South Africa, World

Analysis: Bell Pottinger has taught us what to treasure in the long, painful haul back to freedom

By Marianne Thamm 10 July 2017

Propaganda and disinformation has to find a remotely plausible foothold in a society in order to ignite and flare into an inferno. Racial tension and economic inequality were obvious stirrups in South Africa. UK-based PR firm Bell Pottinger knew these issues could serve as the perfect smoke bomb, obfuscating wide-scale plunder and capture of the state by their clients the Gupta family. What BP didn’t anticipate is the resistance and pushback from ordinary South Africans. The cost could have been so high. So, how come we clung to the fraying threads of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation when someone else threatened our peace? By MARIANNE THAMM.

Canada’s Globe and Mail has cast South Africans collectively as the heroes in the Battle of Bell Pottinger, won late evening on Thursday, 6 July, 2017 when the PR firm’s Chief Executive, James Henderson, issued “a full, unequivocal and absolute apology” that slalomed and made news across the world.

It’s worth quoting the opening paragraphs of the Globe and Mail piece simply for the warm glow of pride and vindication it induces.

Bell Pottinger, one of the world’s richest and most powerful public relations firms, has made its fortune by burnishing the images of the autocratic and the notorious, from Augusto Pinochet of Chile to the First Lady of Syria and the repressive regimes of Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

But the London-based agency, founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former spin doctor, may have finally met its match in the free-wheeling democracy of South Africa. When it secretly devised a racially divisive campaign on behalf of President Jacob Zuma’s son and business cronies for a fee of about $170,000 a month, the campaign soon spiralled into disaster.”

The Bell Pottinger South Africa campaign – ostensibly to launder the reputation of the Gupta-family owned Oakbay Investments – nosedived when it became apparent that the firm, instead of focusing on their clients, understood it needed to get the rest of us to look away while we were robbed.

And so it was that a narrative was shaped, created and relentlessly pushed on all media platforms available including, of course, The New Age and the Gupta-owned ANN7. Paid trolls and bots relentlessly targeted anyone who challenged this narrative which Bell Pottinger’s Victoria Geoghegan placed into the mouths of Duduzane Zuma, the ANCYL and MKVA.

Bell Pottinger also succeeded in usurping power from the faction-ridden ANC, directing its economic policy in public while the Gupta family influenced key Cabinet appointments.

Slogans were manufactured, individuals singled out and attacked – including the country’s finance Minister Pravin Gordhan – as well as selected journalists or anyone who challenged or asked questions about the Gupta family’s business and political dealings in South Africa.

It was a dangerous game.

A match tossed into the still smouldering tinder of a battle-bruised and weary South Africa, free from 350 years of violent imperial, colonial and apartheid racial oppression but nowhere near accomplishing the dream of a non-racial, non-sexist democracy and society conjured in the Freedom Charter, the Constitution and the ANC itself as embodied in the National Development Plan.

The cost could have been devastating and indeed – in the horrifying light of revelations in the #GuptaLeaks email trove – we have come to understand how high it already is.

The collapse and corruption of the state on so many fronts – crumbling public hospitals, dysfunctional schools, massive housing backlogs, a sluggish IT sector, captured SOEs, endless stream of violent service delivery protests, rising violent crime and the bankrupting of municipalities – most of it is due to the billions that have been criminally redirected from the fiscus and ratepayers and taxpayers, to benefit those plugged into political power.

But perhaps Bell Pottinger did not reckon on the institutional memory, so very fresh and recent, of how politicians justified apartheid and its relentless violence, using the illusion of propaganda and mass communication to manipulate.

Many, many lives were lost on the road to securing this fragile and flawed democracy we currently enjoy but are in danger of losing to a kleptocratic class linked to the current leadership of the ANC and who have no respect for the law, or the history, or the goals of the liberation struggle.

That power of manipulation must never be underestimated and it is one that is understood by international propagandists like Bell Pottinger.

A demonstration of the possible ramifications of this kind of “theatre” and manipulation of the public accidentally played out on Sunday, 30 October, 1938 when Americans mistook a Halloween radio drama broadcast for real news.

That night, Orson Welles performed a radio adaptation of H G Well’s The War of the Wolds about a Martian invasion – on his Mercury Theatre the Air, presenting the story as if it were real news. Some listeners missed the introduction and believed that an invasion was in fact in progress.

People were swept along and the hysteria grew and gripped the country with anxious listeners calling the police, wearing towels around their heads to ward off a Martian poison gas attack and seeking places to hide from the aliens.

It is important to hold in mind that on 1 October 1938 Adolf Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and claimed the Sudetenland. The underlying anxiety and paranoia of an approaching war no doubt prompted or at least contributed to this remarkable display of mass hysteria that October night in 1938.

Influential journalist and broadcaster Dorothy Thompson, in a column for the New York Times, understood that the War of the Worlds broadcast revealed how politicians could use mass communication to manipulate citizens.

She wrote:

All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time… They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.

They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery… Hitler managed to scare all of Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words. But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralisation with nothing at all.”

Bell Pottinger had to contend with the insulation in South Africa of a very active and vibrant civil society – much of it a heritage and continuation – of the mass movement which grew inside South Africa in the 1980s when the ANC was still banned and in exile.

The principle of non-racialism – as much as it has lost currency nearly a quarter of a century into freedom – remains a key foundation of the ANC as we know it, and very much a part of its post-1994 DNA.

The ANC as a broad church might accommodate racial nationalists but it also houses democrats, socialists, communists, trade unionists, non-racialists and constitutionalists.

And as much as ordinary South Africans stepped up for #CountryDuty as Tumi Sole over on Twitter termed it, it was also the country’s pragmatic and patriotic politicians, both in the opposition and those not captured in the ANC, who outed Bell Pottinger and its attempts at undermining our democracy.

That’s why we got so the moer in.

South Africans do not want to relive the trauma of the past. We must deal with the structural inequality and an economy that does not work for the country’s black majority, but we have a pragmatic understanding that this will not be accomplished through a civil war, through the provocation of unrest and hatred.

Hatred and populist rhetoric is something current Western leaders in Europe, the UK and the US are battling in their own democracies, including the rise of the right-wing fascist movements, deepening Islamophobia and racial intolerance.

What the Bell Pottinger scandal has done is forced us to “introspect” (to reference the ANC’s favourite pastime). South Africa, after Jacob Zuma and this current iteration of the ANC, will not be the same when this iteration of the ANC is swept off the national stage (and not a moment too soon).

Bell Pottinger has accidentally forced us to confront many of our weaknesses (including how to build a real and lasting inclusive and non-racial South Africa) but they have not captured or buckled us politically.

It will take years to repair the systemic damage – if it is at all repairable – caused to almost every sphere of life and government, from law enforcement to SOEs, from mining to agriculture, caused by Jacob Zuma’s Bell Pottinger-engined presidency.

There is still much left that has not been destroyed and it is this that we must collectively work towards restoring and rebuilding. Harnessing the goodwill and the energy South Africans collectively displayed in repelling the invasion of the Bell Pottinger bodysnatchers bodes well.

We need a different national language – not directed by foreigners and gangsters who seek to steal our democracy and our remarkable contribution to the global understanding of democracy. #Countryduty calls. DM

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