Masking the Guptas’ pimples
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.