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Op-Ed: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a weekend...

South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a weekend edition

As South Africa narrowly ducked another ratings downgrade, a squadron of President Jacob Zuma’s hand-picked warriors stepped into the spotlight, creating so much chaos at the weekend that we didn’t quite know where to look. From reports that current Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has lodged a criminal charge against former PP Thuli Madonsela to Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko’s attack on IPID head Robert McBride, to the SABC’s Hlaudi “I am Jesus” Motsoeneng’s calling in state security to spook employees as well as rumours that we would have a new Finance Minster (again) by Christmas, it has been two days of extreme politics. Time to pull on the Hazmat suit, citizens. Things are down and dirty. By MARIANNE THAMM.

It might all appear strangely chaotic but there is method to all the madness. Divert, confuse, obfuscate, delay, overwhelm and then strike.

Remember last year when the country was preparing for a much-needed year-end break and then suddenly, bam, we looked away for five minutes and Des van Rooyen was Minister of Finance?

Well, brace yourselves.

The President and all his men and women are in full combat mode again. But this isn’t just one brawl in the main arena – the ANC’s key NEC meeting which is still, at the time of writing this, taking place in Pretoria after a weekend battle where Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom was the first to call for President Zuma to step down – but rather this is a series of brawls, much like those bare-knuckled fights that would break out at Victorian fairs. And around every corner the body snatchers – defenders of President Zuma who have captured various political and state bodies – are kicking up a cloud of sawdust.

Then there is the NPA, the Hawks and the Minister of Police leading a counteroffensive against some of their own – Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan and recent returnee from the wilderness, IPID head Robert McBride.

Some of the method in this madness looks as though it originates partly in the UK, with the PR firm and “reputational launderers” Bell Pottinger, “the largest UK-based public relations consultancy measured by 2010 fee income”.

Bell Pottinger, as they themselves confirmed in a statement to the Financial Times, are looking after the reputation of the Gupta family and their holding company Oakbay Investments.

Our role has been to correct misperceptions where they exist and communicate Oakbay’s belief that competitive, disruptive, job-creating philosophy is what South Africa needs if transformation is to be achieved,” said Bell Pottinger.

And if Bell Pottinger is that close to the Gupta family it would safe to assume that some of this expensive advice is repeated over at the Saxonwold tea house.

The Gupta family pay Bell Pottinger a reported R24-million annually to perform their “dark arts”, allegedly in cash and through their intermediary and close associate of the Gupta family, Salim Essa. We would confirm all of this, if only Bell Pottinger replied to any of our earlier e-mails.

For a company that claims to offer “a range of specialist financial, corporate, political, crisis and consumer communications skills (all underpinned by a strong digital expertise) to deliver visible and tangible results for our clients”, Bell Pottinger have been, should we say, a tad tardy responding to questions from the Daily Maverick.

On November 21 we mailed Bell Pottinger’s senior Africa partner Victoria Geoghegan asking her to either confirm or deny information that the company would soon be handing over the Gupta account personally to Geoghegan to handle. This because senior partners in BP were reportedly growing uneasy with the company’s relationship with the Gupta family. To say nothing of the State of Capture report (now unsurprisingly being challenged on various fronts) and which implicates a gallery of alleged rogues, BP’s main clients as well as the country’s President.

Daily Maverick mailed Geoghegan at the address on the Bell Pottinger website as well as a general e-mail. A week later, nada, nothing, no reply.

Interestingly, Editor-in-Chief of Business Day and the Financial Mail, Peter Bruce, commenting on Daily Maverick’s Stephen Grootes’ revelation last week that Bell Pottinger had set up, in February this year, an interview with Ajay Gupta, revealed that another familiar player in the shady political landscape, arms deal fixer Fana Hlongwane (former adviser to Defence Minister Joe Modise), was the glue here.

According to Bruce, Victoria Geoghegan’s father, Chris, a former board member of BAE systems and who owns property in South Africa, was introduced to the Gupta family by none other than Hlongwane. It was Chris Geoghegan who in turn introduced Bell Pottinger to No 1’s besties. Swings and roundabouts, as they say.

However, it is Bell Pottinger that has been charged with orchestrating the “white minority capital” narrative to counter state capture charges and in so doing divert attention away from the Gupta family. To this extent a number of Twitter accounts, some of them no doubt paid, some of them fake, all of them which cannot be directly traced back to Bell Pottinger (for now) of course, have been trolling away for months – all in the name of “real economic transformation”, of course.

The false narrative pivots particularly around Richemont chair Johann Rupert whose Wikipedia page was recently hacked. Hackers altered parts of his entry to read that it was Rupert who was “the mastermind” behind the sacking of Nhlanhla Nene.

Go figure.

Another public target has been Minister Pravin Gordhan, who is relentlessly attacked and accused of being “captured”.

In 2012 Wikipedia suspended around 10 accounts linked to Bell Pottinger when the company was exposed for adding positive and removing negative information from the Wiki accounts of Bell Pottinger’s clients. At the time Wikipedia founder, James Wales, slammed the company’s ethics, saying ,“I’ve never seen a case like this. In general when I speak to PR firms they have ethical guidelines that would prevent this kind of conduct.”

In 2011 Bell Pottinger was caught on camera boasting that it had direct access to high-ranking British politicians, including then Prime Minister David Cameron, and could influence these officials.

The showdown at the ANC’s NEC meeting at the St George’s Hotel in Irene, Pretoria where Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, was the first to propose a motion that President Zuma step down, remains the main battlefront at present for Jacob Zuma this week.

In Parliament last week Zuma bounced back – more or less the same time Bell Pottinger allegedly handed the Gupta account to Victoria Goegehgan – defending the Gupta family. The same week, Zuma lodged a complaint with the newly minted Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who in turn lodged a charge against Madonsela with the SAPS in Brooklyn on 11 November, aka as “almost immediately”.

Meanwhile, persistent rumours of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle (and whispers that back bencher Sifiso Buthelezi might be parachuted in as this year’s Christmas gift to head the Finance Ministry) continue.

The time is upon the country where the fakes in the ANC who have prevailed for so long under the protective wing of President Jacob Zuma will find themselves up against the formidable force of ANC genuines – including the 100 party veterans who have asked the ANC NWC to hold a consultative conference about Zuma’s future.

There is Robert McBride who will not go down without a massive fight and who told City Press, “I am aware of every move they make against me, right from the first time it is first discussed. On every issue. But I am unperturbed. The truth cannot be changed by smoke and mirrors.”

President Jacob Zuma has survived the past 12 tumultuous months dragging the country several times to an economic precipice. This continued diversion at the highest level has led to a state of paralysis as well as public battles raging on every front – SARS, the NPA, the HAWKS, the Public Protector and even the judiciary and the Constitutional Court.

On Monday the ANC will have its opportunity to decide whether it will go down with Jacob Zuma or begin the slow and critical job of finding its old, lost and damaged soul. There have been calls for the vote on Zuma to be secret. If Number One is confident of his cause, he should agree to it. DM

Photo: A file picture dated 16 December 2012 shows South African President Jacob Zuma during the 53rd ANC National Conference held in Mangaung, South Africa, 23 May 2016. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.


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