Mask­ing the Gup­tas’ pim­ples

CityPress - - Voices - Mondli Makhanya voices@city­press.co.za

News moves on so fast in South Africa that we of­ten for­get to con­nect the dots be­tween last week’s head­lines and next week’s page-five story. So, I’m tak­ing a few steps back and re­mind­ing read­ers about a trou­bling story that ran in Fin24 in Septem­ber. The story was about how Bri­tish pub­lic re­la­tions firm Bell Pot­tinger – the Gup­tas’ spin doc­tors – knew about Min­eral Re­sources Min­is­ter Mosebenzi Zwane’s phan­tom ju­di­cial in­quiry into the banks seven weeks be­fore he made an an­nounce­ment about it in Septem­ber.

Ac­cord­ing to the story, an em­ployee of the Lon­don firm had tried to give the pub­li­ca­tion a “scoop” about the in­ter­min­is­te­rial task team – which Zwane was the only mem­ber of – on July 15 and had sent Fin24 a page of a doc­u­ment on the Gup­taowned min­is­ter’s find­ings.

The Bell Pot­tinger agent even pro­vided Fin24 with Zwane and his spokesper­son’s con­tact de­tails.

Bell Pot­tinger claimed it was nei­ther the Gup­tas nor the min­is­ter’s of­fice that had leaked the doc­u­ment to them. Any­one who bought that de­nial would eas­ily be­lieve that Don­ald Trump’s par­ents were named Juanita and Ahmed.

What the story re­vealed was the ex­tent of state cap­ture in South Africa. Not only was our state be­ing cap­tured by the Gup­tas, but now one of the shadi­est ped­dlers of in­for­ma­tion the world has seen was in­volved.

You see, Bell Pot­tinger in­vents truths, em­bel­lishes nar­ra­tives and pol­ishes the filth­i­est of images.

The client list of Bell Pot­tinger reads like a who’s who of op­pres­sors, killers and thieves.

A Guardian pro­file a few years ago of founder Lord Tim Bell, a Bri­tish ad­ver­tis­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions guru, listed some of its clients as Be­larus dic­ta­tor Alexan­der Lukashenko, ousted dic­ta­tor of Thai­land Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra and Reeva Steenkamp’s mur­derer. Even FW de Klerk turned to Bell Pot­tinger in the early 1990s when he wanted the world to see him as it saw Nel­son Man­dela. It has also as­sisted the Pinochet Foun­da­tion, whose task is to sanc­tify the blood­thirsty late Chilean dic­ta­tor.

On the list of com­pa­nies it has pro­vided ser­vices to are some no­to­ri­ous names. You have BAE Sys­tems, which has been im­pli­cated in ma­jor arms deal scan­dals around the world, and Trafigura, which is syn­ony­mous with pol­lu­tion and dodgy deal­ings with gov­ern­ments.

Bell’s great­est achieve­ment was sculpt­ing the im­age of Mar­garet Thatcher and cat­a­pult­ing her to the throne of god­dess of in­ter­na­tional re­ac­tionar­ies. His work on her im­age and the pow­er­ful slo­gans of the Con­ser­va­tives played a big part in her suc­ces­sive elec­tion vic­to­ries and earned him iconic sta­tus in the field of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

So good is the firm at man­u­fac­tur­ing truths that it has been used by the world’s most pow­er­ful in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to di­rect minds and make pop­u­la­tions be­lieve things.

In the in­ter­view with The Guardian, Bell stressed the pos­i­tive role of the firm. “My pro­found be­lief is that a small num­ber of words, a strong vis­ual im­age, can change the way peo­ple think. We tell sto­ries – I don’t mean lies. We work for peo­ple who want to tell their side of the story,” he said.

It’s no won­der, then, that South Africa’s most no­to­ri­ous fam­ily turned to the polishers of filth when the screws of pub­lic opin­ion were be­ing turned on them. For years, the Gup­tas got away with mur­der and seemed unperturbed that the whole na­tion knew that they were wolf­ing down its re­sources with gay aban­don. They sur­mised that if they owned enough politi­cians and se­nior of­fi­cials, they could do as they wished. With the pres­i­dent hav­ing in ef­fect ab­di­cated and made them the de facto gov­ern­ment, they were prob­a­bly cor­rect.

Their ar­ro­gance grew in leaps and bounds. But like all bor­der­line and out­right il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties, life caught up with them. So when they found them­selves naked and all their puss-filled pim­ples were ex­posed, they turned to the mas­ters of the al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tive.

Bell Pot­tinger obliged by com­ing up with a nar­ra­tive that said the puss-filled pim­ples were in fact beau­ti­ful, nat­u­ral birth­marks. They also sought to con­vince the pub­lic that there were oth­ers who had uglier bod­ies than the Gup­tas.

This nar­ra­tive says the ques­tion­ing of the Gup­tas’ ac­tiv­i­ties is part of an as­sault on BEE be­ing mounted by the en­e­mies of trans­for­ma­tion. This racist agenda is be­ing driven by white busi­ness in­ter­ests who are afraid of this black suc­cess story. The nar­ra­tive has sought to di­rect at­ten­tion to the his­tor­i­cally wealthy white fam­i­lies and thereby di­vert anger to­wards them. Fur­ther­more, it tries to shift at­ten­tion from present-day cor­rup­tion (for which the Gup­tas are a by­word) to­wards apartheid-era cor­rup­tion.

For this pur­pose, they have amassed an army of buyable and con­science­less in­di­vid­u­als to be­come pur­vey­ors of this truth. This army works day and night in the dis­sem­i­na­tion of these al­ter­na­tive truths. In this sub­sti­tute real­ity, the dirty are the clean and the good are the bad.

One can say they have scored some small suc­cesses in that they man­aged to partly muddy the wa­ters. But the ex­tent of the acne is such that it is too late – even for the spin kings.

The deep worry we must have, though, is about the reach of this spooky force in the af­fairs of our state and the pol­i­tics of the land. This is real, un­like the imag­ined regime-change con­spir­acy the­o­ries and plots that our politi­cians prop­a­gate.

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