There’s a delightful irony to how despicable PR firm Bell Pottinger has been publicly shamed through Twitter, the medium it used to create “racial hatred” in South Africa.
Last week the UK company that represented the Guptas, and whose unethical and dispensable behaviour has been revealed in the #GuptaLeaks emails, was forced to make its Twitter account private. This follows an onslaught by angry South Africans who have vented their anger at the way the PR company and named and shamed its staff. As firebrand DA MP Phumzile Van Damme tweeted: “A whole global PR firm hiding behind a protected account. We just want to talk, @BellPottinger.”
Inside of dividing South Africans, it has enabled a kind of nation building through shared outrage. As one angry person ranted: “After destroying the livelihood of South Africans, creating racial divisions & giving birth to a myth about white monopoly capital… we’d like to see how you manage your companies [sic]reputation. South Africa is not a nation you can suppress. We fought Apartheid, we will fight Bell Pottinger & your thieving clients, the Gupta’s!”
The company’s Victoria Geoghegan has emerged as a key player and one of the main targets of Twitter vitriol. According to the leaked correspondence, she lead a four-person team to the country for a four-day consultation that cost the Guptas R5,5m, following a R1.6m consultation with President Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane to devise a “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population who must identify with it, connect with it and feel united by it”. The divisive phrase “white monopoly capital” emerged out of this campaign.
The #GuptaLeaks emails revealed that Bell Pottinger wrote scripts for Zuma apologist MK defector turned MK Veteran Association chief Kebby Maphatsoe and ANC Youth League head Collen Maine; as well as Duduzane Zuma.
A top tweet includes a shaming of partner “@FalconerTim a failure on your part to condemn the horrific sowing of racial hatred by #BellPottinger in South Africa implies ACCESSORY…”
Another read: ” Dear #BellPottinger. U created this. Open declaration of a race war from your puppet. And all to protect the #Guptas. We are coming for u”.
There’s even a parody by the satirical geniuses from iconic cartoon strip Madam & Eve, spoofing the Harry Potter books, called “Harry Bell Pottinger and the prisoner of white monopoly capital”.
Ironically, as Bell Pottinger punted this phrase which has created enormous rifts in our society, it was paid R9.6m by SA Tourism to promote the country internationally.
Another of the firms’ high-profile clients, renowned businessman Johann Rupert, last December fired Bell Pottinger after 20 years for smearing him in its divisive Gutpa paid-for campaign.
In 2011 Wikipedia Jimmy Wales co-founder criticised them for manipulating the online encyclopaedia’s entries about their clients: “I am astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger’s reaction. That their strongest true response is they didn’t break the law tells a lot about their view of the world, I’m afraid.”
Having represented some of the most corrupted and vile people in the world (from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko and our own FW de Klerk and Oscar Pistorius), it’s telling that Bell Pottinger was forced to fire the Guptas as a client after the backlash led by angry ordinary South Africans. We’re a fiery people, proud of our country.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail