At the start of the year, the Gupta family, no doubt feeling the reputational carpet burn from consistent revelations of their apparent role in the capture of the state overseen by President Jacob Zuma, contracted the UK-based “global PR and Communications Agency” Bell Pottinger to handle the family’s public profile in South Africa.
Bell Pottinger is one of those companies that “manages reputations” with “individual flair and collective excellence”, according to its slick website where a series of beguiling and promising quotes scroll to entice those with money and a reputation to protect.
A selection of these include “creating, shaping and telling your story”, “providing key political insights and influential campaigns”, “protecting hard-earned reputations through legal challenge” and “powerful thinking through creative interpretation” (an exercise President Zuma, and some of his ministers, already possess in abundance).
This is the equivalent of corporate and political botox or plastic surgery.
It was PR “guru” Tim Bell who helped sweep Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979 and Bell Pottinger was launched later, in 1987. The firm has loads of high-end clients on its books. It has represented arms company BAE Systems, Oscar Pistorius, News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information, the Government of Abu Dhabi, Zambian Vice President Rupiah Banda and various others.
In March, about a month after Bell Pottinger had taken on the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments as a client, Investec suddenly severed ties with the firm. Investec didn’t issue a statement as to why but let’s say it was a sign – two fingers facing forwards – at Bell Pottinger.
Around mid-August the Gupta family, who are rarely out of South African headlines, began featuring everywhere. So much so that one almost expected to find collectable miniature plastic toy models of Atul, Ajay and Rajesh in boxes of sugary breakfast cereals.
That month the family’s businesses narrowly avoiding getting booted out of the JSE by securing a new sponsor in the nick of time. However, the family also suddenly announced that they would be selling their shares in all their South African businesses by year-end. Then they went on to threaten to interdict the Treasury if it released a report into Eskom’s coal contracts with their company, Tegeta. Then they were defended by Eskom’s Brian Molefe before going on to release their “maiden results” on 8 September.
Oakbay Investments’ Chief Executive, Nazeem Howa, said at the time that he was “proud to share with wider audiences some insight into Oakbay’s business model, strategy and turnover levels. I hope this will help audiences understand our operations and dispel some of the myths that have been built up about our group – especially the myth that we are heavily reliant on government business, when nothing could be further from the truth.”
Over on Twitter an idiot wind blew for a short while as predictable accounts retweeted a graphic of a laughing Finance Minster Pravin Gordhan surrounded by the logos of several JSE-listed companies in which he reportedly held shares (all declared and all legal but why let that get in the way of a good narrative about the capture of the state by White Minority Capital).
More or less at the same time, Zwane, Van Rooyen, Maphatsoe, Duarte and the ANC Women’s League all stumbled into the spotlight, attacking Gordhan and sucking up to the Guptas and the Hawks who had and have been behaving like President Zuma’s private army.
Attacks on the family were “racist”, “xenophobic”, said Maphatsoe and MKVA not only received financial support from the Gupta family but had never seen any proof of “wrongdoing”. And what MKVA can’t see doesn’t exist. Simple.
While Bell Pottinger partner Victoria Geoghegan was reportedly visiting South Africa and Oakbay Investments as the anti-Gordhan and pro-Hawks and Gupta chorus line was giving press conferences and interviews, it is unlikely that an international firm with such high-end, boutique customers would drag out such low-end praise singers.
In fact, considering the decidedly unravelled feel to the pro-Gupta narrative advanced by Zwane, Van Rooyen, Maphatsoe, Duarte, Molefe and others over those two weeks, Geoghegan might just have been tearing her hair out. Far from enhancing or mitigating any negative sentiment towards the Gupta family or any of their businesses, Zwane et al simply dug a deeper hole.
Bell Pottinger did not respond to Daily Maverick communications with regard to Geoghegan’s visit to South Africa while “Oakbay Communications” said that it was common knowledge that Bell Pottinger had a corporate communications contract with Oakbay. DM