/0MQBoGJE2Z— Phumzile Van Damme (@zilevandamme) June 18, 2017
Wikipedia founder attacks Bell Pottinger for 'ethical blindness' https://t.co/X6RQ6vqb3R— Pierre de Vos (@pierredevos) June 24, 2017
A list of the Gupta disciples who were working with Bell Pottinger. 😳 pic.twitter.com/OikL4H9mVi— IG: ConceptSixty5 (@Sentletse) June 14, 2017
In stark contrast to all other communities stands the Radical Economic Transformerscommunity (so named because the community is the main proponent of the RET ideology). The top most-engaged-with tweet (although this was likely boosted by fake accounts) was a tweet from the @wmc_leaks account (which has now been suspended):
@wmc_leaks: "No links with Guptas or Bell Pottinger, we only favour truth and Black Empowerment unlike #wmcpaidmedia.... https://t.co/7aDI5ol9Ym" (original URL).
Here are the remaining top tweets in this community, which are a beguiling mix of legitimate food for thought, biased partisanship and outright racism:
White people give Bell Pottinger too much credit for "creating" a WMC narrative. Nah, they found WMC already here and just exploited it.— Pieter Howes (@PieterHowes) June 24, 2017
Concept of White Monopoly Capital was coined by SACP in 1962. Long before Bell Pottinger was established https://t.co/9k1RG4NTHn— Pinky Khoabane (@pinkykhoabane) June 28, 2017
Zwelinzima Vavi '05. "Economic power is still in the hands of white monopoly capital. You worked for Bell Pottinger? https://t.co/9k1RG4NTHn— Pinky Khoabane (@pinkykhoabane) June 28, 2017
Johann Ruppet was also a Bell Pottinger client until they got the Guptas on board.— RainbowMonopolyCap (@EsethuHasane) June 14, 2017
This were all good then 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/oNFKFDTKly
WMC has been for centuries, and even became official law at one stage. Y'all are out here using David Blaine tactics to divert focus from it— Pieter Howes (@PieterHowes) June 24, 2017
Did Bell Pottinger write Dr Blade Nzimande's speech in 2007? See last paragraph👇 pic.twitter.com/SHYdJEJFbT— Mzwanele Manyi (@MzwaneleManyi) June 29, 2017
White people have been devil's to indigenous people around the planet. We don't need #bellpottinger to tell us who is destroying this planet— Kirshen (@Kirshen87) June 26, 2017
What if apartheid was also a Bell Pottinger invention? pic.twitter.com/76euebxky2— Mathisa O Mithise (@mithisa_motho) July 4, 2017
There you have it: a look once again at the main narratives defining our society. One narrative is driven by a specific group while the other represents broad-based sentiment across various groups in our society. Now that Bell Pottinger has apologised, it will be very interesting to see how South Africans react...
Kyle F is the creator of superlinear.co.za.