Pun­ish the car­pet­bag­gers

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

BELL Pot­tinger apol­o­gised on Thurs­day. In truth, the Bri­tish public re­la­tions firm couldn’t have done a worse job. Ac­knowl­edged as the pro­gen­i­tor of the loath­some term “white mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal”, which has been used to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect in re­cent months to po­larise South Africa, the hap­less PR com­pany tried to both apol­o­gise and evade direct cul­pa­bil­ity.

The apol­ogy was one leg; the dis­missal of one of its se­nior part­ners and the culling of a hand­ful of as­so­ciates who worked on the ac­count, an­other.

As an ex­er­cise in rep­u­ta­tion man­age­ment, it was a spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure. In­deed, if any­thing, the apol­ogy has only spurred ef­forts to en­sure the firm is brought to book, if not here in South Africa then in Bri­tain, where it is based.

There are many un­der­ly­ing rea­sons for this, chief among which is the lack of ac­tion taken against those fin­gered in the tsunami of Gup­taleak emails, abet­ted by the un­will­ing­ness of the nom­i­nally in­de­pen­dent Na­tional Pros­e­cut­ing Author­ity to for­mu­late charges against ei­ther the Gupta fam­ily or those iden­ti­fied as hav­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ately or il­le­gally ben­e­fited from their as­so­ci­a­tion with them. Bell Pot­tinger pro­vides a fit­ting proxy in this mi­asma of im­po­tence.

But Bell Pot­tinger should be made to pay for what it thought it could get away with. It cal­lously and op­por­tunis­ti­cally played on South Africa’s in­equal­i­ties and tor­tured his­tory to re­tard, if not scup­per al­to­gether, any hope of na­tion-build­ing in re­turn for the short-term goal of dis­tract­ing peo­ple from the real is­sues of state cap­ture and cor­rup­tion. We also need to know just what else Bell Pot­tinger au­thored, and for whom.

There is no way that Bell Pot­tinger can es­cape cul­pa­bil­ity for what its em­ploy­ees did in its name. At the very least – if it were truly re­morse­ful – it should re­pay the fees it charged, to cre­ate a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion fund.

But it should be pun­ished – if only to dis­cour­age the next bunch of for­eign car­pet­bag­gers hell­bent on ex­ploit­ing our prob­lems.

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