Bell Pottinger sussed us out
To master persuasion and manipulation, you require insights on what drives human emotions and behaviours. Behavioural psychology is the study of the relationship between minds and behaviour. The “science” tries to understand why we behave the way we do, to assess how triggers result in specific responses, and looks at the patterns (habits) in our behaviours. The intention is to predict how people will respond when exposed to stimuli in order to influence and persuade them to act in particular ways. In understanding how certain incitements shape our actions, one can guess the emotions that are likely to be elicited when particular associations are made, subconsciously or consciously. Disciplines such as advertising, sales and politics use some of these insights. Understanding the triggers and human dynamics is crucial to selecting the correct stimuli because what works in South Africa is different from what works in Nigeria.
When I first heard the phrases “white monopoly capitalists” and “radical social economic transformation” I could see the infusion of behaviourism in developing this strategy and what it hoped to achieve even before the originators were publicly known. In a country with a racist past and one that is still covertly so even in the new political dispensation, where privilege and wealth are still racially skewed towards white people and unemployment ridiculously high, it is not rocket science that such a narrative would find positive ground and be passionately adopted because it is rooted in truth. Bell Pottinger sussed out South Africans. The deliberate use of race (“white”) and “radical” has the potential to elicit visceral emotional responses in people. It carries the seeds of classical binary framing of issues perfected by Ronald Reagan: you are either for Jacob Zuma or against transformation and black people. The PR company hedged its bets that the majority of the population would suspend critical thinking about any ulterior motives because they would be blinded by their feelings. Emotions are a powerful force on human behaviour. The gamble was that trade unions and the SACP would find this narrative in line with their cause, a reasonable expectation by Bell Pottinger.
In a different time, pre-2007, the introduction of these phrases into our lexicon would not have received much scepticism because of the dire economic circumstances. But would those leaders have stooped to this level? In this strategy, the clever blacks who dare to question are automatically consigned to being the brainwashed defending their own recent gains. This plan paves a path towards the December 2017 ANC elective conference where any presidential candidate that has strong associations with white capitalists, such as Cyril Ramaphosa, will be “disqualified” automatically in the minds of the voting branch members because his victory will equate to continuing the status quo which would never allow radical socioeconomic transformation. Marikana will be remembered. Any uproar about touching the Constitution, Treasury, the SA Reserve Bank or making expensive decisions such as prioritising nuclear energy now rather than later when the country’s purses can afford it, is associated with protecting “white” power and monopoly capitalism. The saving grace is that the prediction by Bell Pottinger did not factor in the importance of the credibility and the trustworthiness of the leadership in an already emotionally charged and distrustful environment. And if they did, they calculated that kernels of doubt would be entrenched in the minds to potentially tip the balance positively towards any other candidate that is not Ramaphosa, one that is susceptible to perpetuating the state capture plan being rolled out.
Emotions are the currency of the Vuca (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. If you can manipulate them, you can influence human behaviour. We are our own worst enemy. Our emotions can be used against us. Soft skills have never been harder and more crucial to acquire. Our survival hinges on critical thinking, reasoning, learning and unlearning skills to be able to discern what is fake and what is fact; what is realistic and what is destructive to our economy. We need to know and understand first-hand our Constitution, the functions of government departments and institutions that protect our interests such as the Reserve Bank and the Office of the Public Protector and not depend on other people’s interpretations. Black (wo)man, you are truly on your own.