Cape Town - Bosses at British public relations company Bell Pottinger knew what their people were up to in South Africa and “wilful blindness is no defence in a court of law”, billionaire businessman and a former client Johann Rupert said this week.
“Their fingerprints are all over,” he said in a telephone interview with Independent Media on Saturday.
The PR company issued an apology to South Africa on Friday, saying it was unaware its staff were sowing racial discord in their bid to promote its then-clients, the Guptas.
It was Bell Pottinger, who, according to the #GuptaLeaks emails, brought the phrase white monopoly capital into public discourse.
Rupert, whose name is often used in the context of white monopoly capital, heads the luxury brands business Richemont. He said his company contracted Bell Pottinger to look after its corporate image for close to 19 years.
“And all they did was issue press releases.”
His relationship with the PR company started after an introduction to the company’s founder, Lord Tim Bell, by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Bell, who founded Bell Pottinger in 1987, was also Thatcher’s communications adviser.
Although the reasons for Rupert firing the PR agency in August 2016 were not disclosed, he hinted on Friday that he felt uneasy about its dealings with the Guptas.
Last year, Rupert claimed that the spin doctors were behind a campaign to link him to “state capture” activities, and that a narrative was being constructed by some which suggested that the multibillion-rand investment group, Remgro controlled key segments of the media.
He said the Gupta emails confirmed this fake narrative.
“It has now become obvious through their links with individuals and organisations such as the Black First Land First that their fingerprints are all over”, Rupert said.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe condemned Bell Pottinger for what it had done but said it was premature for the party to comment because the investigation was ongoing.
“We can only comment on the real outcomes because this happened within a broad context of interference in our government.
"So it would be premature to say whether we accept the apology or not.
“We will comment once the investigation is completed.”
Mantashe said the country could not afford to suffer any setbacks on the progress it had made in dealing with race issues.
Gwen Ngwenya from the Institute of Race Relations said Bell Pottinger created a campaign for its audience where the conditions were ripe for this kind of narrative.
“And this audience has a great deal of introspection to do. Bell Pottinger did not create the fire, they just gave it what it needed to burn more brightly. If white monopoly capital captures the imagination, it is because the term says crisply what many have been thinking. Whether it is true or not is another matter, but the phrase was oxygen to a burning ember.”
Ngwenya said if the allegation that Bell Pottinger created fake social media accounts to push an agenda was true, then this was “deeply unethical behaviour” but each South African had to take responsibility for what they believed.
“Whose responsibility is it to ensure that you do not believe everything that you read?
"Who is responsible for what you think?
"Who is responsible for treating Twitter as a representation of society?” Ngwenya asked.
She said any reputable analysis of South Africa’s society could not be based on social media sentiment.
“That’s where reason and considered engagement go to die.”
Ngwenya said surveys revealed that most South Africans felt race relations had improved since 1994 but “we’re fast undoing that”.
“There is a rising and dangerous racial consensus in South African politics where there is no longer a pretence but an explicit aim to satisfy racial 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.
“We are not a society working towards dispelling harmful racial notions in any meaningful way.
“If anything, each event is an opportunity to reinforce racial myths,” Ngwenya said.
Dr Anusha Sewchurran, University of KwaZulu-Natal professor in media and cultural studies, said Bell Pottinger’s apology was a response to “an inconvenient civil society in South Africa, one that we can be proud of”.
“However, to imagine that Bell Pottinger is going to change its lucrative business and suddenly develop ethics by giving South Africans full disclosure or some monetary compensation together with their apology is naive,” she said.
“Bell Pottinger is a simulation engine, in the business of manufacturing ‘seemingly real’ unreal news in the faithful service of a small economic and political elite regardless of how many it injures and how it may destroy democratic institutions.
“And it is good business too, until civil societies make too much of a fuss."
Public Relations Institute of SA president Kavitha Kalicharan said Bell Pottinger had violated an ethical code.
“As Prisa, we take the ethical code of conduct very seriously and if any member breaks it, appropriate action is taken against them.
“We are currently having discussions around the Bell Pottinger incident.”