Categories: Crisis management / Culture Wars / Political spin / Trust and reputations

12 July 2017


Bell Pottinger South Africa, a reality check

What unites all the major political parties in South Africa: the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)? The answer is their determination to divide the country along pre-existing racial fault lines. Yet the DA, South Africa’s main opposition party, has had the audacity to lodge a misconduct claim against Bell Pottinger (BP) with the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association, accusing it of “sow[ing] racial mistrust, hate and race-baiting, and [encouraging a] divided society”. 

So, in essence, BP is being accused by the DA of packaging DA-style politics for a rival stakeholder in South Africa; namely Oakbay Resources and Energy, owned by the controversial Gupta family, close associates of President Jacob Zuma. Yet such has been the howl of protest in the Western and South African media that Bell Pottinger has issued an unprecedented “full, unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted” by its work. However, as we shall explore, while BP may not be guilty as charged, it may not be entirely innocent either.

The focus of media criticism is that Bell Pottinger didn’t advocate racial reconciliation in the Rainbow Country in the aftermath of apartheid. Instead it scripted a divisive narrative that depicted opponents of its clients as agents of so-called white monopoly capitalism.

Straight off it struck me that the major complainant feeding the media, the DA, makes an even bigger deal than the ANC about the need to overcome “economic apartheid” and what amounts to white monopoly capitalism.

Investigating further I discovered that BP’s work was “exposed” by the SACP. The SACP has every reason to seek revenge on President Jacob Zuma. Not least because he recently removed Pravin Gordhan, a leading member of the SACP, from his position as Minister of Finance. Gordhan blamed a Bell Pottinger-led smear campaign for his sacking.

What we are not being told in the media is that it was not the ruling ANC or Bell Pottinger which first used the term white monopoly capitalism. It was coined by the SACP, long-time partners of the ANC, during the apartheid era. Later it was popularised by the EFF, which claims to be a revolutionary party, to explain how South Africa is still seemingly dominated by a white-minority capitalist class post-apartheid.

Moreover, if one reads its statements, the DA shares exactly the same political views as the ANC and the SACP. Though the irony here is that the DA lambasts the ANC’s policies for “lacking the scale and pace” to make black economic empowerment a reality. Highlighting the DA’s more aggressive approach, the DA’s Federal Leader Mmusi Maimane positions the party’s racialised manifesto as a virtue:

Some maintain that empowerment should be poverty-based rather than race-based. Understandably, they wish to move away from using race in public policy. But combating widespread poverty will not in itself succeed in helping black people to become successful entrepreneurs, or give them a stake in the economy. To normalise our society we must break down race-based structural inequality at every level. [Source: BOKAMOSO | The DA’s version of BEE will deliver real Black Economic Empowerment]

Of course, when the DA says the ANC is not prejudiced enough in favour of the black masses, it is really accusing the ANC elite, and the likes of the Gupta family, of being in cahoots with white capitalists. That’s the point. Every party in South Africa accuses its rivals of being a pawn of white monopoly capitalism in order to profiteer from corrupt oligarchical practices.

For those who think Bell Pottinger is guilty as charged, here’s an example of a text it penned for use by its client:

Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, however, since then South Africans continue to suffer from extreme poverty. In fact, inequality in South Africa is greater today than at the end of apartheid:

Economic control has remained in the hands of a minority of privileged and powerful individuals and families.

This means that the poorest people in South Africa remain significantly disadvantaged and are unable to work their way to better lives.

It is clear that this system needs to be ended once and for all and for inequality to be properly addressed.

Talent and hard work need to be recognised and rewarded and profits shared.

The privilege of the few needs to be replaced with opportunity for all.


[Source: The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism]

There is nothing in the “exposed” text that could not have been said by the DA, SACP or by Jeremy Corbyn speaking to the Glastonbury set in Somerset.

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism also published an email entitled “Reflections on meeting and next steps”. Written by BP’s account leader Victoria Geoghegan to President Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane (he works for the Gupta family), it sets out the scope and reasoning behind the PR agency’s proposed strategy. Its stress on forging a “non-party political narrative around the existence of economic apartheid” can hardly be said to be controversial. Though given that the real intention was to position President Zuma, who is party politics personified, and the Gupta family in a good light, it was not an entirely honest or altruistic proposition.

Bell Pottinger may have many talents, but keeping President Zuma in power is not one of them. Neither has it, I suggest, done much to clean up the reputation of the beleaguered Gupta family.

The political reality is that while the DA might now try to sound more anti-white than the ANC, the black African masses still refuse to trust a political party that thrived freely under apartheid. And the EFF’s revolutionary call for Mugabe-style land seizures, wide-scale nationalisation, not to mention anti-Western hate-mongering, has not attracted an audience much beyond discontented youthful former ANC activists. So, for now, the ANC keeps its hold on power.

That said, there may indeed have been some unethical behavour on the part of Bell Pottinger.

Bell Pottinger is accused of puppeteering fake social media accounts. Supposedly it sent out messages in the name of South Africans in order to stir up controversy. That, if true, is clearly unethical.

The other suspect – but as yet unproven –  behaviour is that BP traduced a long-term loyal client; Richemont, the Swiss luxury company headed by South African businessman Johann Rupert. If that is confirmed, condemnation would be appropriate. At the very least, if it wanted to represent a hostile rival of an existing client, BP should have created a no-conflict, fire-walled brand.

So what to make of this murky affair?

Firstly, others are clearly using BP – the messenger – as a proxy for their own battles. Hence, the PR community, in particular the Public Relations and Communications Association, needs to be wary of falling into a well-laid trap designed to trigger our PC sensitivities out of context, in ignorance of the political realities in South Africa.

Secondly, we should also consider that the PR agency’s founder, Tim Bell, accused Bell Pottinger of scapegoating Victoria Geoghegan, who has been fired, while three other PR pros remain suspended pending an investigation. The ethical response when things like this go wrong would be for bosses to take the blame for their juniors’ faults. Also, Bell says he told BP to refuse the account on the grounds that the Gupta family were too risky to represent. However, according to the FT, his account is denied by Bell Pottinger.

Thirdly, I contend that there was something commercial, as opposed to purely ethical, about BP’s unprecedented, arguably over-the-top, apology. That’s because it was coupled with BP closing down its Geo Political division, confirming that it will “no longer carry out assignments of this nature again“. Bell Pottinger’s CEO James Henderson even went on the record saying “hopefully now we are fully cleansed and our clients will see I take ethical issues very seriously.”

Perhaps this explains why Tim Bell abandoned the now “fully cleansed” PR agency that bears his name to head Sans Frontières, which specialises in managing complex controversial client business that used to be managed by BP.

2 responses to “Bell Pottinger South Africa, a reality check”

  1. You are right in so many ways Paul, why BP thought it was immune from the operational issues that every multi-national faces who knows.
    We all know that whatever the operating standards of the country you work in you will be held to account by the standards of the country you live in. One question not asked or answered in all this is where PRISA stands in all this. BP’s professional staff were surely members of their excellent national professional body so what action has been taken what has the Public Relations Society of South Africa had to say on the professional practice issues?