Opinionista Mike Muller 6 September 2017

I slept with Bell Pottinger and they still didn’t promote the NDP

Aboard an SAA plane from Joburg to London, a fellow passenger revealed that she was a communications adviser, focusing on financial institutions and issues. How interesting.

Since it is the season of emails and true confessions, I need to reveal that, at the beginning of September last year, I slept with Victoria Geoghegan of Bell Pottinger.

Given the high-flyer concerned, it is not surprising that this happened on an SAA plane. I mention SAA because, if we are to believe what people say in conversation, I am one of the last South Africans who still fly with the national carrier (the truth is that Cabinet members or private sector CEOs choose airlines with first class so that they don’t have to sit next to people like me; the rest of the hoi polloi do so because they reckon it is worth suffering eight hours of purgatory in Dubai to save a few thousand rand). Interesting, then, that it was also chosen by BP.

I was not sitting just anywhere but in my favourite 3K (which in the 330-200 is on the window, by the bulkhead), an intimate little nook insofar as you can get intimate on the Joburg to London flight. But once the cabin lights are off and you are on your third or was it fourth glass of wine, it can feel that way, a good place for pillow talk.

Now it is not my habit to talk to my neighbours on a plane; 11 hours can feel like a very long time if you have the wrong travel companion. But every now and again, I make an exception and, often, learn the most interesting things – like the time between Colombo and Mumbai that I was told that the CEO of a top 100 JSE company was about to be fired, days before he learnt the sad news himself.

But that’s another story; back to Victoria. We didn’t start talking because she was a thirtyish, willowy blond; older people are usually more interesting and blondes are not my thing. Either she dropped a pen or I dropped a spoon; something happened that in terms of politeness (she was very obviously English, after all) required an exchange. And she drew her lines quickly too, within minutes I was told that, recently married, she was off to Barcelona shortly for a belated honeymoon.

She had flown into Joburg the day before and was on her way back after a very busy day. A few minutes of polite chit chat revealed that she was a communications adviser, focusing on financial institutions and issues. How interesting.

Her clients, a black business group, were having some difficulties. They were concerned about continuing economic apartheid and how to deal with it. The (unnamed) companies she was working with were trying to start the conversation about, to use her words, “radical economic transformation”. At this point, one knows to affect a careful nonchalance.

I mentioned, in the way one does to keep a conversation going, that I knew some of the people she had been meeting, and was somewhat involved in the issues she was talking about. The people described to me as a sort of informal focus group were certainly interesting… ranging from Adam Habib to Andile Mngxitama…. and what a nice man that Jeff Radebe is.

To strengthen the personal connection, keep the two-way street open, I agreed that yes, Jeff is a very nice man, I had worked with him in his capacity as chair of the National Planning Commission. And some of the same issues that she was raising had come up in our (very under-distributed) handover report which I was sad to learn that Minister Radebe had not mentioned to her. I undertook to send her a copy – a good excuse to exchange cards – saying that “… it still has relevance and you might be able to use it in current or future engagements”.

I suggested that among the ideas there that might be helpful was the recognition that the structure of the SA economy, based on minerals and dominated by an elite minority, was not sustainable. The recommendation that there needed to be a clear set of sequenced, prioritised actions to ensure that NDP implementation was effective in changing the structure and pattern of ownership in the economy sounded like it might resonate with her clients.

It was perhaps going a step too far to imagine that she and her clients would find it useful to mention that government support should go “to those engaged in productive activities rather than those who simply act as ‘middlemen’”. But hey, in this PR game, you win some and you lose some and if you don’t try, you won’t get anywhere.

At that point, I thought it would be polite to stop talking and take my half tab of Zolpidem which ensured that I did, indeed, still enjoy six hours of sleep next to, if not quite with, the Belle of Bell Pottinger across the bolster in 3H.

When I got to London, I sent her a copy of the NPC document. (I also recommended that she visit the Barcelona civil war cemetery, in the quarry where the firing squads worked, to see just how long communal bitterness can last if you don’t work hard to end it.) But other events supervened and my emerging plan to turn Bell Pottinger into unwitting promoters of NPC1’s recommendations failed.

I still think it could be useful, as SA goes into election overdrive, to reflect a little on those recommendations and begin to imagine what we will do if we find ourselves with a reformist president and a reformed ANC (or an idealistic and disciplined new party) some time in the future. But we will have to find another channel to achieve that. And, before I forget, yes, I did tell my wife that I slept with Victoria, and I have been forgiven. DM