South Africa

Op-Ed: Of cheap stunts and ’Oakbay employees’

By Stephen Grootes 20 April 2016

The last few years have seen our politics become a much more contested space where people push and are pushed back. So it was no surprise when the push-back against the push-back against the Guptas started rearing its head. As the Guptas are hitting back, perhaps they wished their money had bought them PR services at least half as good as their in-house ability to influence our politics. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Wednesday, from somewhere in the ether, an “open letter” appeared, ostensibly from the employees of the companies owned and run by Oakbay Investments, the top-entity owned by the Guptas. In the letter, the “employees” appealed to the four South African banks (FNB, Standard, Absa and Nedbank) to reopen the company’s accounts.

It opened strongly, saying:

We are not rich people. We are not politically connected. We have not captured the state. We have never offered any politician a job. We do not know if any of the allegations against the Gupta family or Oakbay’s management are true. We do not care. All we care about is providing for our families. If you do not open Oakbay’s bank accounts we cannot be paid and Oakbay cannot pay its bills.”

To take it at face value it all looks rather heartfelt. If the banks don’t give in and re-open those accounts, thousands of people will be without jobs, and thousands more will go hungry.

But the problem is, there is no signature of any individual on the letter. In almost all cases, when something like this happens, a statement is sent out with a person to contact, and their cellphone number. In the media world, the publication of a statement like this is usually the starting gun for that contact person’s phone to ring off the hook, with requests for comment, live radio interviews and then the setting up of TV interviews for that evening. In this case, there was no prospect of that happening.

(More important, it means there will be no actual face put to the claimed suffering. In the televisual age, that matters. One would assume that a TV-station-owning company would know that already.)

Still, there will be some who claim that it’s wrong to be quite so cynical. But we must also join the dots. The Gupta family have engaged the services of a top British PR firm called Bell Pottinger. If you want to see cynicism in action, look at these guys. They are the kind of principled people who represent wonderfully free and friendly places like Uzbekistan and help the leaders of previously oppressive government’s like that of Sri Lanka. Past clients include the wife of Bashir al-Assad (hey, even people married to those who gas civilians needs some image-polishing from time to time), the Paramount Defence Group, and even a certain paraplegic runner from Pretoria who got himself into a tiny spot of bother after murdering his girlfriend. And the Oakbay “employees’” letter is exactly the kind of stunt that a morally-unburdened PR firm like Bell Pottinger would pull.

But, as designed to attract headlines and sympathy as it may be, it is also kind of a risky tactic that may blow into one’s face once it smashed into the old enemy wall called “reality”.

The more one reads and follows the news, it becomes obvious this “letter” is a part of a bigger, but still stupid and politically naive, stunt.

Acting with speed that suggests it was actually prepared prior to the “letter”, a captive friend in the shape of ANC Youth League issued a statement, “for immediate realize”, to the effect that it was going to “convene a consultative engagement with OakBay employees which be inclusive New Age workers as well as ANN7”.

So far, so sticking to the script. Unfortunately, State Capture Action Man himself, ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine, forgot that the ANN7 was voted “worst employer of the year” by Cosatu last year. So when he emerged from his BMW X5, cap on head and gum firmly in mouth, he was met with a #MaineMustFall chant by ANN7 workers.

This is a video you really do have to watch:

You just have to love South African politics. Not unlike the reception ANCWL leader Bathabile Dlamini received in Port Elizabeth on Friday, Maine and his “team” expected their intervention to produce an effect, but it appears they also planned it in a bubble which many of SA’s top leaders inhabit today. So what appeared to be a great plan in “bubble conditions” turned into embarrassment in the real world. Perhaps someone, somewhere within the ANC leadership will hear the thunder?

And there was always a much better way to handle this particular PR problem. It is clear that the decision of the four big banks and other crucial institutions to stop doing business with Oakbay is having an impact. There’s a lovely debate to have here about whether or not the banks are doing the right thing. And, rather shockingly, the PR machine behind the Guptas is not trying to engage with that issue at all.

First, surely any privately owned enterprise has a right to do business with whomever they choose. Which means they have a right not to do business with someone, should they so choose. And the timing of the decision by all the banks, so soon after each other, is ominious. Maybe Pravin Gordhan did have a quiet word, maybe he didn’t, but isn’t that what you would claim if you were the Guptas? But imagine what would happen if, for example, all four banks decided they didn’t like Julius Malema’s campaign platform very much, and so refused to open accounts for him and the EFF. Wouldn’t we all agree that that is an abuse of market dominance, of their central place in the South African economy?

But it wouldn’t end there. If you think banks should be forced to do business with people they don’t like, then you would have to accept that people like Barclays were wrong to disinvest in South Africa during apartheid. So it has to be wrong to force them to do business with companies they don’t like. But then how do you stop them from abusing their market position, and making what may be a political statement, as they have possibly done here.

However, the real reveal of the weakness of the Gupta position, the aspect that almost proves that they have done wrong, is that there is a strange silence from the family itself. Nowhere, on any platform, is there any interview that has been published, on the record, by any member of the Gupta family since the Mcebisi Jonas story broke. Instead, poor old Nazeem Howa has been trotted out to take the flak.

Surely, surely, if the family were so sure of themselves, they would do their own interviews? They would sit there and take the rude questions, the innuendo, the snide aside, and they would be able to respond, not just to put the record straight but actually to explain what did happen and what didn’t happen. If PR matters so much to them that they are prepared to shell out for what must be one of the most expensive PR firms in the business, then surely they could go to the trouble of making themselves available for such an interview.

The silence… Rather deafening.

But there is one other aspect to consider. If that’s if a company has indeed managed to grow only through help from government, or other illegal means, then does that company deserve to survive, no matter how many people it employs? If it can’t survive without the government’s help isn’t it actually a drain on the economy, leading to the misallocation of resources like budgets, concessions and licences, and the general entrenchment of corruption throughout the society? If it can’t stand without corrupt government help, surely it must fall?

The Guptas are in the middle of what is literally the fight of their business lives. A big part of that fight is in the court of public opinion. It’s a very cynical public right now. If they’re to have any chance of winning, they’re going to have to do a whole lot better than cheap, see-through stunts like the “open letter”. DM

Photo: An entrance to the ANN7 Television and The New Age newspaper offices, owned by the Gupta family, is seen in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, April 14, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.


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